[Content warning: descriptions of sexual and physical violence.]
Recently renewed for its 17th season, NBC’s Law and Order: SVU has a long tradition of addressing various aspects of sexual violence. In recent years, the series has made a point of drawing inspiration directly from various high-profile cases in real life, ostensibly drawing a sense of immediacy to its supposed platform of entertainment and cultural critique. While these “ripped from the headlines” episodes, like all others, are prefaced with the legal disclaimer that “the following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event,” it is always clear to audiences precisely which real-life instances of sexualized, gendered, or racially motivated crimes are being portrayed. From Penn State to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, from the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses to Chris Brown and Rihanna, and even a mess of an episode which somehow merged Paula Deen’s racism with Trayvon Martin’s murder, NBC’s “special victims,” while still “fictional,” have become infinitely recognizable, mirrored as they are in the news headlines.
The 2014-2015 season has been no different, and indeed, the number of episodes “ripped from the headlines” have become standard fodder. Elliot Rodgers. Belle Knox. Ray and Janay Rice. Mass murder by a man with a manifesto, the life of a young porn star at Duke University, and an incident of domestic violence caught on tape: nothing is safe from the appropriative clutches of NBC’s wildly-popular show. It should come as no surprise, then, that last night’s SVU sought to capture the cultural imaginary with its GamerGate-inspired episode “Intimidation Game.” Seeking to offer its primetime response to the vitriolic and violent acts of intimidation leveraged against female game developers and critics, SVU imagined the numerous online death and rape threats all the way to their inevitable conclusion: actual physical violence.
Here’s a brief summary of the episode. “Raina Punjabi,” a female game developer who bears more than a passing resemblance to Anita Sarkeesian, is threatened with rape and murder as the launch of her company’s latest game approaches. (“Raina”‘s female co-workers are not immune to these threats, either: indeed, the episode begins with a female representative of her company being harassed at a gaming convention, and eventually being physically assaulted in a bathroom.) “Raina” brings the online threats to SVU’s detectives, who warn her to delay the launch of her game, but she refuses. At the launch itself, “Raina” is subsequently kidnapped, stripped of her clothing (possibly raped, but who knows), and has her face beaten to a pulp by her masked and armed kidnappers. Fortunately, she is saved by SVU’s valiant detectives, who offer us several After-School-Special reminders about the need to be able to distinguish gaming violence from real violence. After her ordeal, “Raina” gives up her pursuit of game development. As she says: “Women in gaming? What did I expect?”
Plagued by poor writing which attempts to convey a moralistic, educational message to its viewers in the most insipid and awkwardly scripted ways, the episode does something much more offensive: it quite literally dramatizes and visualizes the exact acts of violence threatened against women such as Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, Zoe Quinn, Caroline Criado-Perez, Lindy West, and the countless other feminist activists online who have received explicit and graphic rape and death threats. “Raina” is depicted bloody, beaten, her face reminiscent of the violent online game developed in which players could beat up an image of Sarkeesian. Her clothing is ripped from her body. Lying vulnerable, half-naked in a bra, this image conjures up the thousands of detailed threats of rape that have been leveraged against her and other women online. As if it could get any worse, “Raina” is forced by her hostages to “confess” that she is a slut, a whore, a terrible game developer, and that she took advantage of her partner in order to gain more credit in the industry.
We aren’t to worry, though. It’s just fiction, right? As the helpful disclaimer has reminded us, the story does not depict any “actual person or event.” And while that may be, the not-so-tenuous connection to real-life incidents of violence reveal one big thing to me: SVU, a show which claims to raise awareness about sexual violence, is itself increasingly the mechanism whereby which real-life acts of sexual violence are exploited and fetishized, to the great disservice of identifiable survivors themselves.
As such, I have two issues with this episode. The first is the fact that real survivors and their stories are frequently exploited on SVU, quite obviously without so much as their consent. When the 2013 campus-rape episode “Girl Dishonored” aired, survivor and activist Angie Epifano penned a powerful statement about this appropriation, calling it a “cheap take on my story and the stories of other survivors around the U.S. who have begun to speak out.” With a sentiment that powerfully echoes the impact of sexual violence itself, Epifano writes: “I feel like I’ve been stolen from.” Of course, while I cannot presume to speak for Sarkeesian, whose likeness is most prominently represented in “Intimidation Game,” I can only imagine the horror she might feel in seeing her story turned into a primetime episode where the online conversations about it are more about “diehard” fans praising the celebrity-crush valiant detectives than realizing the real impact of sexualized and gendered violence.
The second is that the episode reinforces the notion that until it is enacted in real life, and has a physical, bodily dimension (rather than an online, digital one) violence against women is simply not “real” violence. It is not enough for trolls to have digitally manipulated images of “Raina” anymore than it is for them to have made in which Sarkeesian’s face can be digitally bruised until it is unrecognizable. It is not enough for women to be sent detailed Tweets or emails of the ways in which they will be brutally raped, tortured, and killed. Time and again, as reported online, either the police fail to act, or digital platforms themselves (such as Twitter and Facebook), simply will not contain the harassment and violence on their platforms. The problem has gotten so bad that recently, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently admitted that his company “suck[s] at dealing with abuse.” (That being said, Costolo’s taking of personal responsibility seemed to be more about his company’s bottom line of user-retention, rather than of concern for the victims of online abuse themselves.) This is not simply “imagined” violence, or violence that is less real because it is constituted of words rather than fists to the face. Women online know this. Amanda Todd, whose suicide after suffering cyberbullying and online exploitation made international headlines, also knew this all too well.
“Intimidation Game” is not really just another installment in a popular television show which “bravely tackles” social issues, because SVU is not really just show that is “about” sexual violence. Rather, it is a deliberate bid on the part of a franchise to keep its diehard viewers coming back for more each week, driving ratings, renewals, and thus, a steady flow of income. Rather than using its platform to even attempt a pointed critique about online violence, this latest episode merely fulfills the fantasies of those who wish harm against female game developers, critics, and any other outspoken online activist. That the episode is as bad as or worse than the GamerGate trolls is perhaps a harsh criticism to leverage against a show which, in my opinion, has in the (distant) past had thoughtful writing and powerful performances which capture the horror of sexual violence. Despite my suspicions of how the show promotes carceral solutions to sexual violence and generally refuses to address abuse perpetrated by law enforcement itself, the show has still held a very important place in my life as a survivor. My relationship with it has been, and will remain, complex, as I suspect it is for many others.
Ultimately, yes, SVU is still fiction. It is still a television show, and not a documentary. I know this. Like Detective Odafin Tutula says in the closing minutes of “Intimidation Game,” I know “the difference between fiction and reality.” Nevertheless, because I also know that representation matters, I insist on demanding better of a franchise which holds considerable cultural power. Real-life survivors and their stories are not their “special victims” to exploit. To do so is merely to replicate, and in some cases, significantly amplify, the violence that identifiable victims have already suffered. Women who are online already fear their doors being knocked down, their families being threatened, and their bodies being raped and mutilated in unthinkable ways: they don’t need SVU to try and make them wonder and envision what will happen if their nightmares actually come to life.