Law & Order: SVU – “Taken”

Since I’ve criticized Law & Order: SVU without citing examples in the past, I promised a while ago to watch an episode and write about it. Today I finally got around to doing that. I know this show can do better than the episode I saw today, so I’m not representing this as absolutely typical. It’s just a good example of when they fall well below my idea of a reasonable standard in sexual assault storylines.

The episode was “Taken”. A cute young white boy had supposedly raped and badly beaten a cute young white girl. Well, specifically a Southern young white girl from North Carolina. That’s important to know, so you can appreciate the whole avalanche of stereotypes later on.

They had their perp within the first half hour, so what does that mean, readers? He’s not the real perp. Yes, very good. And in a rape storyline, what does that almost guarantee? The victim lied. Oh, you guys are great!

As the cops investigated, and the cute young white guy got beaten regularly at Rikers awaiting his trial, it became apparent that the girl’s family – specifically her brother – had set her up to be raped. Then it became apparent that she was a participant in the scam, the sex had been consensual (so had the beating the family laid on her to make it look real) and the cute young white guy had been set up. All so the Southern family could collect a bogus insurance check as hush money from the hotel where the rape happened.

Now, I know you know the answer to this question: what happened to the cute young white guy while the cops were sorting this out? Yes, you got it! He was raped and killed by inmates! Because that’s never happened in three dozen shows before.

Let’s review the stereotypes:

  1. Damn bitches always lyin’ about bein’ raped. Yes, there are still a shocking number of people who seem to think there are more innocent men in jail on rape charges than there are raped women in the country. No, a TV show is not responsible for that. But as I’ve explained before if you want to play Plot Twister with one of the most misunderstood, prevalent and heinous crimes available in human experience, expect criticism. (Yes, murder sucks too, but the difference is the audience is in general agreement about that, and no one’s odds of being murdered are anything like a woman’s or child’s odds of being raped.)
  2. Poor cute white guy… we knew he couldn’t be guilty because he looked so nice. This is actually a pretty loaded issue, so please bear with me. First, it’s a tragedy anytime anyone is unfairly prosecuted or incarcerated. But in reality, minorities are much more vulnerable to wrongful convictions than whites, and false rape accusations are no more common than false accusations about any other crime. The Poor White Guy in this story, like in so many others TV shows and movies of the week, plays into the fears of viewers who worry if they give an inch to equality, society as they know it will come tumbling down. Poor White Guy, like Jesus, is sacrificed to a pack of lies from crazed liberal wackos who will ruin us all.
  3. Crazy sex-obsessed work-avoidant Southern whites. Yes, I lived in the South for years as a kid. Yes, I found that culture to be rife with open gender bias and I criticize it for that. But you know what? Stereotyping Southern and poor whites as lazy, perverted scam artists is not cool. Southerners are no more likely to pull scams instead of working for a living than trust fundies in Beverly Hills or middle class people in Pittsburgh. Neither are they especially sex-crazed, perverted, abusive toward their children or family or prone to lying. Nor, I would even argue, are they anymore predisposed to gender, race and class bias than the people in any other region where I’ve lived. In fact, most days I rather think I prefer the open bigotry of the South (at least you know what you’re dealing with) to the more insidious versions of the stuff in other areas.

It’s not like it was a great episode otherwise. It was predictable, even by Law & Order standards. Even the bit where Benson refused to take time off after her mother died. I mean, all I knew about her mom was that she was an abusive drunk, and I knew immediately to expect the litany of “Olivia, what are you doing here, you’re supposed to be taking time off?” intervention tactics.

She really should have. She wouldn’t have missed anything.


  1. scarlett says

    I think I remember that episode – may have been one of the first I watched – is it pretty old? If it’s the episode I’m thinking of, it would have been one of the earliest so maybe they got better with time????

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    It’s from the second season. But even though it’s not by veteran writers from the old series, I have to point out that the original show was pretty old by then, and they have a history of making missteps like this.

  3. scarlett says

    That sounds about right. Towards the end she gets indemnity for lying and then they come up with another way to prosecute her for the guy’s death? And then Olivia and Stabler have no sympathy for Pretty White Boy Rapist in jail until they realise, hey, we were wrong and now he’s dead’?

    This was the first episode I watched of any L&O so for a while it was my favorite of the franchies… then either it or I changed, but it got too ‘for a show that specialises in sex crimes and crimes against children, it’s doing a piss-poor job of treating either with respect’ for me.

  4. scarlett says

    OK, can’t edit my comment… something else I remember was that they deliberately targeted someone who’d commited a sex crime in the past (stat rape of a girlfriend a year or two younger) so that would make him look guiltier. I remember watching the episode and thinking ‘it’s a pity there’s no distinction between sex crimes like that and being a peadophile’.

    Heh, the oddest things stay with me for years…

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Yeah, only Munch seemed to care that the wrong guy not only went to jail but died. That was pretty strange.

    And yes, the victim-perp did target him because he was on a sex offenders list for having had a consensual affair with a 15 year old when he was 22 (which is statutory rape for a good reason, even if the woman in question didn’t feel it was rape).

    They actually could have raised some good questions about sex offender lists. Such as who belongs on them. Is a 22 year old who dates 15 year olds automatically a danger to other young women, to the extent that his name should be posted on offender lists? I really don’t know, but it could be an interesting topic.

  6. scarlett says

    Didn’t he go on to marry the girl or something? Or am I thinking of something else entirely?

    I think why that particular episode stayed with me is because there didn’t seem to be a distiction of ‘sex crime’ and ‘sex criminal’. Yes, it’s pretty horrible for a 22 year-old to have (consentual, as far as it goes) sex with a 15 year-old but I don’t think it’s nearly as horrible as an adult raping young children and I thought it was a shame that there was no disctiction.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    No, they weren’t married but they were still together.

    As for the distinction, it’s certainly been debated just who belongs on an offender list and whether the lists themselves are ethical at all.

  8. Malfaisante says

    1) The stereotype in question isn’t just “poor Southerners”, it’s “Irish Travellers”, a specific ethnic group that are often accused of taking part in thefts and scams like dodgy home repair. Not saying it’s true, I am just clarifying because it relates to point #2.

    2) This episode is loosely based on a real-life scam in 1992 at Disney World. A young Traveller woman (Wanda Mary Normile) had consensual sex with some guy so that there’d be evidence of intercourse, and then her brother beat her (with her consent), so that there was evidence of violence. She lied that she had been rape and threatened to sue Disney. They offered a settlement and she refused it, but then she was ratted out by a disgruntled relative. So as messed up as this is, it is one of those ‘taken from the headlines’ kind of episodes.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    Thanks, Malfaisante. That’s interesting info to review the ep with.

    Perhaps a more interesting way to explore the story would be to delve into why this girl would do this. As it was, she was just this despicable scam artist willing to be physically harmed to cash in. If there had been any exploration – even in passing – as to how she got like that, it might have mitigated the stereotyping. (Certainly when this show “rips from the headlines” they very often add layers like that).

    As it was, it felt like the writers thought where she was from conveyed what was “wrong” with her. And I believe the majority of people think that way.

  10. says

    Hi, just wanted to let you guys know that I’ve tagged you for a Thinking Blogger Award. I love reading your opinions on tv shows, movies, etc. Keep up the good work!

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