The haunting of Law & Order: SVU

‘I generally write lying on my couch and watching Law & Order: SVU,’ said author Roxane Gay, speaking on stage at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Masonic Lodge last May.

My first reaction to Gay’s confession was a mixture of incredulity and joy. Wasn’t it wonderful, wasn’t it just a relief for humanity, that a work practice existed in which one wasn’t forcibly plonked in front of a desk all day (or worse: a standing desk)! Wasn’t it somehow radical that some of the best, most thoughtful work of this era could be produced amid cushions with pop cultural distraction humming in the background!

Two beats later, I was puzzled. Puzzled and a little concerned. I wouldn’t have picked the grim, unrelenting, endlessly inventive spectacle of sexual violence as ambient background filler. Parks and Rec would do me, maybe. If I was into watching basketball, I could probably let half of my consciousness sit in the bleachers too. But to try to work while Ice T is laying down lines like ‘Fact! You are now all my bitches!’ to a group of pimps after a human trafficking bust? I didn’t get it.

One year later, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I heard Carmen Maria Machado talk about her own fascination with the show, in which a NYPD detective squad led by Benson and (for a while) Stabler bring some of the worst sexual offenders to justice. Machado, a New Yorker writer who had just released her exhilarating debut collection Her Body and Other Parties came to SVU in an unusual way. For years, she watched it pretty much how everyone else did: beginning halfway through an episode after she’d turned on the television and happened to find it on. Suddenly, it’d be midnight.

Then she got swine flu. It was around the time Netflix came into the world, too – and more to the point, its autoplay function. Lying in her hospital bed, she idly hit play on the first season of the show. She then promptly hallucinated for three days, and woke up to find the show still rolling, many seasons deep.

It was the beginning of an obsession that didn’t end. Machado appeared in three sessions at the festival, with one of them devoted exclusively to the American crime procedural, which she argues is one of the most fucked-up Western fairytales of the modern TV age. The longest story in her new book bears the title ‘Especially Heinous’, and is a queer, subversive and supernatural snap-shotting of 272 imagined SVU episodes.

Canny, metafictional and wickedly hilarious, these snippets cumulatively trace several narrative arcs into increasingly surreal territory, including one where detective Benson is visited and then possessed by the ghosts of underage models, who appear to her as ‘girls-with-bells-for-eyes’ and refuse to leave until she closes the file on their unfinished business. In another twisted subplot, the partners Benson and Stabler are haunted by their dark, doppelganger poltergeists, who dwell in the underbelly of that monster-filled city so that they can remain human.

Others reveal the clichéd way the show toys with false binaries like predator and victim, protector and protected. Here’s one:

‘REDEMPTION’: Benson accidentally catches a rapist when she Google-stalks her newest OkCupid date. She can’t decide whether or not to mark this in the ‘success’ (‘caught rapist’) or ‘failure’ (‘date didn’t work out’) column. She marks it in both.

SVU is the longest-running series in the Law & Order franchise. It premiered in 1999, with new episodes still being made today. In its most recent nineteenth season, SVU averaged 6 million viewers per episode. Not quite Sunday Night Football (18.5 million), but not bad.

The key to its sustainability is (ironically) how it predates upon the headlines – swallowing chunks of the day’s gruesome news and regurgitating them in a familiar, imaginary space. The key to its popularity is that this space is one in which the law is human-shaped, taboo conversations are normalised, and the cheesy dun-dun! refrain can’t help but startle a grin.

Because it’s not just queer, masterful women authors like Gay and Machado who find SVU oddly fascinating (if aggravating – writers continue ‘to shoehorn Olivia Benson, one of the gayest characters in the history of television, into increasingly unbelievable heterosexual relationships with … profoundly mediocre men,’ said Machado). Many women watch it – and have done ever since the show began; women made up two-thirds of the show’s viewership in its early years.

It’s not only that SVU’s composite tone of earnestness and melodrama undercuts the morbid subject matter through bathos. For victims of sexual violence, its matter-of-fact, if platitude-stuffed discussions around sex-related crimes remains radical. Even in the midst of #metoo, the topic is still coated with silence and shame. SVU ignores the taboo, and subsequently works to dismantle it. For all its absurdity, and notwithstanding the agendas of producers, the show has a maturity that calms.

In 2015, a paper released by Washington State University compared how 313 freshmen processed Law & Order, CSI and NCIS. While watching the latter two ‘decreased intentions to seek consent’, the authors found that exposure to Law & Order ‘is associated with decreased rape myth acceptance and increased intentions to adhere to expressions of sexual consent and refuse unwanted sexual activity’. In other words, watching Law & Order can increase the chance young people are more educated around respectful practices of consent, and less likely to believe shit like survivors ‘secretly wanted it’.

There’s the déjà vu effect too. As a viewer, you’re able to anticipate violence without being afraid of it affecting you; watch it unfold in a faraway realm of fantasy while you are tucked up snug, safe and warm on the couch. TV is (after all) like the upside-down world that viewers love, through their voyeurism, to haunt.

But the most fantastical, fairytale aspect of the show isn’t the nature or degree of heinousness of the crimes committed, or the fact that only 10% of victims are black on SVU when FBI figures tell us that number is actually 50%. It’s the fact that it portrays the police as a stalwart moral force: always on the side of the vulnerable, always anguished when the legal system fails them, always compassionate and concerned.

Rape kits are always ready. Due process is followed. First statements are believed. The agents of justice may not be all-powerful, they’re not shown as saviours, and boy do they have their own shit to deal with – but the core SVU team truly, deeply, genuinely care. And it’s this which finds only the finest, most fragile lines of correlation to reality. Because in the real world, state-empowered organisations screw over just as many as they throw a scrap of solace to.

What’s more, in the real world, the wounds are left open. They don’t ever really close up. Quoting Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker, the salve of the show is this: ‘For all SVU’s excesses, we expect it to keep one promise: no matter how bad things get, the story will end.’

It makes you wonder. For all the show’s positive qualities, can it be accused of desensitisation? Worse, does it exploit the lived and actual trauma of the everyday and transform it into a sequence of 40-minute spectacles, part pornographic, part pontificating? Is it, as Nussbaum said, ‘at its greasiest … a string of rape fantasies, justified by healing truisms’?

Perhaps the most pertinent question currently is how SVU chooses to situate itself in relation to the #metoo movement. Since its inception, the show has provided audiences a means to process rape culture and misogyny. Having mediated every conceivable sordid crime – from harassment to rape to public indecency to molestation to trafficking to assault – it is in a unique position to respond. Does it have an obligation, now, at this turning point in our history – when women are speaking out and finally being heard, when perpetrators cannot rely upon their reputations and connections to protect them from the courts – when every day a Paris Review editor steps down, a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist is called out publicly at a writers festival, a long-celebrated director is expelled from the Academy, a Louis CK film is foregone – does it have an moral responsibility to step up and lend its own voice and power to the movement? To advocate (like indeed its actors have) for change?

Can we ask any pop cultural franchise that much?

In previous seasons, SVU hasn’t been afraid to hijack known identities in theatrical – and not always meaningful – ways. Episodes have been built around such high-profile cases as OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson and David Carradine. In season 17, Chevy Chase played an anti-Semitic actor arrested for drink-driving in an unmistakable reference to Mel Gibson. Once this association had been established however, the plot spun outwards to pursue an extrapolated moral message, with the character’s son murdering a Jewish woman – but only because he was ‘standing up for his dad and his race’. In season 18, another episode was ‘inspired’ (what a word) by the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford star athlete, who raped an unconscious woman on campus. This episode cleaved relatively close to the unfolding of Turner’s trial – though on TV, ‘Brock’s’ sentence wasn’t six months, it was a (still measly) 24.

In another season 18 episode, Gary Cole was set to star as an egomaniac running for president. The episode was filmed, the actors were all paid. It happened just around the time of the Billy Bush tapes. But then Trump got elected, and the episode was cancelled. The chances it will ever be viewed by audiences are next to zero.

Which sounds more like a conspiracy than it actually is. Ice T, who plays Fin, told Vanity Fair that the plot that was written actually ended up portraying the Trump-ish character as an innocent, falsely accused of rape by ‘girls … coming out of the woodwork’.

‘So we’ve [characters Fin and Benson] got to apologise, and he’s still doing his thing, talking his shit,’ said Ice. ‘And it turns out that his campaign advisor, who was his best friend, was booby-trapping him because he knew he would be terrible for America!’

Had the episode run, the insinuations packed in its parallel-world narrative would have been huge. It would have absolved the fictional version of the most powerful man in the world, yet to answer for his alleged crimes. The decision to go ahead and film the script is fascinating; to cancel it, equally so. In concert, they reveal how SVU’s entanglement with real-world issues is far from cut and dry. When re-imagining real-life cases, the show must choose which aspects to mirror and which ones to warp – and it would be naïve to assume that these choices are made outside of commercial ratings fixations, or politics.

The series has yet to tackle Trump (except in reference to one of his anti-transgender tweets); or all the men in (and since departed from) his administration who have been accused of sexual crimes. Season 19 did, however, tackle Weinstein.

Frankly, however, these ‘real life predator’-inspired episodes are, at their most basic, a marketing tool; a way to easily draw viewers by throwing out loose grappling hooks to the media conversations exploding worldwide. What the audience is served as a result is a weird looking glass, brimming with caricature doppelgangers and shlock dialogue, but which nonetheless can contain poignant flashes of the world we’re living in, and the potential for useful commentary and thought.

For instance, episodes like ‘Contrapasso’ (in which three women unite to confront the teacher who ruined their lives decades ago, with one of the women castrating him) deal with how a crime that was committed years ago is easily dismissed by a perpetrator, but the victim is still living day to day with the aftermath. It brought up the difference between acquiescence and consent, and the ritual of shifting blame onto women for ‘asking for it’.

In the episode ‘Service’, SVU confronts its own prejudiced history portraying sex workers. Amanda, a squad detective, is horribly rude to a sex worker named Sandy, who was assaulted in a hotel room by three members of the army. The prosecution sneers at the woman, saying she signed up for a life of brutality when she decided on her career. By the end, a high-ranking officer is found guilty, and Amanda is buying Sandy a drink, confessing she’d lashed out after recently discovering her boyfriend was cheating on her with escorts. (A corny resolution, true.)

‘Service’ is also notable in that – at a time when the White House banned transgender individuals from the military – an officer risks everything to testify in court and make public his gender identity. And he does so with incredible dignity. ‘I am a transgender man,’ officer Jim Preston says to the scaly defence lawyer. ‘If you wanted to know that, you could have just asked.’

When the original Law & Order began (which SVU spun off), there were no women actors in main roles. Creator Dick Wolf (whose name I just cannot get over) was opposed to the idea. He relented only when the show’s NBC network forced him.

Today, Olivia Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay, is the only remaining character from the first SVU season. A character conceived through rape, but not destroyed by it, only she has survived.

As Hargitay has confessed in interviews, it has become difficult for her to separate herself from her character over the years. Her onscreen identity ghosts and possesses her. Sometimes, when she witnesses something on the street, she shifts into lieutenant mode, ready to flash a badge.

But this identity slippage is far from a delusion Hargitay created alone. Audiences actively will her to become one and the same with the woman she portrays. When she came to the show in 1999, Hargitay had just left ER. As she told Trevor Noah recently on The Daily Show:

When you’re getting normal fan mail you get, ‘Hi, I love your show, can I get an autographed photo?’ All of a sudden [with] SVU, I started getting a very different kind of fan letter, with victims actually disclosing their stories of abuse, and many for the first time.

Of all the cast members, Hargitay has been most vocal and visible when it comes to advocating for a safer world for women and survivors. The many thousands of letters and emails she received from viewer-survivors led her to found the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, a non-profit which aims to ‘heal, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse’. In 2017, she co-produced the HBO documentary I Am Evidence, which details the hundreds of thousands of rape kits that go untested by police.

It must be a strange thing, to solve imaginary crimes of such a visceral nature most of your life. Emotionally, it must be exhausting. SVU is, in some ways, the moralising monster that has stalked her alter ego (and her alter ego’s loved ones) all these years.

Said Machado: ‘In a way, the show has become somewhat more politically aware – or, at least, better at some approximation of it – while also maintaining its stubborn refusal to fully engage with its own concept. Olivia is the biological daughter of her mother’s rapist, and yet the show has, at last count, almost-raped her three times.’


 23 May: We amended an earlier reference to ‘Jen’ to read ‘Amanda’, the character’s name. Thanks to out eagle-eyed commenters for picking this up.

Kate Prendergast

Kate Prendergast is a writer and artist living in Sydney. She has been published in 4:3, The West Australian, Neighbourhood Paper and issue 38 of The Lifted Brow.

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