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
“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.