Horse and Carriage #1: Special Victims Unit

October 17, 2007


Screen shot from SVU: Can you tell if she’s just been raped?

Or if she’s just had an orgasm?

Does it really matter?

This post inspired me to start writing about an enormous and complex subject which is central to the motivation behind this blog, but which I’ve so far avoided like a darkened street corner or wearing a pony tail: the way misogyny and misogynist baseline assumptions operate in family and love relationships.

The topic of ABW’s criticism of the use and abuse of rape as a plot element is interesting, and a pet peeve of mine; but to my true delight, the comments confirmed the specific irritant which never fails to make me peevish in this regard: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The whole rationale of SVU is that using rape as a plot point is titillating and ceaselessly interesting. Most episodes open with an alluring full-body pan of a sexy corpse, shots which always remind me of that unfortunate epispode of America’s Next Top Model …

This irritating element of the show is combined with the normal retrograde plot formula of all L&O spin-offs: take a “real life” situation and write it as though the exact opposite thing actually happened. For example,when in real life a non-resisting peace protester is murdered by a soldier in the Middle East, L&O will have an Iraq veteran who is murdered, as it turns out, by a spoiled peace protester with a history of planting bombs! Or, perhaps, in reality, a child is found in a closet, starved nearly to death by his foster parents who are in it for the money. In L&O world, after several twists and turns, we learn that a child, seemingly the victim of abuse by his parents, is in fact perpetrating a complex plot to profit financially from an underground ring of of “parent fights” where his poor innocent guardians–who have been hiding their devil-child’s adopted status all along– are forced to attack one-another in poorly lit basements in the inner city, far from their suburban home.

Ok, I made that up, but if you watch the show, you know it could work.

The result of these two factors in SVU is that you not only have a show that uses rape to titillate and thus confuses rape with sex, you also have plots which undermine the audience’s knowledge and assumptions about the banal realities of rape: you get numerous women who are lying about rape; some of them turn out to actually be rapists themselves! You have dozens of straight-A white good girls who were raped because they were really secretly slutty drugged-out prostitutes. You get lots of men, accused of rape, who turn out to be innocent. The real rapists are often serial psychopaths who sometimes get their hands on the show’s stable of tough lady-cops.

Law & Order SVU is a nearly perfect distillation of of the most reactionary possible attitudes toward women, passed off as mainstream or even progressive sensibility dealing with complex phenomena.

I noticed these flaws the first time I ever watched the show, yet I’ve seen probably hundreds of episodes. Some of these episodes caused me to have painful flashbacks to my own experiences with rape; other episodes turned me into an angry ranting bitch; most I just found useful and amusing as objects of dissection.

But it would have been better for me not to watch this show. Twelve amusing discussions are not worth one flashback, and the experiences of watching the show was unpleasant for what it revealed about the person I then loved most in the world. So why did I watch it?

That’s right, The Dude. The Main Dude, or at least The ex-Main Dude.

Its not like he forced me to watch this show; he didn’t care at all whether I watched it or not. But I watched because he watched it, and because I couldn’t look away. And even if I could have looked away, I didn’t want him to watch it without me–without, at some point, having to think about the reality of rape, rather than the glamorous glossy version.

When I criticized the show and complained about my little problem with SVU and flashbacks, the Dude helpfully suggested that I not watch the show. When I asked why he liked the show, he didn’t answer.

I still wish I knew. Or, more accurately, given that we both knew what he liked about it, I wish I knew why he couldn’t or wouldn’t see that as a problem or at least something worthy of discussion. I think, to him, my disapproval of SVU was an expression of different leisure interests; if he liked and I didn’t, well that was because we were healthily individuated. And he would have appreciated it if I didn’t always have to point out what was sexist about the show. Eventually, I didn’t.

The misogynist logic I’m trying to expose here is, I think, this: “Rape=your problem, bitch. Not mine.”


6 Responses to “Horse and Carriage #1: Special Victims Unit”

  1. Angel H. said

    Found you through “Angry Black Woman”. I love your post!

    I love L&O and L&O: CI, but I can’t stand SVU! (Whoah! Way to many acronyms!) I think I’ve only watched 2 full episodes of SVU since it’s been on; the first being the episode with the scene in the screen cap above. And the only reason that caught my eye was because I was flipping channels and saw Nicole Sullivan.

    I think that this show, and other crime dramas often fetishize rape, sexual abuse, and exploitation: Close-up of the young, sexy corpse; flashback scenes of the woman partying and flirting; stories about her sex life (or lack thereof); and at the end, blurry, flashy scenes of the assault, complete with moans and whimpering. It’s sickening!

  2. aroundthebend213 said

    Hey, welcome! Glad you liked the post. SVU is particularly bad, because the cops always start with more-or-less feminist assumptions, and the conflict (too-often) comes when they are proven wrong. But you’re right, its the visuals that make me physically and emotionally ill.

    Fortunately now that he’s the Ex-Main Dude, and I live sans T.V. I can avoid SVU and show like it without strain.

    I hope you dont mind if I link your “dear jerk” post. I’m enjoying stumbling upon other people’s 1st person narratives (or close, in this case) of the experience of sexism.

  3. I concur.

    (thanks for linking to my street harassment post! nice to meet you!)

  4. aroundthebend213 said

    Hi! Thanks for stopping in!

    I’m afraid if I follow this argument, I’m going to have to give up pop culture entirely, however. Maybe just a no-shows-that-make-me-hyperventilate rule…

  5. […] I know thats my fault and all, for talking about SVU. But I still hope those repulsive hate-porn watching motherfuckers die painfully and rot in hell. […]

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