Watching Television with a Critical Eye: An analysis of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

By: Kathryn Hampshire

Many modern television shows engage in critical conversations without viewers realizing it. One such program is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU). This crime drama centered on sexually-motivated offences follows “the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies,” as the opening mantra states (“Merchandise”). “Special victims” include those who have experienced rape, domestic abuse, forced prostitution, kidnapping, trafficking, and slavery.

While telling these stories of trauma, SVU has become the center of a critical debate as to whether or not this show raises awareness about real-world issues like slavery, or if it is simply exploitative. Even though I am unable to answer this question here, I wish to draw attention to the various ways that one episode in particular, “Merchandise,” engages several issues relevant to discussions about contemporary slavery. This episode focuses on child enslavement for labor, reproduction, and prostitution. When an abused young girl named Carly becomes a traffic fatality, an investigation uncovers the dark truth behind a local farm that claims to give jobs to at-risk children.

At several moments throughout the episode, the show draws from relevant issues within the conversation about modern-day slavery, and here I will examine three of the most prevalent: misconceptions regarding who becomes enslaved, victims becoming victimized even further by the state, and traumatic narratives resisting a traditional linear story-telling format.

First, I wish to draw attention to one of the conversations in “Merchandise” that reveals deep-seated stereotypes many Americans hold about the issue of slavery. When Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola is talking to a farmer’s market manager, he points out how a farm that hires children can easily become exploitative:

“They’re paid less than minimum wage, charged for rides to the farm, food, even their drinking water. Pretty soon, they’re in debt to the farm,” he says.

To this, the manager replies skeptically, “You’re talking about illegals. Mission Farms hires at-risk American kids!”

“—who are just as vulnerable,” Fin finishes (“Merchandise”).

This conversation reveals a stereotype where members of the majority believe that only minorities can be slaves.

Later in the episode, the theme of victims being further victimized (also known as revictimization*) surfaces. First, I will examine how revictimization by the state is incredibly prevalent in reality. In an article for The Washington Post, special counsel on human rights Malika Saasa Saar recounts the story of Tami, a 15-year-old victim of forced prostitution who, when she finally escaped, was arrested instead of protected. “But should an abused child be incarcerated for the abuses perpetrated against her?” Saar questions, continuing that “[t]he people who rape these girls, the politely termed ‘johns,’ are rarely arrested for statutory rape, child endangerment or sexual assault of a minor.” Often, exploited and enslaved children who are trafficked for forced prostitution get arrested by the state and are treated like criminals, when they are actually victims of a much graver offense. The fact of the matter is that an under-aged prostitute, regardless of whether they are a slave or not, is the victim of statutory rape and should be treated as a victim and not as a criminal.

In “Merchandise,” this theme becomes prevalent through the character of Carly’s brother, Micah. Detectives discover that Micah has also been a victim of enslavement and repeated sexual assault—he has a record for prostitution, despite the fact that he is only 13 years old. Since Micah is paradoxically a victim of sex trafficking being charged with prostitution, here the show points to how the legal system is re-victimizing him by criminalizing actions that he was forced to perform. Instead of arresting the pimps, “johns,” or traffickers, officers have arrested their victim.

Later in the episode when the detectives take Micah in, this theme continues, only in a different light because the characters and the show itself re-victimize him. Fin poses as a john propositioning the boy while Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler, two other detectives in the show, forcefully capture him and put him against the car. During the struggle, Micah’s shirt tears, revealing a back covered in lacerations—a moment which puts the boy’s injured body on display for the viewers. This moment of cinematography is exploitative on many levels: it exposes the body of a victim, it shocks some viewers into a state of pity (which is problematic in and of itself, but that is a topic for another post) without the probability of productive action to take in response to this experience, and it capitalizes on other viewers’ desire to witness the physically painful results of torture.

When Micah repeatedly hits himself and bashes his head against the patrol car window, Fin then goes to restrain him for his own protection; Stabler protests, “You saw his back—they made him a slave. Are you going to treat him like one now?” To this, Benson states, “Maybe it’s the only thing he’s used to” (“Merchandise”). Here, Benson is making the argument that since Micah has been treated like a slave for so long, he has grown accustomed to it to the point where he cannot process anything else, which may explain his self-destructive behavior. However, regardless of what Micah is “used to,” these officers should not be subjecting a victim to further victimization. By putting him in handcuffs, they are doing exactly what the show accused other officers of earlier: they are creating a situation where the victim is being treated like the criminal. Benson’s comment may have been true, but that does not justify further victimization of a child who has already been forced into labor and prostitution, repeatedly raped and sodomized, and arrested and charged with crimes out of his control.

Conversely, the show continues in its efforts to engage in critical dialogue about slavery when Micah’s character later reveals the inherent non-linear nature of trauma in a way that can enlighten viewers into this aspect of a victim’s experience. Often, victims of extremely traumatic experiences face difficulties putting those experiences into a chronological, linear narrative that normal experiences generally allow; rather, they remember and recount their trauma in nonlinear flashes of memories and feelings, which is evident in Micah’s interview with psychiatrist Dr. George Huang. Micah begins his story in the middle, describing the sounds, smells, and feelings of the cellar in which he was held. He then says, “Do something wrong, make a mistake, and we all get a beating” (“Merchandise”). The rest of the conversation follows this nonlinear pattern. Huang attempts to put Micah on a chronological path with leading questions, but Micah’s narrative continues to push back. This conversation demonstrates how severe trauma like slavery is resistant to a linear narrative.

These themes of misconceptions, re-victimization, and non-linearity are all extremely prevalent within the critical analysis surrounding slavery. While the question still remains as to whether television shows like SVU are capable of productively engaging in an ethical discourse about slavery or whether they are simply exploitative, the show certainly engages in the conversations surrounding contemporary slavery in ways that raise awareness about these issues through its storytelling.


*For more information on revictimization


Works Cited

“Merchandise.” Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. NBC. 6 October 2010. Television.

Saar, Malika Saada. “There is no such thing as a child prostitute.” The Washington Post.  The Washington Post, 17 February 2014. Web. 23 November 2014.

Are Your Sweeteners Really Worth It?

By Kendra Roberts

The world is constantly in flux with goods and services, which isn’t news to anybody, but what happens when those goods are tainted with the blood of humans? What happens when the sugar in your coffee or in your candy bar is produced by hands that bled, bodies that were whipped, and children who were exploited? That is a reality for many sugarcane workers in the Dominican Republic.

“A batey is a company town where sugar workers live. They are mainly found in Cuba and the Dominican Republic” (Harrison 141).  

One problem with such a corrupt industry is the coverage it receives. News stations like CNN believe there is no real reason to worry about these sugarcane workers. According to Anderson Cooper’s blog, this is not an issue regarding slavery but an ethical issue that can easily be fixed by implementing safer working environments for these hard-working people (par 2). The problem is that Mr. Cooper later contradicts himself in the same blog post: “While outside the limits of the tour, [there] was a batey with [n]o running water, no electricity, too little food. The old or infirm looked like they were starving” (par 5). Mr. Cooper visits a batey (scheduled for the real tour) and then sees a batey down the road, sees the living conditions, sees the people starving and sick and just considers this an ethical issue. Mr. Cooper is missing one key issue with the bateys – Haitian sugar workers are not allowed to leave the batey once they are trafficked to the sugar fields. Once shoved into a batey, the cane workers stay in the batey.

“Fair-Trade is a movement whose goal is to help producers in developing countries to get a fair price for their products so as to reduce poverty, provide for the ethical treatment of workers and farmers and promote sustainable practices” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).


Does your spot of sugar = a spot of slave labor?

Modern slavery exists whether others want to believe it or not. But it’s here, in plain sight, as shown in the documentary The Price of Sugar.  In the documentary, we see that the bateys are topped with barbed wire where the overseers of the sugar fields sometimes lock the workers in at night.  According to Michelle Harrison, “Dominican [a]uthorities… employ over 40,000 Haitians” (141). This means at least 40,000 people are being held captive in bateys and ordered to work on sugar plantations. All those who are taken violently from their homes are forced to live in bateys so there is no place for them to escape. In the book King Sugar, Harrison points out that the United States buys 80% of the Dominican Republic’s sugar. This means Americans consume 4/5 of the Dominican’s total sugar production each year. Do we really understand what this means? Eighty percent of the sugar in the United States right now has been touched by slave labor.

Sugarcane workers are “haul[ed] off public buses, arrest[ed] in their homes or at their jobs, and deliver[ed] to the cane fields” (Siasoco par 14).

Maybe if the idea of people dying over the sugar used for candy bars and other foods doesn’t make you upset, I’ll touch on the fact that children are just as susceptible to the cruelties of sugarcane slavery as the adults.  The children of the bateys are sometimes trafficked to other cities and then harvested for their organs. Michael Martin interviewed Amy Serrano, director of Sugar Babies, a documentary that follows children and their own personal stories of surviving in the bateys:

“The sugar industry is also linked to the trafficking of the organs of children who work on the sugar plantations there. They are taken to Mozambique and stripped of some of their organs, which are sold to wealthy families who need them for their children. It all comes back to sugar. Wherever it is harvested, we find exploitation and abuse at the worse levels” (Martin 165).

I’m sure when Americans think about sugarcane, they aren’t thinking about the children who don’t have access to education, running water, or basic healthcare. They aren’t thinking about the thousands of people who are exploited every year to create the sugar for their coffee, teas, and baking needs.

“Though most Americans believe slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation more than a century ago, the horrors of human beings held in bondage flourishes today(Siasoco par 16).

Whether we want to believe it or not, America is perpetuating a cycle of slavery by having a sugar trade agreement with the Dominican Republic. This isn’t a matter of working conditions; it’s a matter of Haitians being trafficked by the Dominican Republic military and then the United States benefiting from the process. By purchasing Fair-Trade sugar, we can start abolishing the need for trafficked workers. We can start abolishing the system of violence and exploitation.

Works Cited:

Cooper, Anderson. “Is Sugar Production Modern Day Slavery?” Anderson Cooper 360 Blog. CNN, 18 Dec. 2006. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Harrison, Michelle. King Sugar. New York City: NYU, 2001. 138-151. Print.

Martin, Michael T. “Documenting Modern-Day Slavery in The Dominican Republic: An Interview With Amy Serrano.” Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism, Culture, And  Media Studies 25.74 [2] (2010): 161-171. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Siasoco, Ricco V. “Modern Slavery: Human Bondage in Africa, Asia, and the Dominican Republic.” Infoplease. Pearson Education, 18 Apr. 2001. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

The Price of Sugar. Dir. Bill Haney. 2007. DVD.