Law and Order: Special Victims Unit doesn't shy away from crafting "ripped from the headlines" plot lines: last season, for instance, they aired an episode clearly meant to mirror Chris Brown's brutal assault of Rihanna and and episode that was just a monstrous agglomeration of various campus rape headlines (two rape survivors were quoted verbatim in the episode, and one of the SVU fictional rape victims shared a last name with a third survivor). And now, according to an Entertainment Weekly exclusive, the show will combine the Trayvon Martin murder case with the Paula Deen scandal.
Yesterday, Buzzfeed posted photos from the SVU set that made it patently obvious the show was planning a Trayvon Martin-inspired episode: in one, Detective Munsch is even holding a card with Trayvon's actual face — not the face of the actor playing the fictionalized version of him — on the back. SVU executive producer Warren Leight confirmed this suspicion in an interview with EW, elaborating that the episode would replace fiction-Zimmerman with a Paula Deen-inspired character:
“[Jeffrey] Tambor is a defense attorney representing a very high-profile celebrity woman chef who thought she was being pursued by a rapist and turned around it was a teenager. And she shot him," said Leight in an interview with EW. "There’s a lot of stop and frisk elements to that as well.”
They won’t be shying away from the big questions either, according to Leight. “Is racial profiling justifiable? Can self-defense involve racial profiling? We’re diving right into that,” he said. “Can that happen in New York? Absolutely.”
SVU's typical modus operandi of presenting a fictionalized rape resulting in justice isn't necessarily bad — I know a lot of people, myself included, who enjoy it. However, there's something hugely unsettling about turning a very specific horrific crime that actually involved living people into a televised spectacle. It's violating, it's more than a bit exploitative, and it glosses over the most traumatic and unpleasant parts of the ordeal. The Trayvon episode takes this a step further, though, from the realm of "icky and questionable" to the arena of "pretty fucking horrific."
As Daniel D'Addario notes at Salon, "the obvious debt to an incident that involves a dead teenager, and saddling a figure based on that teenager with allegations of potential rape, may make some viewers uncomfortable." SVU isn't merely co-opting the murder of an innocent teenager to make their plot more salacious: they're also implicitly associating him with sexual violence. Even if the moral of the episode is that racial profiling isn't justifiable, the narrative of "white lady says that unarmed black teen looks like scary rapist!!" contributes nothing to the discourse surrounding Trayvon's death. Furthermore, I'd argue that the inclusion of a Paula Deen character is also troubling: by pitting "bigoted awful racist" against "profiled black teen," the episode makes it seem that racial profiling is the result of blatant, easily recognizable, n-word slinging, plantation-loving racists. It's not. It's the result of a system of systemic and systematic racism that often operates insidiously, supported by extant power structures.
If the producers of SVU wanted to handle racial profiling vis-a-vis sexual assault, they could have easily done it without invoking Trayvon Martin. They could have crafted any other plot for the episode; they could have refrained from appropriating slogans from Travyon Martin protests; they could have prudently decided not to film one of their actors holding a photograph of the slain teen's face. But that wouldn't have helped them court controversy — and ratings.
Images via Splash.