Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is an American crime television drama about an elite squad of NYPD detectives who investigate crimes specifically of sexual nature. The show premiered on NBC network September 20, 1999 and is currently on its eighteenth season. Any show able to stay on a primetime cable network for nearly two decades has got to have a strong following. It was easy to find many fan blogs and discussions on the Internet spanning from when the series first started to now. Writers may encode the show in a certain way, but it depends on how the fans decode the show and stick with a certain viewpoint. Most of the positive things that fans love about the show is the main character, Olivia Benson, played by actress Mariska Hargitay. The male leads have changed a few times, but most fans have stayed loyal because of their investment in Hargitay’s character. Although the show is fictional, some episodes are based off of true stories, which bring in the different views that fans have about the show. In the reading Fandom as Free Labor by Abigail De Kosnik she talks about what it means to be this type of fan. “In the digital era, fans are able to circulate their works publicly to wider audiences than was possible with analog distribution technologies” (p. 105). She is saying that anyone who puts in the labor of spreading their knowledge and opinion on a certain subject is considered to be a fan. Therefore, SVU has a variety of fans who don’t all have positive views about the show. The dominant-hegemonic view of SVU is that an elite squad of trained detectives investigate vicious sexual felonies in New York City, the negotiating view represents those fans who believe the show gives people a certain wrong indication of what it is like to working on these crimes, and the oppositional view being that there is a lot more to sexual offense cases that SVU does not cover.
Coming from the dominant view, there are fans who watch the show and find it interesting. They like the thrill of the drama and find the characters and storylines keep their attention. A review on IMDB claims the show to be “one of the best cop shows on TV.” It also brings up the likability of Detective Benson claiming that she is the favorite detective of the bunch. This fan takes in the show in the most ideal-typical case.
Another fan, Ian Balaban, wrote a blog about SVU and how the show doesn’t properly portray what it is really like to be working on such intense crime cases. His blog resonates well with the negotiating view. Ian states, “Within a 60-minute time frame, the show presents the crime, provides details on how the investigation is performed, and resolves the crime. The viewer has closure to the horrible crime and sometimes justice. The viewer may or may not agree with the final outcome but there is closure. Closure completed within a less than 60-minute time slot allotting for commercials.” He then explains how this can give many viewers the wrong impression on what life is like as one of these detectives. He argues how the show paints all of the crime scenes in the dark and the “heroes” being the detectives always in the light implying that the “heroes” are always right. The heroes may always be right in a fictional world, but in the real world that’s not always the case.
In Stuart Hall’s essay Encoding/Decoding he explains the oppositional view as when “it is possible for a viewer perfectly to understand both the literal and the connotative inflection given by a discourse, but to decode the message in a globally contrary way” (p.61). In terms of SVU many viewers take the sexual offenses shown and compare them to real life sexual offense occurrences they may have experience, witnessed, or heard about. They find that SVU doesn’t explain a lot of what actually goes on. Sara Alcid, a feminist blogger, wrote about why she believes SVU incorrectly represents sexual crimes why she finds it offensive. “We can’t afford to not dismantle rape culture in all facets of its existence, ranging from its appearance in the media to the gender roles we teach children to adopt. The media is a powerful force, and Law & Order: SVU, along with other television shows and movies that sensationalize rape, are undoubtedly informing the public’s understanding of rape and the justice that survivors are able to seek after the fact,” Alcid proclaims. She points out how the detectives often speak to victims in such a way that doesn’t exist in the real world.
From researching this show in depth, it was pretty interesting to see how many fans posted about their views on the show. Despite each viewpoint, the show has carried a positive fan base long enough to run for eighteen seasons!
De Kosnik, A. (2013). Fandom as Free Labor: Digital Labor: The Internet as Factory and Playground.
Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/Decoding. Centre for Cultural Studies.