If it’s renewed for another season (which is likely), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (hereafter SVU) will start its 20th year of programming this Fall. That would make it one of the longest-running live-action scripted series on prime time TV. It would enter a three-way tie with the original Law & Order (1990-2010) and Gunsmoke (1955-1975).
You could be forgiven for thinking that doesn’t sound like big news but it is noteworthy. Because while its mass appeal is obvious to anyone who has watched American TV in the 21st century, SVU doesn’t seem on paper like a sure-fire crowdpleaser.
By contrast, Gunsmoke and Law & Order were both obvious classics. Both used proven genres (the western and police procedural), and both existed in universes broad enough to allow all sorts of plotlines. Gunsmoke stories were constrained only by the borders of Dodge City, and focused on everything from high adventure to domestic romance. Likewise, classic Law & Order episodes could focus on pretty much any crime story, provided it featured New York City cops, blasé eyewitnesses, and Anthora cups.
SVU, on the other hand, is pretty much always about rape.
The show — probably the first scripted series in TV history to focus exclusively on sexual assault — and its writers have successfully used stories about rape and the prosecution of rapists to hold the attention of millions for almost two decades (the current season of SVU still draws more than five million viewers an episode, which is down from three times that number in earlier seasons). That run coincides with a nationwide reckoning about sexual harassment and sexual assault. In true Law & Order fashion (the franchise has long traded on its “ripped from the headlines” storylines), SVU has fictionalized the stories of Brock Turner, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and countless others. In doing, the show has become one of the most prolific mythologizers of our ongoing discussion about sex crimes.
Mariska Hargitay and Paula Marshall in “Imposter” (Photo by NBC/Michael Parmelee/NBC – © 2016 NBCUniversal Media, LLC_ (IMDB)
So two decades in, how should we feel about Law & Order: SVU? Is it a good show? Is it good for us? Does it have a place in an enlightened society, or is it just a cultural blemish that we’ll later look back on and wince?
The first of those questions is easy. SVU is not a good show. Sure, it’s now won six primetime Emmy’s and been nominated for 25. And sure, lead actress Mariska Hargitay earned the Law & Order franchise its first Golden Globe for her portrayal of Detective (and later Lieutenant) Olivia Benson. But ask pretty much any serious SVU viewer, and they’ll tell you the same thing: the show is strangely comforting junk, best consumed in a private binge. It’s the narrative equivalent of grocery store fried chicken. SVU is the sort of show people hoard on their DVRs for use during bouts of depression — the sort networks marathon during holidays as a salve for the isolated and alone. It’s schlocky, cliché-ridden, and built around rape fantasies that are often sadistic to the point of absurdity. If any TV show could be said to rot our brains, it would be SVU.
So the answer to the next two questions should be equally obvious: of course SVU is not good for us. Of course it’s not good for society. It’s just another of the many little vulgarities that we collectively tolerate (and quietly indulge in) while we aspire to a better world.
Maybe not. As most long-time viewers of the show have noticed, SVU has made a real effort to keep pace with the times. It’s changed over the years (Vox’s Dylan Matthews wrote an outstanding history of the show in 2016, published on Vox), but has always stayed at least somewhat in tune with the feminist blogosphere. From the show’s earliest seasons, its characters have stubbornly insisted on the right of sexual assault survivors to be believed regardless of status or circumstance. Many of the show’s victims are sex workers. Some are violated by their partners or have murky recollections of the event. Some quite literally asked for sex, then changed their minds. All are taken seriously by the elite detectives of the Special Victims Unit.
In SVU, rape kits are taken and tested promptly. Suspected rapists are arrested, publicly shamed, and intimidated in interrogation rooms. Cases are quickly brought to trial by a super-competent DA who treats every case like a personal vendetta. Courtrooms are packed with spectators. Surprise witnesses are called. And villains are usually (but not always) vanquished in the end with a harsh sentence and public reckoning.
That experience is a fantasy, of course. Real-life victims of sexual assault are often not believed even by the police they report the crime to (“Beyond Belief? Police, Rape and Women’s Credibility”, Jan Jordan, 1 Feb 2004, Sage Journal. Even when victims are able to identify their rapists to police, those rapists seldom spend a single moment in a courtroom. As detailed in a recent HBO documentary co-produced by Mariska Hargitay, I Am Evidence (2017) rape kits often go untested for decades. In the real-life criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are often dismissed as being un-prosecutable. So if it does nothing else, SVU offers a vision of a criminal justice system that takes women and sexual assault seriously. Considering the show’s audience is made up mostly of women, critics have argued convincingly that this is at the heart of the show’s appeal.
When they’ve spoken publicly, SVU’s writers and showrunners haven’t been bashful about their motivations: their primary intention, for good or ill, is to entertain their audience. But as a secondary mission, the men and women behind SVU see their show partly as a vehicle for education. Hargitay herself was waded deep into advocacy, co-producing the aforementioned documentary and helping to launch the No More initiative (the full SVU cast participated in PSAs for No More in 2014).
Episodes are laden with real-life lessons about consent, domestic violence, and the psychological impacts of sexual assault. In Season 18’s “Broken Rhymes AKA Bad Rap”, in which a transgender woman is raped murdered, detectives repeatedly stress the legitimacy of trans identity and the importance of pronouns (even the street-hardened Detective Tutuola, played by Ice-T, never misgenders the victim). In “Imposter”, the team clarifies that gaining consent through fraud can also constitute rape. In Season 11’s “Witness”, Hargitay’s Detective Benson became an internet meme with the line “She could run around naked. That doesn’t excuse rape.”
Ice-T, Mariska Hargitay, Kelli Giddish, and Peter Scanavino in “Broken Rhymes AKA Bad Rap” (Photo by NBC/David Giesbrecht/NBC – © 2016 NBCUniversal Media , LLC) (IMDB)
Once you start looking for these educational interjections in SVU, you start to see them everywhere. You see what The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum described as “uneasy” wavering “between P.S.A. and pornography” (“Trauma Queen: The Pulp Appeal of “Law & Order: SVU”, 2013). It becomes clear that the show’s creators are trying not just to hold your attention, but to do something with it. Something good.
So far, only one published study has examined the impacts of SVU‘s approach (“Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS“, Taylor Francis Online, 29 Sep 2015). Led by the Washington State University’s Dr. Stacey Hust, the study found that students who watched Law & Order: SVU were better educated about consent than their peers. That means they were less likely to believe common “rape myths”: that entering a date’s apartment equates to consent, for example, or that rape can’t occur within a committed relationship. They also seemed to be better sexual citizens overall, reporting that they were more likely to adhere to their partners’ expressions of consent and more likely to refuse unwanted sexual activity. These traits were more associated with SVU viewing than almost any other variable tested in the study, with the notable exception of gender (women were far less likely to believe rape myths and far more likely to respect consent decisions than men). The study also asked subjects about two other serial crime dramas, CSI and NCIS, but only SVU seemed to make a positive difference.
In their conclusions, Hust et al. posit that Law & Order: SVU might be more than just good for us. Its effects, they suggest, indicate “that crime dramas may be a useful tool for health communication practitioners focused on preventing sexual assault.” Just as Captain Planet and the Planeteers (an animated environmentalist television program, by Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle) helped instill environmental values in a generation of kids, this study suggests that a show like SVU could bring us closer to a culture of consent.
That’s a pleasant thought, particularly for those of us who have spent dozens of hours with the show. Even if it’s not itself a perfect vehicle for cultural change (and, as someone who has watched a lot of SVU, I can say for sure that it isn’t), SVU might have something to teach us about writing entertaining television with a good, persuasive intent. It’s not going to be the show that changes the world, but it might serve as a decent prototype.