Thursday, November 27, 2008

Law and Order: The Invisible Black Victim

The Law and Order series have been on television for quite sometime.  Each week viewers can tune into either the original, or one of the two spin offs.  Get the "bad guy", and make the world safe for the law abiding citizens is the theme week after week.

Despite the repetitive plot the Law and Order series remain extremely popular. I have a tendency to watch Special Victims Unit the most, because I simply adore Mariska Hargitay.  Recently I am finding that even my desire to watch Hargitay kick ass is being ruined by the continual portrayal of POC as criminals rather than victims.

The majority of the assaults that the show investigates are the rapes of white women, or white children.  It would seem just like the major news outlets the series is intent to perpetuate the idea that our bodies are never violated by creating  crimes against us as invisible. 

Is it a case of life imitating art, or art imitating life?  In either circumstance what is clear is that the body of  colour is either deemed to exist for violation, or our bodies are considered so worthless that any commentary on the violence that is committed against us is unnecessary.

In a recent episode a black female opera singer killed a white female opera singer.  The motive was predictable - jealousy.  Of course we are the violent ones because deep down we have internalized what whites have been teaching us about blackness.  How could this woman not feel inferior when placed next to the perfection of white womanhood?  These kind of racist stereotypes are reinforced week after week.

How many times do we have to see the black man as rapist, drug dealer, or all around criminal low life on Law and Order?  How many times is the black woman either not mentioned, or portrayed as a prostitute, uneducated, working poor, or single mother? 

I suppose the producers believe that having two black characters Sharon Epatha Merkerson and Ice T counteracts the racial stereotyping that happens week after week, but in truth two people cannot undue the  work that these shows have done of creating us as the great evil.  Presented this way it makes it seem as though that Merkerson and Ice T are not the norm; they are just the magical negroes that managed through daily interaction with the positive role model of the white justice system to resist the urge to turn to the baser temptations that are attached to blackness.

I want to keep watching the Law and Order series.  They are well written and challenge difficult subjects week after week, but how long can one deny not seeing an accurate depiction?  This is not the matter of a program that has been on the air for a few years, the original series has been on well over a decade.  That is 10 plus years where blacks have been constructed as the villain and not the victim. 

While I wholeheartedly admit that blacks do indeed commit crimes, week after week where we are seldom portrayed as being victims of crime as well supports social constructions about bodies of colour.  White victims may be sympathetic to a white audience; however for a show that is supposedly based in reality the authors should realize that violence and victimology have no skin colour.

So is this art imitating life, or life imitating art?


Danny said...

I've been a fan of Law & Order: SVU for a long time and I would say that Ice T's character (Tutuola), while his very presence may be an effort to counter the stereotypes, seems to fit the stereotype of the "tough black guy cop". You know. Very rough around the edges, questionable opinions, basic angry black man stuff. Hell in one of his early episodes he "tuned up" a suspect that didn't wanna talk.

And over the last season or two he seems to be getting angrier and angrier and has become very confrontational with Stabler. In fact last season he requested a transfer out of the unit (I get the feeling Ice-T's contract hadn't been settled yet so this was written in to give his character an out just in case he didn't return) after nearly coming to blows with him.

One more thing, Tamara Tunie (Dr. Warner) does not get enough screen time. I'd really like to see her on a show where the medical examiner gets more screen time (something like NCIS's Dr. Mallard). (And as far I can think I want to say she is the only medical examiner of color out of all those crime dramas.)

So is this art imitating life, or life imitating art?
I think they both influencing each other. The show makers try to copy the big cases (I'm you've heard that "Ripped from the headlines" line a billion times) while at the same time people think that stuff they see on the show is a proper representation of what happens in real life. A vicious cycle.

T. R Xands said...

I've been noticing some of what you say lately about black criminals, especially in L&O: SVU. Do you watch Criminal Intent at all? Even with some of it's outlandish plots and the presence of Det. Goren, it manages to be a bit more realistic that SVU and the original series...sometimes. And the victims & motives seem much more diverse, I think that's why I find it a bit more realistic than the others.

Arum said...

SVU is exploitation of the highest order. Lingering pictures of raped and/or mutilated white women should not be entertainment.

I also do not see how the portrayal of white women as constantly under attack is any more positive for white women than the denial of black women's victimhood is to them. Showing white women as perenial rape victims serves to make us fearful and dependent. The purpose is to discipline us, to make us believe that only men (aided by a hard-but-basically-empathetic female sidekick) can save us. SVU is fucked up.

Renee said...


excellent, excellent points In the race discussion I completely left out the ways in which gender comes into play. You are right the eternal female victim is equally problematic.

Arum said...

If you can manage to tune down the outrage frequency in your brain (a technique I'm still not that great at) it can actually be rather fun watching these shows. As in "OMG! She's talking to a cat! Let's time how long it takes her to find the mad rapist hiding in the house!" Cats being tv shorthand for 'sad, pathetic woman who lives alone, and is therefore about to become a rape victim at any second'. Or trying to guess the childhood trauma of any newly introduced female detective. Because, of course, 'normal' women can't be kick-ass cops, that would be silly. No, she has to have been 'damaged' in some way. And then try and work out which of her collegues she's going to engage in an ill-advised affair first. Because she can't have a normal intimate relationship, she only shags cos she's a fuck-up.

The only honourable exception to this has been the fabulous Mary-Beth Lacey - husband, kids, happy. However, she did have to be besty mates with the alcoholic car crash Cagney, so the Universe righted itself.

whatsername said...

So is this art imitating life, or life imitating art?

What came first, the chicken or the egg? :\

Anonymous said...

Renee, did you ever catch the series Law & Order: Trial by Jury? It's possibly the most female orientated L&O spin-off, featuring a diverse cast with the two leads being female (who are not conventionally good looking).

Although it does buy into the stereotype that detectives=male, lawyer=female, ADA Tracy Kibre is no Casey Novak (the detectives play a minimal role too). Pity it only lasted one's infinitely better than Criminal Intent.