Law & Order: And the Art of the Patriarchal Reverse
Off Our Backs, Dec 2001
On the prime-time crime show “Law & Order,” a woman lieutenant in the Navy is on trial for killing an officer. The story is that she was having an affair with him and he tried to break it off, so she shot him. Throughout the show the earnest male lawyer has numerous confusing conversations with a young female colleague in which she supports the woman’s claim that she was being sexually harassed by the male officer and that the murder was self-defense. The male lawyer disagrees and gathers evidence of an affair and breakup. During the woman’s trial, somehow her defense comes down to her statement that she is a trained naval officer, who would never let emotions interfere with clear logical thought. In other words, she would never let her emotions over a breakup cause her to kill a man. The male lawyer then produces a tape-recording of her trying to land a plane on a ship during a storm. On the tape she falls apart, cries, and gets angry at an officer over the radio and shouts at him. With that, her supporters leave the courtroom and she is left alone on the stand, presumably guilty of murder. The number of patriarchal reversals is astounding. Let’s take it apart and see how they work to obscure the reality of male violence and male sexual harassment of women. First, the writers of the show accuse a woman of committing a crime that is in reality typically committed by men: killing a woman who tries to break up with them. Second, they portray this woman as claiming the supposed masculine characteristic of cold rationality. This characteristic is particularly highly prized in the lore about naval aviators–think Top Gun–who are predominantly men. In reality, women trying to succeed in this area do have to demonstrate this characteristic. Third, they show that she does not in fact have this characteristic. Here they get her with a double-whammy: Her female emotionality makes her both fail as an aviator (men’s work) and succeed at murder (but they forgot to notice that this is also men’s work). Are we forgetting the reality here that it is primarily men who commit this kind of “crime of passion”? By portraying a woman’s over-emotionality as the cause of this murder, the writers imply that men, who are after all the successful cool and rational naval aviators, would not commit such a crime, when in fact this is a predominantly male crime. The writers are ultimately reinforcing the stereotype of men’s supposed rationality and women’s supposed over-emotionality, while erasing the reality that men commit most violent crimes of passion. Fourth, they dismiss the idea that she might have been sexually harassed by the male officer, thus erasing the well-known reality that women breaking into predominantly male fields face severe hazing and harassment (remember Tail-Hook anyone?). The writers probably did not have an overt agenda of debunking feminism. It’s just that unexpected plot twists make for good stories, and, after all, that whole man-harasses-woman-subordinate thing has been just sooo overdone. It has to do perhaps more with men’s comfort level than with intentional erosion of feminist analyses. But as feminist consumers of mainstream back-lash culture, we must maintain our awareness of the reversals and confusion that are eroding our efforts to address and change the realities of harassment, job discrimination, and male violence against women. We don’t LIVE in postfeminism. We just watch it on TV.