Some Thoughts on Law & Order SVU

I don’t usually watch new episodes of Law & Order Special Victims Unit (SVU) when they air on NBC, but I catch reruns a lot. We don’t have cable at my grandma’s house, but we get a digital channel (one of those “extra” ones) called Ion, which shows marathons of syndicated crime shows, including SVU, so I sometimes watch it there. And I’m at my parents’ house most Sunday evenings these days, and more often than not my mom will have an SVU marathon playing on USA when I get there. I quite enjoy the show when I get to watch it; I’m a pretty big fan of crime shows in general, as long as they’re well-written, but I really enjoy the Law & Order format, because you really have to pay attention. Frequently, the episodes will take unexpected turns and suddenly switch focus from the original crime to another one that’s been discovered. I also really like the regular characters, because they’re really passionate about helping the victims they encounter — more so than it often seems their real-world counterparts are. It’s interesting to see how the police and the attorneys work together to solve and prosecute cases, and to see how they also sometimes disagree how to proceed or get in each other’s way in the name of trying to do the right thing.

I particularly like Detective Olivia Benson, who’s been on the show longer than any other character. The product of a rape, she suffered quite a bit of abuse from her alcoholic mother while she was growing up, and her adult life hasn’t always been that easy either. She can’t keep herself from getting emotionally involved in the cases she works. This quality often benefits the victims she’s trying to help, because she’s so committed to following through on their behalf, but it can also tempt her to cross legal lines and cause problems in her personal and professional life. Detective Benson is intelligent, compassionate, street smart, and tough. She’s gone undercover in dangerous situations, she’s been held hostage, and she’s been kidnapped and tortured by a psychopath bent on revenge. So you can probably guess why I was pretty annoyed this past Sunday when USA was running an SVU marathon they had titled “Locks and Loaded.” The tagline was something like “A great detective with a great hairdo. See every hairdo she’s ever had in the Locks and Loaded Marathon.”

Now I realize that USA runs these marathons all the time, and they feel the need to give each one a clever name. But seriously, they had to go picking episodes based on Detective Benson’s hairstyles? They could have had a marathon of all the different positions she’s held within the precinct. They could have had a marathon of all the episodes in which she kicked down doors. They could have had a marathon of every time she tricked or outsmarted a perpetrator. But because she’s a woman, they had to highlight her hairstyle. I doubt they’d ever run a marathon highlighting all the different ties worn by Detective Stabler or the leather jackets worn by Detective Tutuola. I mean, in the long run, it’s not a huge deal, and it’s certainly not going to affect how Detective Benson is portrayed in future episodes or anything like that, but it’s just another example of how women are routinely judged by their appearance when men in the same position are judged by what they do.

I was also thinking, as I watched the SVU marathon on Sunday, about how the show is reflective of real-life police and legal work in some respects, but in other respects it’s a bit of a utopian world. Not all cases on the show end justly, but they at least all go to trial (partly because half the show focuses on the lawyers). I realize it’s a TV drama, so there’s no “realism quotient” or anything that has to be met, and nobody is going to watch a show that’s always depressing. But in one of the episodes I watched the other day, Assistant District Attorney Alex Cabot decides she can’t take a case to trial because there’s not enough evidence to assure a win, and of course Detective Benson convinces her that she has to take the case to trial because the victim deserves a shot at justice. All  I could think about was how different that is from what most real-life victims of sexual violence experience during their involvement with the American legal system.

A few months ago I read the book Missoula, which follows the cases of several female rape victims who were students at the University of Montana, a school that became infamous for not repeatedly reporting rapes committed on campus to the proper authorities. The author, Jon Krakauer, details the students’ experiences as they are interviewed by the police and testify at university hearings or in court, and “depressing” is not a strong enough word to describe the reactions they encounter from most authority figures — police who focus incessantly on what the women were drinking or wearing, university officials who have already made up their minds before investigating anything, and district attorneys who refuse to even consider prosecuting cases that might damage their win-loss records. These students sorely needed an Olivia Benson and an Alex Cabot, but sadly, they weren’t living in a TV show.

Maybe we should make SVU required viewing for all our law enforcement officers, attorneys, judges, and jury members. As far as I can tell, it would certainly do more good than harm.

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