Does “Special” Mean Young, White and Female? Deconstructing the Meaning of “Special” in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

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Department or Administrative Unit

Law and Justice

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Audience members often use what they see on television, both in news and entertainment programming, to socially construct their reality (Surrette, 1998; Fishman & Cavendar, 1998). While, undoubtedly, direct experience is more powerful in shaping our perceptions of the crime problem in the United States, crime dramas provide powerful images for many lacking extensive knowledge of the criminal justice system. Although many crime dramas focus on crime in general, some like the popular “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (SVU) portend to focus specifically on “sexually motivated offenses” and emphasize child victims. In this paper we utilize a content analysis to deconstruct the meaning of “special” in “Law & Order: SVU” and examine the many ways this program may shape public opinion about sexual assaults and official responses to them. Specifically, we focus on the age, sex and race of victims and offenders compared to comparison data from Manhattan, New York—where the program is set. A qualitative analysis provides information about the context of portrayals of sexual assault, specifically assessing whether or not these
presentations focus disproportionately on stereotypical child abductions and murder, and reify common rape myths. The analysis also includes a discussion of how civil rights violations by criminal justice personnel are represented.


This article was originally published in Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture


© 2007 School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany