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I have a confession to make. I was once obsessed with the television show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Originally a casual viewer in my teens, I became increasingly addicted to the show when I transitioned into dorm-living at university, a place where fellow first-years far more tech-savvy than I introduced me to the wonders of closed file-transfer systems. Entire seasons of pretty much any TV show you liked where but a click and short download away. SVU extravaganza!
I watched all the episodes I could get. And when I moved off-campus, I wasn’t going to let the fact that I could no longer safely pirate for free stop me from getting more.
So I began buying entire seasons on DVD (at anywhere between 60 and 70 bucks a pop) and holing up in my room for mini SVU marathons. I had to watch them in my room because my roommate and dear friend could only handle so much rape and battery in our shared communal spaces.
You see, SVU is a crime-drama explicitly about, as the introduction to the show describes, “sexually based offenses,” which are “especially heinous.” Unlike your regular, run of the mill murder at the centre of most episodes of the original Law and Order, SVU plots are about serial rapists, international child-porn rings, incest and the like. You know, the stuff of warm and fuzzy primetime.
I honestly cannot explain my initial attraction to the show, other than to say that it was exciting and suspenseful, well-acted and full of the twists and turns for which the Law and Order franchise, and its creator Dick Wolf, have become famous. I was also really into the dynamic between the two main characters – what I saw as truly plutonic respect and admiration between a male and female detective, which is a refreshing departure from your typical she-loves-him/he-breaks-her-heart soap opera storyline. I wasn’t a criminology student, interested in exploring the psyches of abusers. At that time I didn’t even identify as a feminist – it wasn’t a conscious effort to examine the portrayal of violence against women in the media. I just liked the show, so I watched it. Every episode ever made over the course of its 10+ seasons, in a matter of months.
As the show became more predictable and the quality of writing diminished, I became less interested. I would still catch new episodes from time to time, but I didn’t plan my life around it. The glory days were over. But I still considered myself a fan.
Fast forward to last year, when, in the common area of the UBC Women’s Studies department, I casually mention to a professor of mine that I watched the show the night before. An inexact dramatization:
Me: “So I was watching Law and Order: SVU last night and I think the storyline was inspired by a local case. You know how Law and Order episodes are inspired by real stories? Well last night it wa – “
Prof: “You watch that?”
Me: “Yah, I dunno, uh, er, [incoherent increasing panicked mumbling].”
Prof: “Wow. I make a conscious effort not consume gratuitous depictions of violence against women.”
Me: “Yah, me too, you know, it’s just such an interesting show… it’s, it’s uh, it’s not all bad.”
Prof: “Regardless. It is what it is. Which is something I would never watch. Ever.”
I had been outed. Here I was, a feminist, in the feminist epicenter of the university no less, admitting first that I watched TV at all (gasp!), and worse, that I watched misogynist trash. In a matter of seconds my proud L&O fandom became a source of incredible embarrassment. Why did I watch that show?
I still don’t entirely know. But the process of self-reflection in this regard was re-ignited last month when, at Vancouver Rape Relief’s public forum on violence against women, one audience member argued that the culture of sexist violence we all live in will never change as long as torturing women is considered entertainment, and as long as various programs all relying on graphic violence against women constitute our ‘choices’ on television. Later that night, my partner turned on his new favourite show, Criminal Minds. The episode chronicled the FBI’s response when a woman was kidnapped, gagged and rigged up to a bomb in the middle of the desert by a deranged sociopath. The people the anonymous commenter was condemning were people like us. I felt like a phony, like a big, sleazy hypocrite. In attempt to delve deeper into this part of my life (or perhaps, to assuage my guilt), I’ve reached a few conclusions.
I think it’s fair to say there are two very different categories of violence against women in popular media (primarily on TV and in movies). The depiction of women being sadistically brutalized in the name of entertainment – or “torture porn” as it is now being called – is epitomized in the modern horror film genre (think the Hostel series). It is gory, graphic, cruel, and revolting. A very small (mostly male) minority constitute the group most willing to stomach it, even enjoy it. It is a very dark and very twisted way of ‘escaping’ from the realities of everyday life, which is what I think of as the reason most people go to the movies.
As far as I am concerned, it is the farthest thing from entertaining. While men and women are both decapitated, carved up and gutted in this genre, Kira Cochrane says “it’s the violence against women that’s most troubling, because it is here that sex and extreme violence collide.” The psychopath protagonists in these films always reserve the most twisted of sexual torture for their female victims, and female victims’ sexuality is almost always front and centre to their character’s identity – she is either a stripper (or some variation thereof) or a virgin (or virgin-esque). She is sexy alive, but sexier dead. Here we see the troubling resonance of the label “torture porn.” It may be a thriller, but it plays off of the all-too-familiar signposts of porn, something supposedly meant to spur arousal and feelings of sexual satisfaction. According to a media professor at Temple University, the increasing representation of sexual characters in horror films tells us that the media “seem to be giving women permission to take control of their own sexuality.” Now that’s scary.
The second category is less sensational but more widespread: violence against women that occurs as part of some (semi) believable plot, as part of a TV legal drama (think Prime Suspect, Law and Order, etc.) or feature film (The General’s Daughter, A Time to Kill, Thelma and Louise, just to name a few). While it is certainly still disturbing, this kind of violence is presented as part of, if not central to, the show’s key conflict: it is a crime perpetrated against victims who deserve justice, if not healing, rather than a foregone conclusion resulting from some psychopath’s twisted agenda. The audience is supposed to be angry that this thing happened to the victim and join in on the pursuit for justice (not sit back and enjoy it as they bleed out or are gang-raped). It can be no less triggering than torture porn – actually often more so, given that it is more ‘real’ (we’ll come back to this). That said it can still be sensationalist and bizarre – see the Criminal Minds example above – but it can also be very true-to-life, a semi-accurate depiction of what a woman might go through. This kind of violence encompasses a wide spectrum of stories.
So why do people watch it? Some people are really freaking privileged (honestly, I was probably this type of viewer originally). They’ve never gone through heavy sh*t, or truly had to deal with real violence in their lives. So for them, it’s a glimpse into the Other – a totally different set of experiences that are different from theirs and thus, strangely entertaining (all with the caveat that this is all of course, fictional). There’s also a voyeuristic element to this kind of media. Violence against women is a taboo subject – not very many people talk about it on a day-to-day basis, let alone broadcast stories about it to the masses. So these shows have a ‘come and see what no other program will show you’ element to them. It’s unusual and mysterious. And as much as it pains me to say it, there is probably a small minority of misogynists who take pleasure in watching women get hurt.
I think, though, there is a large contingent of fans that are after something altogether different: reassurance. You see, crime dramas, by definition, position players in the justice system as central characters. You are meant to like these people. Root for them. And by and large, they don’t disappoint. They are very, very good and catching the bad guys (usually at record speeds, with incredible DNA-inspired certainty, no less) and are almost always on the victims’ side. They are honourable, respectable and righteous, and their sole purpose is to make the world a better place. On SVU, Detective Olivia Benson is a strong woman, out to get justice for every victim she meets as a way to avenge the rape of her mother. Her partner, Detective Elliot Stabler, hates men who hurt women: he is big and strong and beats up ‘perps.’ They want to make criminals pay, and most of the time, they do.
In a world where police officers are sexually assaulting and harassing one another, failing to respond when women go missing en masse, and ignoring repeated tips about who is probably killing them, we are desperate for good-cop characters. In a world where judges hand out probation to rapists, court-appointed psychiatrists refuse to label priests who collect child-porn as pedophiles, and lawyers re-traumatize women during sexual assault and abuse trials by attacking their character and humiliating them on the stand, we are begging for a sign that at least someone in the justice system actually cares about the victims, and that they’re not all out to keep protecting and excusing men’s sexist violence. When it comes to dealing with violence against women, the real world often fails us. So we turn to Law and Order to reassure ourselves that maybe it’s not all bad. Maybe sometimes the system works.
Of course, we know these stories can be bad for us. That the latter category of violence is seen as ‘true-to-life’ is obviously incredibly problematic. First of all, most shows that address violence against women operate on the stranger attack storyline – the myth that most gendered violence is perpetrated by a stranger. It’s not.
Moreover, because of racist and sexist structures in Hollywood (white, traditionally beautiful women are almost the only women who make it onto television), the victims in these programs are therefore mostly white and beautiful – the typical ‘good girl’ we are supposed to sympathize with, and not the ‘bad girl’ who we blame for her own attack and whose motives we question (victims of colour, poor women, immigrant women, women who’ve ever broken the law or women in the sex industry). Needless to say this is an incredibly narrow profile of the victim that reinforces stereotypes and re-produces social hierarchies.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, most cases on these kinds of shows are solved by the end of an hour-long episode. Detectives catch the killer, a jury convicts the rapist, or some kind of satisfying vigilante justice is carried out against a molester. In the real world, a tiny fraction of domestic violence and sexual assault cases are deemed credible and investigated, and an even smaller fraction of these actually result in charges and convictions.
As much as I’ve hated on SVU for perpetuating harmful stereotypes and rape myths, I have to credit where credit is due. One of the most stirring episodes for me was about a trans woman who killed someone in self-defense. She was convicted, but because she was pre-op (she still had male genitalia and thus, in the eyes of the state, was still a man) she was sent to a male prison. She was brutally gang-raped. The episode begged the question, how does the justice system fail and endanger transgender people? What should be done to make it safer?
Other episodes have been more documentary-like – your average battered wife story or rape tale, depicted close-up, in painstaking detail. Unlike melodramatic storylines, these episodes were a genuine depiction of what it’s like. What it’s like to try and leave your abusive husband, only to have to cut off communication with your loved ones, check in to a shelter (with a curfew, and without privacy), and lose all your resources and try to get by without a cent because he insisted you be a ‘kept’ woman, reliant on his income. Or what it’s like to report a rape to police – what it’s like to have your home turned upside down, your body inspected and photographed, your choices questioned, your experience being recorded over and over again, your boyfriend not understand. These two examples in particular are a direct response to the all-too-common questions, why didn’t she leave? and, why didn’t she report it?
Other episodes make explicit reference the incredible rates of sexual abuse amongst women with disabilities. Others tell stories of abusers within the institution itself – prison guards who rape and abuse female prisoners, judges who sexually exploit and blackmail, and yes, even cops who rape and coerce women in prostitution.
The bottom line is violence against women in the media can be gratuitous and disgusting, but it can also be compelling. It can be ridiculously sensational, but it can also be accurate – ripped from the headlines, based on real cases, rooted in some kind of reality that we all would benefit from acknowledging. There is no one answer in how to deal with it, and even if there was, it wouldn’t necessarily be to swear it off altogether. Instead, as we watch our favourite TV shows or go to the movies, we need to ask ourselves (and the ones we are with): why was violence included in this storyline? What is realistic about it, and what isn’t? How do these characters reflect the ‘real world’? And most importantly, what am I feeling as I consume it? Why am I consuming it?
SVU returns with a new episode on January 18th. I guess that gives me a few weeks to figure that out for myself.