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  • Emily G.

Law & Order: SVU: The Stereotypes of Women and People of Color

Photo Credit: Rotten Tomatoes

The media is known to exaggerate scenarios to keep the attention of its audience and can be specifically seen in many crime related TV shows. One of the most popular shows of this kind is Law & Order: SVU (Special Victims Unit). Law & Order has a number of series and spinoffs surrounding the criminal legal system, where SVU addresses the sexually-based offenses in New York City. Yet, most of the public is unaware of the controversies within the episodes of Law & Order: SVU.

In season 1 episode 4, Hysteria, two SVU detectives are called to the scene of the murder of Tracy Henderson, a black woman. When Detective Olivia Benson and Detective Elliot Stabler arrive to the scene, they are greeted by a white presenting male police officer, D’Angelo, working with NYPD. They begin discussing the formalities of the crime when D’Angelo claims that Tracy is a “whore” and a prostitute. Benson questions how D’Angelo could know this already, to which he replies: “After 30 years in vice, I think I know. You get to the point where you can just smell ‘em.”

Right off the bat, D'Angelo had no respect for Tracy who was just brutally murdered. He assumes the worst of Tracy, a black woman, before trying to figure out the truth of what happened. D’Angelo also says Tracy’s case is “N.H.I,” which stands for no humans involved. In Stabler’s translation, D’Angelo meant she was a piece of garbage human, and they don’t need to work too hard on that specific case. While the two Detectives seemingly disapprove of what D’Angelo is saying, neither of them explicitly condemns his actions. As they begin to discuss the case by themselves, Stabler is even guilty of assuming Tracy is a prostitute before they have any of the facts.

A common theme in this episode is the stereotyping of people of color. Detectives Benson and Stabler visit Tracy’s parent’s home, which to their surprise, is in an affluent neighborhood. Clearly confused, Benson asks if they are on the right track, as if they expected Tracy’s family to be living elsewhere. Then, when they are inside Tracy’s parent’s home, Stabler asks Tracy’s father, “are you aware of what your daughter does in Manhattan?” To which her father replies, “Of course. She’s majoring in cultural studies at Columbia.” It also comes to light that Tracy volunteers at a literacy center.

Until after the conversation with Tracy’s parents, the two detectives have assumed that Tracy is a prostitute—that there could be no other explanation. Later in the episode, more of the SVU detectives begin to discuss how Tracy was dressed as a prostitute. One of their immediate responses was “drugs.” The only person that defended Tracy’s outfit the entire time was the only other black female SVU detective, who barely had any time on screen. She claimed she would wear that outfit if she was going clubbing with her friends, but her opinion was quickly disregarded as another white male detective insinuated that all women are “whores.”

The white men in this episode are quick to be defended by the SVU detectives and others. In addition to the stereotypes that plague this episode, D’Angelo was being disrespectful to Tracy as a human being which shows how easily white men can say anything they want with few or no repercussions. The men are described as being forthcoming and helpful in the investigation, while the women are continually characterized as prostitutes and with other crude phrases for their looks and what they are wearing. There are many other aspects of this episode that deem women are thought of as less than their white male counterpart and that people of color are not seen without specific stereotypes. Both are proven to be false through character interactions, yet most of them seem oblivious to the answers that are right in front of them.

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