Law & Order: SVU should be more relevant than ever. Judging from articles born from their PR machine, that’s exactly what NBC, Dick Wolf Productions, and SVU showrunner Michael Chernuchin would like you to believe: that the last of the Law & Order franchise left standing at NBC, in its 19th season, is part of a timely national conversation about sexual assault.
“We’ve been crying out for 19 years,” Chernuchin said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “Now people are actually listening.”
The problem begins when looking at the stories the show is telling this season under Chernuchin’s direction. The show isn’t nearly as feminist, intersectional, or relevant, as it pretends to be.
Over SVU’s long history, its track record with LGBTQ issues, specifically, has been mixed at best. Only one character even approaching main cast status has ever been explicitly out on the showGeorge Huang, an FBI psychiatrist who consulted on cases in regular guest appearances in seasons 2 through 12. Even then, the show didn’t acknowledge Huang’s sexuality on camera until Season 11, so his time as an out character on the show was fairly brief.
Appearing even less often than Huang is our other crumb of representation on SVU: Detective Tutuola son, Ken. He’s appeared in a handful of episodes, but the story is never really about Ken. It’s more about how Ken, and his status as an out black gay man in social work, affects his father, Fin. While Ken manages to avoid becoming a victim himself, his fiancé Alejandro isn’t so lucky in Season 13’s “Learning Curve.”
The subject of representation seems to have reached a new level following the midseason exit of actor Raúl Esparza. Esparza had been the only (known to the public) LGBTQ member of the current cast of SVU. Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba was created by then-showrunner Warren Leight after he and Esparza met during the broadway production of Leap of Faith. Much of Barba’s backstory and character was informed by Esparza’s own personality (Esparza is openly bisexual).
The character was often coded as queer. An episode featuring his childhood friends purposefully seemed to made it unclear whether Barba dated the woman or the man in the situation, or both. His loud, colorful wardrobe earned him coded sleights from guest stars like, “Spanish dandy.” While Barba was a favorite among many fans, queer fans in particular glommed onto him as even a hint of representation on SVU.
It would have made sense for the character to come out at some point during his tenure on the series. Esparza is a member of the LGBTQ community and had spoken openly about how there should be representation on SVUbut nothing ever came of it. After Leight ended his tenure as showrunner, Esparza hung around for another season and a half and it became clear very quickly that no one but Leight knew what to do with himwhich is a shame. Barba was written off the series at Esparza’s request, in an episode that featured the ADA uncharacteristically unplugging a baby on life support and sharing rushed screen time with his replacementa very straight, painfully chiseled-looking, dangerously bland, white, nepotism hire.
After Esparza’s sign off in Undiscovered Country, the 13th episode of Season 19, queer fans were, understandably upset. The show had slandered and dumped the only hint of queer representation on the show and then replaced him with the sort of almost-unbelievably-straight person your mom would try to introduce you to from her church baseball team, because she refuses to believe you’re queer. (Thanks, Mom.)
Fans who had already been mounting a campaign asking the creative team behind SVU for real, overt, LGBTQ representation doubled their efforts. Executive Producer and writer Julie Martin took to Twitter to reassure fans that she heard them and that, “we all want to make the best show we can.”
“Best show we can” is not exactly inspiring. It speaks perhaps to the possibility that somewhere higher up the ladder, someone is placing restrictions on what the creative team and writers can do with SVU and its characters.
Common sense would dictate that if there’s anyone hemming in the writers, it’s Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of the Law & Order and Chicago franchises on NBC. Wolf was previously asked about LGBTQ representation on his show Chicago Fire (which, by the way, apparently exists in the same fictional universe as the Law & Order franchise). The character Shay on Chicago Fire had been killed off early in the show’s existence, and as an out lesbian on the show she’d been the show’s lone bit of LGBTQ representation. After she was killed off, fans were angry. On the subject of LGBTQ representation on his shows, Wolf gave a fairly typical “out of touch straight white guy in power” response:
“We don’t go out of our way, and we never have on any of the shows, to integrate specific groups,” Wolf said. “I think that that’s shortsighted. I think that if it’s a natural story development, it should be utilized, just like I’ve never counted heads in any of the shows and said, Oh, black, Hispanic, white.’ It doesn’t work that way. You cast actors who you think are going to bring a new color to the palette, but I honestly it has certainly not been avoided, but it is not something that the writers feel that they have to include. If there is a character who lends itself to any designation, we have absolutely no objection to using them or to developing characters who have that as part of their makeup.”
The problem here is obvious to anyone who has ever had to fight for representation in media. You have to “go out of [your] way” to make equal, or any, representation happen. Otherwise, with power still largely being held by hands that are straight, cis, male, and white, the default will always be straight, cis, male, and white. If you as the executive producer don’t care about representation enough to make it a mandate, than no one else will either.
Some time after Esparza left the show, Chernuchin gave an interview with E! News and was asked about LGBTQ representation on SVU. His response was that “not one” of the current characters on SVU “is a member of that community.” It’s a statement that sits at odds with queer fans of the show for a few reasons. One being that fans of the show have long read Benson as queer. I think fondly back to her peak butch look from seasons 2 through 4 very often and I know you do, too. Fans read a lot into Olivia’s distress in the episodes that followed ADA Alexandra Cabot’s murder and her uncomfortable but thankful relief when she discovered Alex wasn’t dead, just in witness protection.
Stephanie March and Mariska Hargitay have chemistry and it’s pretty undeniable, and it’s something LGBTQ fans of SVU have written entire overtures to on the internet (rightly so). The show seemed to pick up on these fan readings. They wove in some winks to it in episodes, having Olivia play gay while undercover and even asking her partner at the time about whether she lets off “gay vibes.”
The show always stopped short of making subtext text. In one case, when Olivia was investigating a lesbian political action organization, guest star Kathy Griffin and Mariska Hargitay shared a kiss. The show, or the network, later cut the kiss out of the episode. It turns out the kiss itself is pretty problematic, as is the episode (“P.C.” from Season 13). Griffin’s character and her organization is described as “militant lesbian” and her kiss with Hargitay is seen as a predatory lesbian character lunging at a very straight Benson. The problems with that episode don’t stop there, as it’s eventually discovered that Griffin’s character is bisexual, and she’s quickly expelled from her own political action organization as a fraud, illustrating the politically active lesbian community as one that is predatory, unforgiving, and pretty oblivious to the intricacies of larger queer culture that they themselves are part of. Not great, SVU. Not great.
The other reason Chernuchin flat categorization of all the current main cast characters on SVU as being straight feels off to queer fans is that, really, if Chernuchin wanted to have one of the current characters on SVU to be LGBTQ, it would be within his power to make that happen. It doesn’t seem to occur to Chernuchin that a previously assumed-to-be straight character could become written as queer. It doesn’t seem to occur to Wolf either.
This flies in the face of the lived reality of LGBTQ people, many of whom at some point in their lives believed they were straight and, over time, discovered new, queer, parts of their identity. It wouldn’t even be shocking for a cop show to do such a thing: look at Brooklyn 99 and its evolution of Rosa Diaz. Throwing it even further back, there’s NBC’s own Homicide: Life on the Street, which in the late ‘90s had Detective Tim Bayliss discover his bisexuality over the course of the show.
SVU has even shown, albeit flawed, instances of this in guest characters, such as Maria Bello’s appearance in Season 12’s “Trophy and Rescue.” In her first arc of the show, there’s no indication that Bello’s character is gay, but in “Rescue” she has a girlfriend–who, of course, is later shot in the head. Because one step forward, three steps back, I guess.
Bello’s character is even presented to be like a mirror of Olivia Benson, in her early queer coded potential (that unlike Olivia, becomes text) and being a child of rape. Olivia even believe at one point that Bello’s character could be her sister. In the end Bello is like Olivia if Olivia were an addict and queer–and she gets to reclaim her son, who she had previously left in Olivia’s care. This is portrayed as a betrayal. That Bello’s character, gay and in recovery, gets to be a mother while Olivia does not is framed as being deeply unfair, narratively. And what does that say about how SVU views lesbian women? Not anything great.
In his E! News interview, Chernuchin went on to add that SVU deals with “those” (read: LGBTQ) “subjects on a weekly basis.” This statement is a flat-out lie. Meanwhile, Chernuchin continues to use “they” and “them” and “those” when he discusses LGBTQ themes and characters. It’s also something that Dick Wolf did in his statement and it’s a disconcerting habit. To me, it’s a linguistic choice that immediately others LGBTQ people. As if we’re rainbow-clad fun-killers with our requests for representation, far off in a corner of the internet that Wolf and Chernuchin would rather pretend didn’t exist.
And obviously, there’s no way that SVU is actually dealing with LGBTQ subjects on a weekly basis. There hasn’t been a case that involved an LGBTQ survivor since season 18, before Chernuchin took over as showrunner. Even when SVU did address LGBTQ survivors, it was almost never in an empathetic, positive way.
Kate Moennig appeared in “Fallacy” in Season 4 and the show succumbed to one of the worst tropes when it comes to showcasing trans characters and had her hiding her trans identity from her boyfriend. Detective Stabler tells the boyfriend that his girlfriend “is a man” in the most blatant, transphobic way. The boyfriend, feeling betrayed, commits suicide.
The show tries, too late, to make the audience feel sympathy for Moennig’s Cheryl, abused and facing murder charges that will land her in a men’s prison. When at the end of the episode she’s brutally gang raped in Rikers, the whole episode feels like an exercise in torturing a trans character for not sharing her trans identity.
It’s not only a storyline that has, toxically, played out across media in the years, but it’s very much a real part of why so many trans women are murdered. Because men fear they will fall pray to “gotcha” moments even when trans women are honest or are just trying to protect themselves and their peace of mind by not immediately disclosing.
In Season 19, Chernuchin has chosen largely to move the show tonally away from that of a procedural that centered victims and towards a Shondaland rip-off, emotionally torturing lead character Olivia Benson in every storyline with little attention to other matters.
Chernuchin, in that same E! News article, admits that he told star Mariska Hargitay that he intended in Season 19 to “lead her through the woods, basically. She was going to hit bottom[…].” This decision, while it may have pleased Hargitay and Chernuchin, to me, speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of why the show is as popular as it isand this ties directly back to why LGBTQ representation is so important.
A significant part of SVU’s audience has been, at some horrible moment in our lives, a victim. And many of us do not see ourselves in the straight white women SVU has showcased this season. 46% of bisexual women report to have been sexually assaulted, almost double that of heterosexual women (17%). Gay and bisexual men are over 10 times more likely to experience sexual assault than heterosexual men. A quarter of trans people have been sexually assaulted by the time they’re 13. Within the LGBTQ community, populations most vulnerable to sexual violence are trans people and bisexual women.
Many fans calling for LGBTQ representation started watching the show because we wanted catharsis, simplicity, or escape. We were the college girl forced to say yes after trying to say no. We were the guy just looking for a night out who had something slipped in our drink. We had to give statements to official looking people under the harsh, unforgiving glare of fluorescent police department lights. We were told it didn’t matter, the investigation would go nowhere, or worse–that we had it coming. We are the women, the men, the nonbinary, the queer, the young, the too young, who had to survive all of that.
And what we wish we had was an Olivia Benson. We wish we had someone who, while she operates at times within a frustrating and flawed system, cared about us. She would try the best she could to seek justice for us.
And she would tell us it’s not our fault.
And this, ultimately, is why LGBTQ fans, and survivors, want so desperately to see representation on the show. We want to be more than victims. We want to imagine that inside an imperfect system is someone like us who will fight for us.
Until SVU takes a serious look at itself and the narrative choices it’s making, the show will continue to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many. Without LGBTQ main characters on the show, the show not only neglects significant narrative opportunities, it fails its audience.
Images via NBC