Race Class and Gender in a Television Crime Show

Published 16 Feb 2017

Media productions present a picture of the world to viewers as concocted by the writers, director and producers of the show. The former serves as institutions that are powerful forces in the socialization and acculturation of society. One may always say that the goal of media is to entertain, but the power that it wields over America cannot be denied.

The media’s power lies in its popularity and the palatability of what it presents to the audience. Btu even sometimes, though the material of the production is not palatable or even acceptable to the greater society, it is somehow transformed into a spectacle, something to marvel at, be disgusted with, or use to shape the people’s opinion on a certain matter.

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Indeed, the media has been used to manipulate information for various purposes. Included in these purposes is to entertain viewers and perhaps help the latter escpe from the problems and hardships faced in real life for the brief time of the show, or to inform viewers of situations and conditions wholly different than their own, to spark interest in a certain issue that may lead people into action such as the poor condition of their house may lead them to buy products that would assist them in cleaning. Darker purposes may be to manipulate viewers to action or inaction in civil society, using information that is true or false to guide them in their decision for action and inaction.

Media as an institution is one of the taken-for-granted realities that people experience every single day. People do not realize that media is an institution because it is referred to so many times, that it is a primary source of information for decision-making and that it is also shaped by people and culture and realities that are mere constructions of other people’s minds.

It is important, therefore, to analyze media and media productions in terms of the themes and content of their portrayal of life, especially those with social relevance. Shows that claim to present a form of ‘realism’ are those that need to be analyzed the most, because of the messages it sends out as to what is real and what is not. It is possible that these productions are successful at portraying real-life situations and following procedures that are present in the real world, but the implications of their presentations must be analyzed within the context of media as an institution based on social constructions that may oppress, exploit, discriminate and unjustly label other groups of people. The power of television shows on the general public must not be discredited or downplayed as for most people, it is their primary source of information and could be their only guide in making decisions about themselves, their lives and the personas of other people around them.

Law and Order Special Victims Unit (LOSVU) in this writer’s opinion seeks to portray the procedure at which special cases with sexual undertones and implication are handled by the police and justice system. Not unlike its predecessor, Law and Order (LO), LOSVU presents the real process a rape or abuse victim would go through after a report or complaint has been filed. The difference of this show with LO is that the viewers are able to glimpse the psyche of the victims, the abuser or perpetrator and even the prosecutors and detectives working on a certain case. The show portrays the special kind of stigma and trauma that rape and abuse victims may experience and also the horror and burnout that detectives experience after working heinous sex cries day in and day out, and how it takes its toll on them eventually. One could say that detectives in LOSVU are presented as more feeling human beings and less investigating detectives on a case.

The material or episode for discussion in this essay is LOSVU’s epsisode entitled ‘Informed’. The episode is introduced with a scene from an emergency room where a woman is demanding medical attention for a minor injury. The nurse pointedly asks her to wait her turn but the woman insists she be treated immediately. A small white figure in a hooded sweatshirt comes forward next and rebukes the woman while taking off the hood. The figure reveals a crudely-shaven head with clumps of blond hair falling in rags about a Caucasian girl’s battered face, her skull bleeding from several places. The woman with the minor injury is chastised by the mere sight of the girl’s injury, while the latter continues to bleed in a large, caved-in gash at the top of her skull. The girl is unable to meet the nurse’s eyes and simply asks for wound treatment, the morning-after pill and antibiotics.

The nurse, aware of the signs of physical trauma that may allude to rape or abuse, calls the in-house social worker to assist the girl in her case. The girl is cleaned up and her wound is stitched but she refuses to submit to a rape kit to properly document her rape and perhaps seek justice through the legal system. She is vehement in her denial and quick to leave the hospital and find another one just so someone can give her the morning after pill. The social worker insists that she will be asked to submit to a rape kit whichever hospital she goes to which causes the girl to get and leave. On the way outside she meets Olivia Benson, one of the show’s main characters, a detective from the special victim’s unit who does not stop in finding out the circumstances of the girl’s rape, even collecting evidence from the girl’s home without permission.

Thus the victim is introduced with unclear facts and circumstances as to why, when or how she was raped. The audience is taken through Olivia’s quest to help the uncooperative girl, who turns out to be named Haley. Through the process, she meets Dana Star, an FBI agent who tells her that Haley is an informant for the Bureau operating within the ranks of domestic eco-terrorist cells. The two women set out to find Haley who has then disappeared for different reasons, one to resolve the matter of her rape and the other to resolve the matter of a terrorist case.

The story reveals later on that Haley had been an informant before and that her rapist may be found in the police system as a previous offender. But due to the nature of the case as to having terrorist implications, SVU and prosecutors are hesitant to touch or even know information about Haley’s rapist. But as the urgency of the matter escalates because of implications that a large-scale action is planned by the environmental terrorists, SVU continues to conduct its investigation with Star and the FBI. Information barriers are often encountered while it is highlighted that Olivia is solely concerned for Haley’s safety and the safety of the eco-terrorist groups possible victims.

As the conflict escalates, more terrorists are arrested, but Haley’s rapist is found to be a man from her past whom she betrayed as an earlier informant. Haley refused to submit to the standard procedure of the system and took the law into her own hands by executing her rapist. She is almost arrestd when she returns to Star as an informant but claims that she can foil the terrorist group’s next plot.

With the help of Olivia as an undercover agent in a sting operation, they succeed in locating various terrorists and uncovering a plot to bomb the office of a CEO of a large pharmaceutical company that tests its products on animals. Here, Haley suddenly turns on Olivia and betrays the sting operation by disarming Olivia and arming a bomb made out of gasoline and fertilizer herself in the CEO’s office. The climax resolves when Star shoots Haley because the latter would not desist from arming the bomb. Olivia is then ‘arrested’ along with other suspected terrorists and put up to be interrogated and questioned.

The episode resolves with Olivia disappearing from SVU because of her successful infiltration, with the ending highlighting the secrecy surrounding her sudden departure from SVU, much to the chagrin and ownder of her partner, Elliot.

The most apparent social construction presented in this episode is that of class and the struggle for issues that concern the environment and animals. Class here as depicted in the terrorist’s social status and the power wielded by the large pharmaceuticl corporation involves the production constantly alluding to violent actions both by the company and the terrorist group.

Gender is highlighted through the detectives working Haley’s case, where Benson and Star are found to be women who understand Haleys experience. What the two did not realize in the beginning of the episode is that Haley’s involvement in the terrorist group had already transcended gender and her own rights as a woman were not as important as the goal of the terrorist group.

Several social groups are described in this episode. The group of most relevance to this writer is the group of the eco-terrorist. Here, they are portrayed as paranoid fanatics that resort to violence to achieve their goals without thought for toher people’s lives and safety. They are portrayed as belonging to the lower-middle or lower class of society, constantly in battle with rich pharmaceutical companies.

This illustrates a social construction presented and perpetuated by media. It portrays radical environmentalists as violent individuals who put animal rights above the basic human right to life. Because of the company’s cruel treatment of animals, these people seek to exact vengeance and hope to prevent these practices through fear and violence. An underlying theme of class struggle may be seen as the lower-middle class people promote organic fruits and vegetabes as part of their livelihood in the presence of genetically-modified produce that companies foist upon consumers who are uninformed and unaware of the dynamics that surround the cultivation of these foods. The convention of ‘lunatic’ social group is projected in the show’s treatment of the terrorist group, who have deviated from the norms of society, seeing the world as a place unfit for egalitarian conditions and natural order.

Gender roles within the terrorist group are somehow downplayed as it is highlighted in the show that the ‘cause’ is the main focus of all members of the terrorist cells, and whether you are a woman or a man merely depends on how usable one can be for their covert operations.

The detectives here are portrayed to be sympathetic for rape victims, especially Benson, who uses her womanhood to try to convince Haley to submit to a rape kit and the judicial process. She is not the standard ‘lone wolf’ detective of television crime shows, but rather a sympathetic and overly dedicated woman who uses her work and education as a detective to uphold and seek justice for victims. The show uses her gender and her history of being a child born from rape to show the viewers perhaps that detectives are shaped not by procedure and the law but by her inherent worth and dignity as a woman and her identity as a child born from rape. For the writer, Benson uses the judicial system mainly as a tool to fulfill her goal of helping women like her mother who was raped.

The show highlights two conflicts and two women who are on different levels of awareness about their own gender and rights as females. The first conflict and more obvious of the two is between transnational companies and environmentalists. Though the show took this conflict a step higher by making the environmentalists into extremists and violent in their course of actions, it may be seen that the courses of actions left to these environmentalists could have easily resolved to attacks. This paints a prejudice for the viewer that environmentalists are not beyond killing other people or destroying property as long as the earth is safe. The second conflict is that between Benson and Haley who show different levels of gender awareness and valuation. Benson is sympathetic towards Haley and constantly seeks to help her based on her experience that has violated her rights as a woman and the position she puts herself in as a woman within an environmentalist group. The two conflicts however may be juxtaposed as being resolved only by violence, with the attempted bombing of the CEO office and Haley being shot dead by Star.

Thus LOSVU portrays class and gender as concerns for some subgroup of society and of others. It paints a different picture of detectives in the persona of Olivia Benson who is sympathetic towards victims and that of Haley who has disregarder her gender and rights as a woman to further the cause of violent-labeled group. The two women represent alternative forms of social construction to be considered by audiences, who may see a different kind of cop in Benson and a different kind of woman in Haley.


  • International Movie Database. (1990). Law and Order Special Victims Unit: Informed (2006).
  • Retrieved February 29, 2008, from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0860060/
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