On My Complicated Relationship with Law and Order: SVU

[CW: sexual violence on television]

I recently started back into Law & Order: SVU after taking a 3 month break and I remembered that one of my first posts for my Visual Rhetoric course (Summer 2021) was about SVU, the nature of television, and the way that the show has changed over its decades-long run when it comes to rape culture and the portrayal of sexual violence on television. This seemed like a good time to toss up my post, since I’m currently struggling with writing anything fresh. I have added parenthetical updates, since I wrote this in June 2021. I would tell you to enjoy but that seems a little glib, considering the material. So… get to it!

As I was reading both Mitchell’s “The Pictorial Turn” and Foss’s “Framing the Study of Visual Rhetoric” I started thinking about television and the ways in which it has changed over the years, because it has changed, in very drastic ways, some for the better and some for the worse. Mitchell tells us that “What makes for the sense of a pictorial turn, then, is not that we have some account of visual representation that is dictating the terms of cultural theory, but that pictures form a point of peculiar friction and discomfort across a broad range of intellectual inquiry” (13). The shows that we have now are vastly different from what we had when I was a kid but we don’t always notice that. And while television doesn’t necessarily “dictate the terms of cultural theory” it certainly has an uncomfortable relationship with it. One of the best examples of this change happening in real time, and the discomfort that it has engendered (for me, at least) is Law & Order: SVU. Stay with me because I do have a point. 

I had never watched this show so a few months ago (March 2021) I started watching, from season 1, episode 1 (1999). I’m on season 16 now (at the time this was written) and one thing that stands out is the way that the depiction of sexual violence has changed. Up until about season 13 (2011) much of the violence took place off-screen. The viewer only saw the aftermath of the crime and the investigation. There were episodes that showed this violence but it was rare, which is why, as a survivor myself, I was okay with watching the show. After season 13 it became much more visually violent, I became much more uncomfortable, and that’s when I started to think about depictions of sexual violence across a spectrum of shows, which I hadn’t really considered before. What changed in the rhetoric surrounding this kind of violence that caused such a drastic change?

Much of the sexual violence that was being portrayed on television was happening on cable shows. Network shows didn’t tend to go into great depth but something changed. This got me thinking about the conversations about sexual violence in America and how they have also changed in the last 20+ years. Ironically, it seems the more that we push for conversations about consent and what constitutes rape and the more we discuss the rhetoric behind rape culture, the more writers and directors have decided to double-down on how they portray sexual violence. I know that correlation doesn’t equal causation but is there a connection between the two?

Foss tells us that “symbols provide access to a range of human experience not always available through the study of discourse” (303) and this is certainly true but given what we know about sexual assault in America, there is a very great chance that many of the show’s viewers will either have experienced sexual assault themselves, or they know someone who has. In this situation, the experience and the discourse often lay hand in hand. One would certainly expect the writers of a show like SVU to be aware of this information. So why did they feel it necessary to make such a drastic turn into explicit violence?  Foss also says that there are three characteristics that define symbols created for visual rhetoric: they must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating  (305). When SVU maintained the general line of not showing explicit violence, the symbolism was there. We saw the victims and the aftermath and we could draw inferences about the nature of the assault. It felt as if the writers were making a conscious decision to not show the violence because the most important part was communicating to the viewers about how justice was sought for the victims. And too, there was the idea that justice wasn’t always possible. The rhetoric surrounding sexual assault was very much a part of the story. We were shown not only what it meant to be victimized but also what it meant to be a survivor. The imagery of the victim, in the hospital, being photographed, poked, and prodded, was more than enough to stir empathy in the viewers. So why would they change from symbolic and offscreen situations that effectively communicated what it means  to be a victim, to explicit depictions that don’t serve to actually further the story and instead play into something much more shocking and violent? Another point that Foss makes is that “Visual rhetoricians are interested in the impact of visual symbols on lay viewers…” (306) so what kind of impact does this change have on the viewers? Did they lose viewers because of this or gain them? 

I’m not really sure about where I’m going with this but the way the show changed has been sticking in my mind. There are definite conversations that need to be had about the nature of sexual violence on television and why it has become so prevalent and so explicit. This kind of violence has always lived in our literary and visual culture and I believe that it’s important to understand the rhetoric that drives the choices in how sexual violence is depicted but I don’t quite have all the answers yet. Also, don’t ask me why I’m still watching it. I don’t know. But I have taken a break. 

After I posted this on the class discussion board, one of my classmates responded and said that she had also noticed the dramatic change in tone and stopped watching at that point. Given her response, I looked a little deeper into the show and season 13. This was my reply to her:

In looking at the viewer stats on wikipedia, it’s obvious that there was a massive drop in viewers after season 12. And, I mean, given how popular Meloni was, maybe some of the loss can be attributed to him leaving but I can’t believe that that’s the only reason for the drop. Actors leave shows all the time. And too, tone shifts happen all the time but this one was so jarring and created a clear demarcation between seasons 1-12 and season 13 to present. Interestingly, the wikipedia article about this season mentions that a new show runner took over in season 13 and that they very clearly planned to “reset the tone” of the show. They wanted to make it “still be compelling but a little more grounded.” I’d be interested to know why they felt that an increase in on-screen violence would lead to a more grounded show. I’d also be interested to know if this was concurrent with an overall shift to the more violent across television in general. That’s a study that I don’t have time for but given the amount of television I watch, I started really thinking about it and things have changed. As I stated in my post, the conversations about rape and the nature of consent have taken a much larger place in American discourse but we have also seen a dramatic rise in real-life violence. I suppose we could look at it as a “does art imitate life or does life imitate art” scenario but that verges into Simulacra and Simulation territory, which is a whole other discussion. 

So, that’s my thoughts on Law & Order: SVU and the changing depictions of sexual violence on television. And as I said in my post, it’s not just SVU. Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Orange is the New Black, even the Magicians have felt the need show graphic, explicit, often bloody, sexual assaults. And it should also be mentioned that even shows that don’t depict graphic sexual violence still cross the lines with consent, including The Vampire Diaries, where vampires have the power to compel their victims to be compliant and them make them forget. In this case, we also have the narrative arc of the roguish, charming rapist who is eventually redeemed, which is also a whole other discussion and one that I can’t handle right now because the roguish, charming rapist has become one of the things that I really hate and is one of the reasons that I finally had to step away from Outlander.

I’m only a few months out from writing the original post, so of course I still don’t have all the answers, and I probably never will. And don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that SVU goes hardcore on what constitutes rape and they have never shied away from saying that consent can always be withdrawn. They don’t equivocate, and they attempt to get justice for everyone, even those who aren’t “model” victims. As I said before, I’m a survivor and I wasn’t a model victim, which is why I never reported it. I was 17 and scared. It took me over 20 years to admit what happened to me and call it by its name, but that also falls under the category of another discussion entirely. And I know that sexual violence is a regular part of the landscape. It would be disingenuous to remove its depiction completely, especially from shows that take place in an entirely realistic world but there are better ways to handle it and showing it in graphic detail is not that way.

Works Cited:
Foss, Sonja K. “Framing the Study of Visual Rhetoric: Toward a Transformation of Rhetorical Theory.” Defining Visual Rhetorics, edited by Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers, Taylor and Francis, 2012, pp. 303–314.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “The Pictorial Turn.” Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, 1994, pp. 11–34.

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