SVU: Will women ever be anything but victims?
Updated: Oct 20, 2022
Episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) often follow a very similar script. The long running show opens with the news of a woman being raped, murdered, or disappearing, and the detectives spend the episode finding the man who did it.
The pattern that SVU has developed clearly sells: SVU has run since 1999, making it the second longest running primetime TV show in the U.S., and since then it has amassed a cult-like following. Their recipe for success currently stands at over 500 episodes strong, and it’s moderately difficult to find an episode of the series without the familiar story of a woman or child being abused by a man.
In Season 9, Episode 1, however, viewers are introduced to a case in which a therapist arrives at the precinct and expresses concern that one of her clients – a woman – may be abusing her child. Upon arriving at the woman’s apartment and finding a baby doll “drowned” in a bathtub, however, the detectives discover through a photo that the woman that they were tipped off about, Janis, is the same woman who had arrived at the precinct claiming to be her therapist.
This turns out to be one of Janis’ multiple alters within her diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Though a child is missing throughout the majority of the show, detectives flirt with Janis and promise to “protect” her as they attempt to solve the case, largely moseying around rather than treating the case as an urgent, life-threatening matter. The detectives go on what amounts to a wild goose chase attempting to find the child, treating Janis throughout as a mother who they want to “help find her baby,” even after she is physically aggressive towards them.
Though a child is missing throughout the majority of the show, detectives flirt with Janis and promise to “protect” her as they attempt to solve the case, largely moseying around rather than treating the case as an urgent, life-threatening matter.
Though she has a documented and clearly demonstrated propensity for violence, Janis is allowed to return home with her sister. She promptly kills both of her parents and shows up to one detective’s house with a knife.
Throughout the show, Janis is consistently viewed as a crazy lady who is not capable of real harm, and is ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity – though it comes out later that she was faking the illness the entire time. Detectives repeatedly do not take her to be a serious threat. Ultimately, Janis and her sister are found to have killed their parents because of the abuse they experienced as children, and the show insinuates that they committed their crimes only due to their “corruption”.
Season 9 Episode 2 – the very next episode – is a different story. In this case, a woman goes missing by a suspected male perpetrator, and detectives immediately spring into action. The man accused of the crime is presented as a creep, a predator, and a criminal mastermind as he evades detectives, and when he is caught he is viewed as menacing and dangerous, even though he is never violent towards the detectives.
The difference between the treatment of these two perpetrators – who are both cunning, avoid detectives, and cause significant, violent harm to multiple individuals – is stark and telling. No matter how violent or menacing these individuals were, only the man was viewed as a true threat, while the woman was seen as crazy. Further, the man was presented as simply a criminal, while the woman was presented as a victim as well and a survivor of abuse – suggesting that women need a reason, or a “trigger”, to act this way, while men do not.
SVU, in its creation of a television program, has produced an enormous library of episodes that largely paint women as perpetual victims and men as their perpetual perpetrators.
Shows like these demonstrate and reinforce popular notions about gender and crime – that women are weak, are not threats, and only commit criminal acts if they are “crazy” or victims of other crimes, while men are automatically have the propensity for and capability of committing crimes. SVU, in its creation of a television program, has produced an enormous library of episodes that largely paint women as perpetual victims and men as their perpetual perpetrators. There’s no doubt that these shows do well, but are they really what we want as our entertainment?