The internet has profoundly changed the way we watch TV. Until recently, I hadn’t seen an episode of Law & Order for several years. For me, Law & Order is the show you watch if you have cable and it happens to be on when you’re channel surfing. No cable: no Law & Order. So I was a little surprised when I noticed a lot of people, especially women, binging Law & Order: SVU. The show is very focused on sexual assault and I’m personally not into super heavy material, so I didn’t get the appeal. Then I happened to watch an episode with a friend, and realized why so many women are using it as comfort-food television.
But before I get into that, let’s talk about the relationship between sexual assault and the criminal justice system in this fine nation of ours. Only 15.8-35% of rapes are reported, in large part because many survivors fear they can’t depend on the police. They have reason to be afraid – the police have a pretty terrible track record in handling and prioritizing sexual assault cases. Many officers approach victims with skepticism, and if the person does not fit their profile of how a victim should behave (torn clothing, the correct amount of tears, etc), they are liable to throw the case out. A minority, it seems, have been trained in the various ways people respond to trauma.
Law & Order: SVU is a fantasy, one where police don’t just care about sexual assault victims, but they believe them, and do everything in their power to make sure the rapist gets their comeuppance. It is part-revenge fantasy, part-utopian justice ideal. In that first episode I watched (Season 18, episode 16, “The Newsroom”), the victim didn’t even go to the police. Detective Benson (portrayed by the excellent Mariska Hargitay) noticed the victim showed signs of PTSD and decided to look into it. The detectives and DA pursued the criminal doggedly, even at the risk of their own careers. You see, the perp in this episode was a well-known media personality, and they couldn’t let it stand that a man in a position of authority was abusing power to harass women.
I was spellbound. What a beautiful world! Of course women love SVU! It gives them a brief space where their concerns are finally met, where those who perpetrate violence and indignities against them get their just reward. A space where, for a little while, they are not ignored.
True crime appeals to a lot of women for a similar reason, though it is the opposite of fantasy- it paints real and brutal pictures of violence. Though the cases in true crime stories often offer the most grotesque examples, violence against women is all too common. I think reading/watching/listening to true crime media sometimes gives women a sense of control over the massive, terrifying specter of this violence. It also offers the comfort of being inside during a storm – some people are windswept and wet, but you are safe and dry. For now.
So I asked women what other show brought them the same comfort Law & Order: SVU accomplishes. Far and away, the winner was Parks and Recreation, which when you think about it makes total sense. Though a different kind of fantasy than SVU (small-town Pawnee has more absurd antics, and lead character Leslie Knope deals with plenty of systemic sexism), Parks and Rec serves as a balm for the same wounds. We are presented with a woman in politics, surrounded by supportive friends, who is able to succeed and make positive change in her community. Now, that sentence shouldn’t seem fantastical, but with under 20% of congress being female, it’s clear the world of politics is still not exactly welcoming to women. Leslie Knope is a ridiculous, wonderful cry of defiance against that state of affairs. She also encourages us to ask: How do we fix this?
People have always looked down on the unrealistic aspects of storytelling, dismissing them as cheap escapism. I would like to defend the fantastical, and its relevance to the everyday. All change begins with an idea, and there is no better vehicle for ideas than story. Shows like Law & Order: SVU and Parks and Rec do not present us with the world as we find it (unlike true crime), but they create a space for new possibilities. Take Nichelle Nicholls as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Whoopi Goldberg credits Uhura as having been an important inspiration when she was a child– it was the first time she saw a vision of the future where black people existed. She was nine-years-old the first time she saw Star Trek, and apparently ran through the house shouting, “Come quick, come quick. There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid.”
When Nichelle Nichols wanted to leave the show after the first season, Martin Luther King himself asked her to stay on, saying, “For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.” That’s the measure of how much a story, fantastical or not, can change the shape of society. We need shows that offer us a vision of a better world. So thank you, SVU, for giving us an escape, and for planting the seed of an idea. Hopefully the future will look less like our current reality, and more like you.