"These Are Their Stories:” Survivors Voices On SVU And Social Media
by: Savannah Hemmig
tw: mentions sexual assault
For survivors of "sexually based offenses" crime shows are often the closest, they come to proper representation on TV. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has dedicated their show and social media presence to just that: a fair representation of sexual violence and the push for social activism to prevent this.
At a time in which a man accused of rape can become the president-elect, Law & Order: SVU and its creators say “No More” to the sexual and romantic abuse they have dedicated their careers to fight, on and off screen. In a reality where the justice system fails victims and survivors over and over again, Law & Order: SVU does its best to make up for this. In fact, some media scholars have gone as far as to describe Law & Order: SVU as “justice porn.” Ilana Masad explains that,
The social media managers for NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit do more than just connect with their fans; they also provide support for survivors and spread social activism to end sexual violence beyond their fictional universe.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit became the perfect show for a country recovering from a series of national traumas at the time of its premiere in the early 2000s; post the Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine massacre, and 9/11. However, a lot of the national content targeting these traumatized audiences “encourage a particularly selective representation of the community and collective memory-one that is, additionally, problematically, raced and hetero-normative.” (Heartland TV: Prime Time Television and the Struggle for U.S. Identity, Victoria Johnson). SVU, on the other hand, began to present diverse and challenging characters and content directly in opposition to this.
While most television programs use social media to cross promote, advertise their show, and boosts ratings, SVU uses their show and new media to campaign, educate, and spread activism about sexual violence and abuse. The SVU team, including their official social media accounts for star Mariska Hargitay, their writers’ room, and the show itself, uses hashtags across social media platforms to connect to fans not unlike other TV shows. These hashtags often serve additionally as mantas, statements of validation, and/or stigma fighting messages about rape culture. Using a hashtag correlating with the episode’s title, Hargitay and SVU creators engage and discuss the show as it airs with fans, live-tweeting their reactions and often calling out victim blaming and rape culture through hashtags such as: #ChangeTheCulture #Enough #OnHerSide #SupportSurvivors and #You’reNotAlone.
Academic Susanna Lee explains that Law & Order’s characters represent “a fantasy of psychic inaptness and empathetic presence in the face of relentless violence” (Lee). Though in the show they cannot convict every rapist, abuser, or murderer and even when they do, it is clearly just as a drop in the ocean.
For each shot of a survivor speaking, the editors present a reverse shot of their protagonists listening. “The characters’ consistent eye contact with their off-screen interlocutor,” nearly looking directly at the camera at the audience, “reminds us of their emphatic presence” (Lee). Furthermore, Lee argues, “Law & Order represents a fantasy of dealing with violence” (Lee). Thus NBC offers audiences a rare and unique brand of escapism that, instead of avoiding social issues, “imagines a world where heinous crimes like rape are dealt with fairly” (Masad).
Although NBC has struggled with its brand identity and retaining shows for the past decade, creator Dick Wolf’s TV shows and their legendary longevity stay a notable exception. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit remains one of the powerhouse shows that manages to keep one of the oldest, though often last-place networks, afloat.Law & Order: SVU peaked in viewership in its third season with an average of over 15 million viewers per episode and has declined since, but still pulls in a consistent 8 million viewers per episode in its 17th season.
Mariska Hargitay herself, the star of Law & Order: SVU, made her directorial debut with the star-studded “No More” campaign, which became the first nation-wide campaign to stand as a unifying symbol to end domestic violence and sexual assault (Horst). Hargitay’s top-billed male co-stars from all eighteen seasons of SVU joined as spokesmen for the series of public service announcements aired on NBC, USA, and posted on the Joyful Heart Foundation’s YouTube channel. In one of the PSAs titled “Enough: Boys Will Be Boys,” current and previous main characters including Christopher Meloni, Ice-T, Dann Florek, and Danny Pino repeat the phrase “boys will be boys,” emphasizing it as no excuse for sexual assault.
The SVU actors continue reading a variety of common excuses for sexual assault and at the end of each video a message declares “Enough. Together we can change this culture. Pledge #changetheculture” (Thorne). Mariska Hargitay made the PSA series in collaboration with the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization founded by Hargitay in 2004, which aims to help heal, educate, and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.
Mariska Hargitay felt inspired to create the foundation while researching for her lead role on Law & Order: SVU. Hargitay recounts that, “[she] encountered statistics that shocked [her]” such as: “one in three women report being physically or sexually abused by partner at some point in their lives, every two minutes in the US, someone is sexually assaulted, more than five children die every day in the US as a result of child abuse and neglect, and up to 15 million children witness domestic violence in their homes each year” (Ending the silence : the origins and treatment of male violence against women, Ron Thorne-Finch).
She also describes “getting letters from viewers who were disclosing their stories of abuse" rather than getting asked for her autograph, she now receives letters saying "I'm fifteen and my dad has been raping me since I was eleven and I've never told anyone." (Joyful Heart Foundation).
Hargitay lives Law & Order: SVU’s message, in the show, on social media, and as a vocal advocate, testifying before Congress urging lawmakers to address the backlog of untested rape kits in the United States. She even created endthebacklog.org, a website dedicated to the issue, all while documenting and promoting her advocacy meticulously on her verified twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to her 761,000 plus followers and SVU fans (Hargitay, Twitter). She has called sexual assault and domestic violence “the most underfunded, under-regarded and under-researched social issues of our time” (Hargitay).
Hargitay’s and SVU’s advocacy work even convinced Vice President Joe Biden to make a cameo on a season eighteen episode about the backlog of unprocessed rape kits, which often go untested for years due to lack of funding and bureaucratic red tape. Biden’s guest stint on SVU came after years of past collaboration with series’ star Mariska Hargitay to promote awareness about the prevention of violence against women, in addition to rape kit backlogging. Their endeavors ultimately encouraged the White House to award approximately $41 million dollars in grant money to test unprocessed rape kits in New York City in 2015.
The cast, crew, and creators of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit have dedicated their show, their social media presence, and nearly twenty years to the fair and accurate representation of sexual violence and abuse. As it premiered, Law & Order: SVU appealed to an American audience recovering from a series of national traumas, but over the course of its eighteen seasons, SVU has proved its continued social relevance. NBC has found not only a socially conscious tent pole in SVU but also a powerhouse program that has remained ahead of its time since the late 1990s. With a consistent 8 million viewers per episode and the endurance to survive eighteen seasons of brand changes, SVU still sees no end in sight and has never abandoned its message. SVU does more for actual survivors of crime with its representation and educated stance than any other post-modern crime show.
Most importantly, Law & Order: SVU has taken on the responsibility to create, collaborate with, and uplifts charities and activist organizations on social media. SVU’s creators, collaborators, and stars, like Mariska Hargitay, live the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’s message and hopefully will continue to for many seasons to come.
photo from NBC Universal
Savannah Hemmig is a blogger, writer, filmmaker and undergrad at the University of Southern California from Washington DC. Her work has appeared on Femsplain, xoJane, UU World magazine, and The Independent. She’s dedicated to creating content about and accurately representing mental health issues.