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".