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Advocacy On and Off The Screen

In marketing, there’s a technique called product placement that is widely regarded as an effective way to increase brand recognition. A company pays to have its product(s) visible to people watching a television show or movie. A character may be using an Apple product with its identifying characteristics clearly visible. They may be driving a specific car that uses/references particular features. Or an actor may drink a specific brand of soda and leave it on the counter for everyone watching to see.

The viewers, of course, aren’t consciously aware that they are being exposed to the brand. They’re focusing on the characters, the dialogue, or various other actions on the screen.

I was watching an episode of Law & Order SVU when I first realized that television shows and movies could use a similar practice to share other information. The episode was Pattern Seventeen. I’m not sure if I watched the original air date in December of 2014 or if I watched it at a later date. (I have episodes playing in the background all the time).

But I remember that the writers integrated the national issues of the rape kit testing backlog and lack of communication between law enforcement agencies into the storyline.

Within the episode, the following critical messages are woven into the storyline:

  • The investigation begins by discussing what’s found in ViCAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program). As if thinking out loud, Detective Rollins explains that it is a “comprehensive, nationwide database” that, since they have details of the crime, could help them locate the perpetrator. This is much to the annoyance of her coworkers.

  • Detective Amanda Rollins remembers a similar case that had been investigated by her old precinct in Atlanta. Benson asks her to reach out, assuming this is an easy task. Viewers see that Rollins complies but is apprehensive about the call. Over several episodes, we learn more about how she was treated as a female detective in Atlanta and why she was hesitant to reach back out. His willingness to ignore the personal trauma she experienced on the job highlights the critical issue of workplace harassment and violence, though that is explored in greater detail in later episodes.

  • Rollins learns that the rape kits for the cases with similar MOs in Atlanta to the case they now have in Manhattan were never tested. To expedite the process, she and Fin travel to Georgia. Two separate discussions indicate that the Atlanta police force did not test the rape kits because they did not find the victims credible. This brings up themes often addressed on the show of victim blaming and the importance of always believing the victim (which is not to be confused with believing them without or in place of investigating).

  • When questioned in a CompStat briefing about why it took so long to apprehend the Pattern Seventeen Rapist, Sergeant Benson delivers an impassioned response. She defends her department (which is why we love Benson) and educates the law enforcement leaders to whom she is reporting. It is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of dialogue from the show–firm, without being defensive.

“We did catch the pattern seventeen rapist within one week after his first assault here. But the brutal truth is all the New York assaults could have and should have been prevented. Albert Beck is a career rapist who was moved from state to state year after year. But because many cities have underfunded departments and many cities do not regard crimes against women seriously, they never tested thousands of their rape kits. What is the point of having a national DNA database if the rapist’s DNA is never entered into it?”

While viewers rooted for Manhattan SVU and their favorite detective, they also learned about real-world issues associated with how rape is investigated in the United States.

I realized that SVU (and other shows) were attempting to shine a light on critical social issues by applying a marketing tool that they use to sell a specific brand of orange juice. Without even realizing it, the SVU audience is learning.

Olivia Benson & Mariska Hargitay

I know I’m not the only crime junkie who’s a Law & Order fan – SVU, Criminal Intent, the reboot of the original. Dick Wolf is responsible for what seems like a magical formula of ripped-from-the-headlines stories and captivating actors. But what about Olivia Benson has captivated audiences for more than two decades? And how has that allowed both the character and the actor to put good into the world?

When I think about Olivia Benson and why she has been such an enduring character, I think much of the credit goes to the writers and those responsible for her character development (including Hargitay). To appeal to as many audiences as possible and gain viewers with as much shocking content as can be crammed into a character’s backstory, many writers/creators designed characters who are flawed to an extreme. I hear actors talk about how “real” their flawed character is and that their struggles are why people are drawn to them.

I do agree with that to an extent. But I also think to a certain degree, characters created today are given excessive hurdles so that episodes will keep popping up related to popular search terms, and bloggers will keep writing commentary. SVU in general and Benson specifically certainly have their share of hurdles in life. And they don’t come and go…sexually indiscriminate for two episodes, bulimic in season three, an alcoholic for four episodes in season 10. Still, it doesn’t feel as excessive as other shows. The characters seem real and have been developed well. And I think that has allowed the stories to stand on their own.

Because the show has lasted so long, Mariska Hargitay herself has done fantastic work on and off the screen. She writes in the Founder’s Corner of her nonprofit’s website about how preparing for and playing the role of Olivia Benson inspired her to support the healing of survivors of sexual assault.

“I obviously had my role to play on television, but I felt a great responsibility to these brave women and men and wanted them to know that they had been heard and that they could have hope. I studied the subject, trained to become a crisis counselor and used my visibility as an actress to become an advocate. I knew I wanted to play a role in healing that pain, ending the isolation, and honoring the great courage survivors were showing by reaching out for help.”

I hope you’ll read the entire entry (linked above); she briefly explains the research she found and the stories she heard as a result of the role she played on TV. The opportunity to influence so many people is something many celebrities have. But Hargitay’s commitment to raising awareness for sexual assault victims on and off screen is far less common.

Resources for Citizen Investigators & Internet Sleuths

In 2004, Mariska Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation. They describe themselves as “…a leading national organization with a mission to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, support survivors’ healing, and end this violence forever.”

Joyful Heart accomplishes its mission through education and advocacy. Education and accountability support community development and legal reform designed to ensure that all rape kits are tested. Most impressively (in my opinion) is the program End the Backlog. End the Backlog “tracks the progress of all 50 states in enacting laws and policies embracing our six legislative pillars of comprehensive rape kit reform.” The website is fantastic, providing state-by-state tracking, resources for journalists, and information about what rape kits are and why it is so meaningful they are tested.

I would love to hear about any related resources you have to share. Still, I’m especially interested in anything you learned from a scripted television show or movie. Where education through scripting first fully came to my attention was that SVU episode, but I know I have experienced it earlier. If you have any examples, please drop them in the comments.

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