Troubling aspects of Law & Order

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At this site, we usually stick to the topic of how women are being (mis)represented in film and TV, because that’s our chosen focus. We often reference in passing how other groups are being slighted, too, but we don’t talk about it in depth. I’m going to make an exception because I’ve had a lot of positive things to say about the treatment of women on Law & Order: Criminal Intent recently, and I’m likely to have a few more happy posts about that show and/or its sister shows. When you say so much positive about something that’s working out for your group, it gives the wrong impression if you ignore how it’s not working out for others. That’s what this post is about.

I have some bones to pick with some of the ways the Law & Order franchise handles race.

Specifically: I get the feeling there’s a passage in the producer’s bible which says "crimes against minorities are almost always committed by other members of said minority". It might be that they think this is the last thing the audience expects and therefore a great plot twist. But the bottom line is… well, let me just give an example.

"World’s Fair", a 2006 episode of Criminal Intent tells the story of a murdered Pakistani-American young woman. She has an altercation with some Jewish boys the day she’s killed, so they are suspects. She has an American boyfriend her family disapproves of, so he’s a suspect. She’s promised in marriage to a Pakistani man she has no intention of marrying (nor is he interested, once he learns she’s not a virgin), so he’s a suspect. The story talks a lot about how this Pakistani family came to America, opened a successful family restaurant, then lost it all after the attack on the World Trade Center because people stopped coming to the restaurant out of prejudice. It talks about the prejudice of her boyfriend’s mother, who assumes "those Muslims" who are "like animals" will kill him when he goes to see them and convince them he didn’t kill their daughter.

And… they do. Yep. Seriously. The brother picks a fight with the boyfriend and the father ends up shooting the boyfriend. Not in self-defense. He goes to prison for it. Thus justifying in text the boyfriend’s mother’s assertion that Muslims are "animals" by doing exactly what she said they would do. She reminds us that she called this one later on in the story, just in case we didn’t get that yep, Muslims really are animals.

Oy. And to top it all off, who do you suppose killed the girl? Her brother. An honor killing because she didn’t stay a virgin and marry Mr. Arranged Husband.

I have no idea what the producers were thinking. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume they just weren’t thinking all the way through what message it put across when a white person accurately predicts what "those animals" will do. But they’ve been not thinking for a long time: in the first four years of the original show, we see two black male activists who involve themselves in investigations of crimes against black victims only to further their own selfish agendas, thus proving to be more harm than help to their community. There are no unselfish black male activists presented to balance out the impression this leaves. Well, there is one, but he’s shot to death in the first scene of his episode (by his own people, of course).

The thing is, by maybe season 5 or 6 of the original show, I could set my watch to the moment it would be revealed that "Surprise! It wasn’t a white person hurting minorities! It was a minority hurting minorities! Shocking!" No, not really. It’s a stereotype. It’s such an ubiquitous stereotype that last year when I bought a pair of shoes, I had to listen to the white clerk telling me how he had to move away from Memphis because of "all the blacks shooting each other." I can’t help but wonder if L&O comfortably reaffirms his view of the world.

The franchise has also given us some great regular and recurring characters of color over the years. I doubt any TV show gives more parts – many of them well-written – to actors of color. All of this is worth mentioning, too. But I do wish the producers would think harder about the totality of what an episode’s plot says about a group of people. "Good drama" isn’t worth "bad messages".

Comments

  1. SunlessNick says

    I’ve noticed a similar thing in 24 – every time I’ve seen a mob of white people get together and go after an Arab on the grounds that he’s “surely a terrorist” (often being stopped by a liberal of some sort), the Arab in question has turned out to actually be a terrorist.

  2. Mecha says

    There are instances that I can think of that break that rule in L&O, though. Recently, there was a former _radical_ black activist who went up against his son (mainline L&O) to try to keep him from being dragged into a life of crime. Times when hate crimes really did happen, or interracial crimes did happen, etc. As well as times when it was same-race/group crime right out of the gate, by assumption.

    But at the same time, there’s a lot of confirmation of it, too. There was another episode that comes to mind where a black kid was obsessed with the concept that cops killed his brother/refused to investigate his murder and covered it up, when the ‘reality’ of it was that some random black thug shot him (this wasn’t the big reveal, just a part of the story.)

    I think a part of their problem in construction is that they start from ‘What’s the default expectation of the world?’ and then go ‘How can we break it?’ without examining whether their default construction is right. In the world where ‘reverse racism’ is a concept that people think and understand, they may see ‘default expectation’ of all black people as assuming that a white person did it. And then they’re stuck in a box, where one of the few ‘twists’ they can deliver is that it wasn’t a white person.

    If their initial world assumption is that the black person thinks a local thug did it, though… well. That’s not quite as interesting/high drama/allowing the DA to talk about how their chances for reelection rely on doing this right, is it?

    -Mecha

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Nick, that’s… wow. Portraying liberals as naive fools and Arabs as terrorists in one move. Ugh.

    There definitely are exceptions, Mecha, that’s true.

    I do recall the one you’re talking about with the kid who thought cops shot his brother. I believe his mother had given him that idea, which then caused him to shoot a cop in revenge – wasting his life for nothing. “See, minorities, when you blame the power structure for your troubles, it only hurts you in the end!” Even though the police HAD actually botched up everything they could, along with a lazy (white) M.E.

    I think a part of their problem in construction is that they start from ‘What’s the default expectation of the world?’ and then go ‘How can we break it?’ without examining whether their default construction is right.

    Or examining whether the “surprise” construction is playing into a damaging stereotype.

  4. Jess says

    Recently, someone said to me, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe that there is such a thing as a good Muslim.” Neither does 24 or Law & Order, apparently. It’s like culturally acceptable racism. Though, I don’t know that a would consider Muslim a race, anymore than I would consider Christian a race.

    What gets me about the episode in question is that the writers probably thought they were protraying things in a positive light, because they did show Americans treating the Muslim family unfairly. Even if in the end it turned out to be not so unfairly.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    They may well have thought they were showing everyone behaving badly, which… fair enough, on the surface, since no demographic is free of people who do wrong. But in the final analysis of the show, not one white person did anything wrong. Not one American. Just two Muslim men. I’m most disturbed by the fact that a member of the dominant community (white, American) predicted the evil a minority would do, and then he did it. That’s what I keep getting stuck on.

    I really want to believe they just didn’t think it all the way through. If they did, and this is what they deemed appropriate… that would be propaganda. Which is very disturbing to think about.

  6. says

    I don’t think the problem is so much that minorities are shown to be the ones perpetrating crimes against minorities, because statistically crime does stay within race/culture. I think the problem is with the false idea that minorities are more violent than whites.

    Part of what contributes to this impression is the fact that minorities are more likely to be guest stars on crime shows compared to any other kind of show, which helps to give the false impression that more minorities are criminals overall compared whites. So the “great job giving parts to minorities!” isn’t necessarily deserved since they do a better job than most in part because they can do so without challenging stereotypes.

    In addition, minorities are much more likely to be featured in violent crime stories (and ones that are stereotypical for their race/culture) rather than “white collar” crime stories. That last is easily fixable and shame on L&O for not doing so.

    I’m most disturbed by the fact that a member of the dominant community (white, American) predicted the evil a minority would do, and then he did it. That’s what I keep getting stuck on.,

    Yeah, that’s the part that makes me really mad too.

    Criminal Minds had a really good episode this season where they openly dealt with these stereotypes. Comparing the two episodes is like night and day. On Criminal Minds, it was the black preacher, white politician, white citizen, and black serial killer that were in the wrong, and it was the mostly white BAU team and the local black police officer that were right all along. But more importantly, the culture of fear – most especially of minorities – was shown to have tragic consequences as opposed to being validated. Yes, the serial killer was black, but it was irrational fear of violent minorities -and the stereotype that labels minorities as criminals rather than on the side of the law – that caused the death of the black police officer in the line of duty.

  7. says

    It’s kind of a vicious circle because I too have read in various places that crime is by and large “commuminity” vs. racial these days. But I think where this falls flat for L&O is that they draw inspiration from the “news.” An honor killing takes place in another country, why not translate that to the U.S. and throw in some anti-arabic sentiments that “seem” to run throughout our county? Sure, why not! What the writers fail to do is provide context–which in a sense is understandable as it is a one hour show and really, can they dive into the whole concept of honor killing as is viewed world wide (disclaimer: am NOT suppporting honor killings, just trying to voice the idea that culturally, there is a HUGE difference between what we percieve as right/wrong and how it has been “done” in other countries/cultures that are not predominently anglo… have feeling am failing miserably). I would like to see L&O take one of these headline stories and rather than regurgitate for my viewing pleasure, try to find a way to debunk the ideas and thoughts that “mainstream” society holds. Did any of that make sense?

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Mickle, I very much agree with your points, with one caveat: when I think of actors of color as real people with lives, trying to earn a living in the last industry that’s allowed to hire with discrimination toward race, gender, age, and beauty, I do think it’s worth mentioning that L&O routinely provides actors of color high-visibility parts that have the potential to boost their careers. It doesn’t mitigate what you say, it’s just a semi-detached issue that also concerns me.

    Tina, I think I get what you’re saying. There are layers to the concept of honor killings. They are misogynistic, no doubt about that. But they are also part of a culture that is as valid as my own, and the trick is to criticize the misogyny without suggesting their culture as a whole is inferior to others. Because we may not call them “honor killings” but women are punished in various ways every day in the US for trying to have their own lives, and some of these punishments do take the form of murder.

  9. S. A. Bonasi says

    I’d even question how “culturally accepted” honor killings are. I don’t want to dismiss what is a very serious issue, but I get a sinking feeling in my stomache that Western media is frequently taking a crime and trumping it up as part of “their culture” as a way to demonize the people there. And, building off of what BetaCandy wrote, doesn’t the U.S. have a huge problem with women being murdered when they try to leave abusive relationships?

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’d even question how “culturally accepted” honor killings are.

    Good point. I’d say they are culturally accepted in those areas where they occur and local police stand around and watch. But that is not indicative of the entire “Muslim” culture or the culture of any single nation. And our media does not make the distinction.

    And, building off of what BetaCandy wrote, doesn’t the U.S. have a huge problem with women being murdered when they try to leave abusive relationships?

    I would say so. And homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women – I mean, what the hell is that about? The link I cited suggests it’s often that the baby is an inconvenience to someone, and so they are eliminating it by killing the mother and baby together. How can someone from a culture where that goes on so rampantly feel superior to any other culture?

  11. says

    BetaCandy

    Good point. Although I think it’s kind of like praising the county gov. that employees me for having so many women in high ranking positions when I know that this is the case in part because we are not as desirable as, say Orange County, and so we can’t afford to be as picky. The opening of opportunity is very much worth noting and encouraging, but it may not have been done with good intent. Sometimes though, it’s best to selectively praise such people as if it was done with good intent in order to do the encouraging part. As much because it makes everyone else jealous and wanting to do the same as anything else.

    Also, thanks, and, having thought about it more, I think part of what makes the L&O episode wrong is that is not only perpetuates the idea that minorities as individuals are more violent, but that minority cultures are more violent. The first is wrong period, but the second is not only wrong but a complete 180 from what is true, since it’s the majority culture that perpetrates a disproportionate amount of violence on everyone else through racism and other forms of discrimination.

    So the L&O episode felt wrong not only because it failed to combat stereotypes, or even because it went so far as to confirm the ruling class’ belief in these stereotypes, but because, by doing so, they participated in another type of violence. Even more, this type of violence is the kind that is always across racial/cultural lines and is the one in which one group is always more likely to participate in in any other – and it’s the exact opposite group from the one’s the show portrays as more violent.

    (ok, that made more sense in my head than it does in text)

    And homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women – I mean, what the hell is that about?….How can someone from a culture where that goes on so rampantly feel superior to any other culture?

    Oh, hell, yes.

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