Perhaps few other pop culture television shows have been as iconic as Law and Order SVU (Special Victims Unit) which has been airing for more than 20 seasons in the 19 years since it has been released. Despite never receiving critical acclaim, the show retains its popularity by adapting storylines based both on real and fictional crime cases. The plot commonly touches upon vital societal issues, regarding sexual crimes and murder, related to the events of the case or the criminal justice system.
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The iconic popularity and discussion amongst all generations made the show a primary topic of choice for this paper’s author as well as the incredible impact that Law and Order SVU has had on real-life perceptions of criminal prosecution. Some actors and fans of the show have contributed strongly to focus on establishing an emphasis on sexual crimes in the criminal justice system and providing support for women. This report will explore the cultural phenomenon and impact of the show as well as the critical ethical questions that it poses in regard to the state of the criminal justice system.
Background and Cultural Phenomenon
Law and Order SVU was created as a spin-off series from the original series. It premiered in September of 1999 and had the full intent of producing a series that focused on crimes of a sexual nature. The executive creator Dick Wolf received inspiration from a murder case in 1986 when a man named Robert Chambers killed a woman during supposedly consensual sex in Central Park. The episode inspired the creators to investigate both the psychology and culture of sexual crimes. Most works on the series and the network believed the show was to fail but wanted to create a series that could achieve success independently from the original Law and Order. Eventually, the title was changed to Special Victims Unit which truthfully represents a similar police unit in the NYPD (Green and Dawn 2-10).
Law and Order SVU has been labeled as a cultural phenomenon and cultural institution of its own right. It has adopted a formula that is beloved by audiences, and despite a certain level of predictability, allows to grapple with the broader issues of sexual crimes and their nature. The show actively reflects cultural attitudes, with their unique complexity and layers of evolvement which may clash with mainstream perceptions. Law and Order SVU has created a brand for its plot, focusing on the rising popularity of feminism which embodies issues of consent, sex-positivity, and autonomy over one’s body (Olsen). While the legal aspects of the show may be different from reality, cultural order is crucial in emphasizing the ultimate crime and punishment of sexual crimes.
The desperate actions and impacts of the previously discussed women are a result of a criminal justice system that severely failed many people in relation to sexual crimes. The intro to each episode of Law and Order SVU states that “sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous” (Alcid). However, the realities of the situation are far from the truth as sexual crimes remain severely underreported, often condemned or disregarded by law enforcement, and remain on the backlog of national investigations.
Furthermore, both publicly and in court, victim-blaming and shaming of certain sexual choices is a common occurrence as a defense strategy that strongly deters reports of sexual crimes. Statistics indicate that despite 1 in every 5 women reporting some sort of sexual assault, only 3% of criminals are convicted (Alcid). This creates a grim picture of the state of the criminal justice system in investigating sexual crimes despite the effectiveness which Law and Order SVU often portrays.
The ethical concern is that the way the criminal justice system treats sexual crime survivors demonstrates to society how it should perceive sexual violence. Until recently, lenient sentencing and few convictions effectively signal decriminalization of rape. Sexual crimes continue to be one of the most underreported crimes around the world. This is due to strong social stigmas such as fear, retribution, judgment, and re-traumatization in a morbid experience in the criminal justice system which few victims can overcome. Studies show more than 80% of rape survivors struggle with guilt and low self-esteem, reluctant to seek help or persecution, even after contact with police (McCarthy-Jones).
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The legal system operating with jury trials is dependent on public opinions and stereotypes, forcing women into desperate positions. Survivors should be eligible for legal advice, psychological support, and advocacy for their rights.
Along with changing societal perceptions, Law and Order are driving forward some change in the public perception of sex crime cases. Police and court officials are becoming more sensitive to these cases and offering significantly more resources towards both resolving the crime and supporting the victim. It is hopeful that society and the criminal justice system will transition to a position where fairness and satisfaction are offered to victims of sexual crimes to prevent distressed viewers from having to rely on letters to a fictional character to seek justice for themselves.
As a television drama, Law and Order SVU has maintained cultural relevance through addressing palpable and controversial topics, shifting the conversations around sexual crimes, and discussing vital aspects as consent. In the words of the creator, the show has “been doing #MeToo for 20 years” (Blake). Considering that two decades ago the theme of sexual crimes was nowhere near as relevant and many of the topics are taboo, the cultural popularity of the show can be considered a driver for social change. Despite the grotesque nature of the crimes, the show is considered both relatively family and advertiser-friendly, which extends its influence while braving new and uncharted territory in crime television (Blake).
One of the show’s prevalent and stable characters is Olivia Benson played by the actress Mariska Hargitay. She is an ideal cop and investigator while serving as a staple for women’s rights, both on the force and as an activist for the victims. The profound impact of the character’s resolve is far-reaching as to inspire real-life victims of sexual crimes to write letters to Hargitay relaying the circumstances of their assaults because they have lost in the criminal justice system. Hargitay notes the repeating themes in the letters demonstrate desperate shame and isolation in the light of their issues (Miller).
Appalled by such responses and motivated to make a change, Hargitay began a national campaign to advocate justice for sexual crime victims. She educated herself, started the Joyful Heart Foundation, and testified before Congress. Working with a real-life prosecutor Kym Worthy in Detroit, they discovered that more than 11,000 rape kits that law enforcement had been untested. For Hargitay, this served as proof that her letters were speaking the truth, and women’s reports were not seriously considered since the kits were not even eligible for use. Using her foundation, she has advocated and gathered funds to test the kits.
Furthermore, she has worked with HBO to create a widely acclaimed documentary on the issue of sexual crimes, the involved forensics and evidence, and the failure of the criminal justice system (Read). In the light of the MeToo movement, Hargitay’s efforts contributed to spreading awareness of sexual violence. While Law and Order SVU serves as an idealistic perspective on the work of law enforcement, its impact on real-life advocacy movements and the workings of the criminal justice system cannot be underestimated.
Discussion and Criticism
The franchise’s take on numerous controversial issues regarding sexual crimes over the years is seen as both revolutionary and evolving. As evident, it has begun numerous discussions and public movements that have led to the improvement of real-life law enforcement procedures. However, as issues first arose, the show had to address them without the experience or political correctness that exists today. At times, serious issues such as campus rape, AIDS, and serial impregnators were introduced in a clumsy and controversial manner.
However, the show continued to evolve, educating its viewers with it. If previously a rape victim may be victim-blamed for putting herself in a dangerous situation, now a show seriously addresses the concept of full and valid concept in the light of growing anti-rape culture. Despite a rather predictable structure of the plot, the writing continuously adapts with the temperaments and values of mainstream culture and society to put forward the most relevant issues of sexual crimes in the show’s scenarios (Fowles).
Despite its overwhelming pop culture influence, Law and Order SVU has faced criticism on both the portrayal and approach to the sensitive topics of sexual crimes and how criminal justice deals with these cases. The show is unfortunately limited by the narrative genre, which creates ideal conditions for victims and justice for criminals. Victims of sexual crimes are always believed, any wrongdoing is reported immediately, and police find the perpetrator in a short amount of time (Barcella). The following criminal justice process is swift and leads to appropriate and lawful justice.
However, the reality is much darker as most victims do not report sexual crimes, and those that do are often not believed due to lack of evidence. Even with the police, they undergo horrific experiences and officers rarely demonstrate such care as in the show. Meanwhile, the criminal justice process is complex and just as traumatizing for the victim, as their life and actions become a subject of public discussion.
Furthermore, there has been criticism that the media representation of sexual crime as with Law and Order SVU can lead to social acceptance of sexual crimes as inevitable (Barcella). The show portrays aspects of sexual assault as drama, focusing on the victim’s clothing, make-up, facial expressions. Instead of highlighting disgust, it is filmed to draw the audience in. It creates a cinematographic episode without filming it in a manner that underlines the heaviness of sexual crime as a national and social problem.
It is evident that Law and Order SVU has a long and fruitful history of portraying law enforcement’s efforts to combat sexual crimes. It has become a cultural phenomenon, driving important discussions, educating, and influencing all generations.
The show has become an inspiration, as many women look forward to achieving justice in regard to sexual crimes against them. The main actress, Hargitay has used her influence to create meaningful change in real life by ensuring sexual assault victims are heard and criminals are persecuted. In light of growing awareness about the topic of sexual crimes, despite some criticism, the show serves as a leading cultural phenomenon for change.
Alcid, Sara. “Law & Order: SVU vs. Reality: Offensively Different.” EverydayFeminism. 2013. Web.
Barcella, Laura. “Why ‘Law & Order: SVU’ Matters.” Rolling Stone. 2018. Web.
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Blake, Meredith. “Heading into its 20th season, ‘Law & Order: SVU’ Is as Relevant — And Addictive — As Ever.” Los Angeles Times. 2018. Web.
Fowles, Stacey M. “Law & Order Has Been an Important Cultural Touchstone for Decades.” The Globe and Mail. 2015. Web.
Green, Susan, and Randee Dawn. The Law and Order: Special Victims Unit Unofficial Companion. BenBella Books, 2009.
McCarthy-Jones, Simon. “Survivors of Sexual Violence are Let Down by the Criminal Justice System – Here’s What Should Happen Next.” The Conversation. 2019. Web.
Miller, Julie. “Mariska Hargitay on Her Real-Life Crusade to Help Sex-Crime Survivor.” Vanity Fair. 2018. Web.
Olsen, Hanna B. “How ‘Law & Order: SVU’ Is (Imperfectly) Teaching A Generation About Consent.” Medium. 2016. Web.
Read, Bridget. “Mariska Hargitay, SVU’s Olivia Benson, and Real-Life Prosecutor Kym Worthy Talk I Am Evidence on HBO.” Vogue. 2018. Web.