(Fair warning: massive spoilers for season 11, episode 13 of L&O: SVU in this post.)
Okay. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. It may be because I live alone, and if I don’t have the sound of other human voices in my apartment I will seriously just go insane and start shanking someone, but a while back on a weekend I caught one of USA Network’s frequent marathons of this show’s reruns as “background noise” while I worked on something. You guys, I was hooked, and I don’t even know why. Well, that’s wrong. I have hunches. L&O seems to ratchet up the ‘ensemble drama’ angle more than the other spinoffs do (well, maybe to the same level as L&O: Criminal Intent but Bobby Goran is an asshole I’d like to hit with a speeding freight train, so it didn’t stick with me) and I’m a sucker for a character-focused police procedurals for some reason. If they have particularly clever writing, I’m hooked. I am a big fan of Bones, for example.
The flip side of this is that, let’s face it, the subject matter of SVU is just awful. I watched a few episodes while at home visiting my parents one Christmas and, having watched all the way to the end of season 10 episode “Undercover” with me, turned to me and said: “WHY DO YOU LIKE THIS TERRIBLE SHOW.” You have to admit she kind of has a point, is all I’m saying. It’s about rapists and pedophiles and child-killing baby mamas and stuff. Of course my mother survived the era of the 70’s with all those womens’ prison films so maybe “Undercover” struck a bad chord with its over-the-top recreation of that sort of feel. Anyhow.
For the most part I really like SVU, despite some mistakes it makes. I can tell you that a few of its episodes dealing with new media technologies, particularly video games and virtual worlds (again, season 10 seems to be the worst offender with “Avatar,” an amazingly stupid ripped-from-the-headlines sendup of Second Life that just doesn’t make any sense at all) have really fueled my throwing up both hands and shouting “BROOKLYN RAGE!” at the TV a lot. Usually when the show goes bad, it’s noticeable since it usually does a good job. SVU has won awards from GLAAD for their presentation of LGBT issues, and I agree with that. They do a good job, generally.
But if this were about the good job they did you probably wouldn’t even be reading this far. SO.
My lovely friend and colleague Cynara Medina noticed my squee when I discovered that Kathy Griffin, who I adore, would be on SVU and linked me to some promotional scenes from this past week’s episode that featured her character. The episode is called (sigh) “PC” and focuses on a lesbian activist and her group, Lesbestrong (giggle!), who all become the targets of an angry killer bent on targeting and killing lesbians. Now, the first thing Cy linked me was this:
Now, I was intrigued. Cynara referred to her as “bell hooks on speed” which I thought was cute. I was both amused and slightly nervous. I thought Kathy’s portrayal of a sassy activist who uses words like “patriarchial” was nifty but at the same time, her aggression made me wonder if they were going for an episode stereotype that I wasn’t sure I liked (a prophecy which turned out to be true; more on that in a minute). However, I liked what I saw. It was tension — usually guest characters like Babs Duffy (Griffin’s character in the episode) are not-quite-antagonists to the detectives of the SVU, making their lives difficult by their advocacy for a victim or type of victim.
Then, of course, it was followed up with a link to this:
Yeah. So that was the mindset going into the episode, which I then proceeded to miss when it aired on TV. Thankfully, SVU is on iTunes and I was able to pick up the episode the next day after the air date, having kept myself from spoilers, and proceeded to watch it so that I could, as I promised Cynara I would, break it down for you, my darling readers.
Ohhhh my goodness you guys. The post title should tell you everything you need to know. This episode was up, it was down, it was all around… there were some great moments that I enjoyed, and there were some terrible “BROOKLYN RAGE!” moments, and then after I watched the episode I found out through the internet that NBC did the stupidest possible thing I could imagine when it comes to this episode, and really just made the entire affair totally infuriating. So. Now I will break down SVU season 11 episode “PC” for you. Spoilers are involved, if you haven’t watched the ep!
Where to start.
Oh, here’s a good place: MAN-HATING LESBIANS AKIMBO. I just cannot even begin to describe this most egregious and stupid of writing choices. I seriously have just been wracking my brain trying to figure out why this happened on a show that has otherwise sought to avoid this sort of thing, and all I can think of is that they really needed the subplot involving the victim’s butch, bar bouncer girlfriend with anger management issues to work, so without the man-hater angle it didn’t make sense. News flash, NBC: it doesn’t make sense anyway. The victim in this case, Alyssa, is an artist who makes jewelery, was femme, decidedly in love with her girlfriend Sharon, who is what B.D. Wong’s character Dr. George Huang identifies as an “aggressive:” a sort of super-butch, if that makes any sense. Sharon has anger management issues, likes it a little rough (as an ex-girlfriend of hers points out), is a bar bouncer, and hits people for no apparent reason. She hauls off and slugs Det. Stabler when they bring her in for questioning, then refuses to speak with him in the room. The best part is that it turns out she didn’t do it so this entire subplot is a red herring anyway.
I just… ugh, I was so angry. The fact that her interrogation scene is fraught with a number of stupid gender-related riders doesn’t help. When Alex Cabot arrives on the scene to see Benson dabbing blood off Stabler’s forehead, she asks what happened, and a nearby (and amused) Fin replies: “It’s called being punched by a chick.” [eff!] you, man, what the hell! Alex, at least, strikes back a little bit by asking why charges weren’t filed when a police officer gets assaulted, and after Stabler asserts “I’m fine,” retorts: “Would you be saying that if a 200 pound man were the one who attacked you?” It’s a good question, but one which Stabler breezes off as he heads into interrogation.
The followup, of course, is that Sharon asks for him to leave and he agrees. He comes out, and Alex is surprised/amused to see him: “That was quick. She didn’t punch you again, did she?” Stabler’s response, which deeply annoys me, is “Well, some women just don’t want to talk man to man.” Why is that there! Why is that there in this show where the cops are supposed to be supporters of rape victims, the LGBT community, and children? Stabler has an established character record of being sensitive to these sort of issues. Is it ’cause he got punched? Because I think he can handle it, tough guy that he is. Grrr!
Check for yourself. I doubt this video will be on YouTube long, so watch while you can. The interrogation scene starts at about the 4:10 mark:
The minor bright spot here is that in an earlier scene (also viewable via the above video), Dr. Huang is careful to emphasize that aggressives aren’t naturally violent, nor are they man-haters, which at least constructs Sharon’s problem with hauling off and smacking people as a personal issue of hers rather than a systemic issue with man-hating butches, but this isn’t much amelioration. There’s also a very odd moment where, when Huang mentions that aggressives are “just one part of a wider culture,” Benson responds by saying “like women who dress up in leather and like to tie people up.” You couldn’t have said anything else? You have to relate them to dominatrices and all the troublesome imagery of gendered sexual power and male fear that goes along with it? I really feel like there was someone on the writing staff of this episode who just went through a very bad breakup or something. There’s just so many little touches that, if you sit back and look at them, make zero sense. Imagine if Benson’s response had been something like “Oh, like autoerotic asphyxiators?” I mean, there was one on SVU once! He died in the first 5 minutes, but there was one!
Okay. So man-hating Sharon is problem one. Man-hating psychofeminist Babs Duffy is problem two. I know that part of this must have been wanting to make a militant character with a snappy, sassy personality that fits Kathy Griffin’s public image and her acting talents. They also need to set up something that happens, plot-wise, later in the episode. I get both of these things. But I keep asking myself, “was there not some other, less stupid way?” Babs Duffy, true to the episode’s title of “PC,” is the highly stereotyped kind of castrating, every-little-word-is-suspect, man-hating feminist that is a constant media go-to. She trots out words like “patriarchy” and “paradigm” and “heteronormative,” using them like weapons to cow people into submission. This is such a narrow, silly, pointlessly reductive view of feminism, and I’m super annoyed (though perhaps not surprised, because it plays on male fear) that it has such persistence in the media. It suggests that anybody who uses legitimate feminist theory to try and point out patriarchial dominance is just being a smarty-pants trying to make you feel stupid, and that there is no way for you to promote feminist ideas without being a man-hating psychopath. Okay.
Remember when I talked about the prophecy coming true before? That was it.
There’s also a second angle here, however, and that’s the curious issue of Babs Duffy’s group, Lesbestrong. Apparently it’s famous enough that Olivia not only recognizes it when Babs introduces herself, but also says “Oh, the gay rights group,” in a tone that suggests she’s familiar with it and approves. This is when Babs corrects her: “Not gay rights, lesbian rights.” As the show goes on to construct, Lesbestrong isn’t about protecting all gays, it’s about protecting LESBIANS ONLY in big flashing neon colors. Benson and Stabler talk to a member of a Bronx crime unit who goes on to tell them that Babs spins any crime into GREAT LESBIAN THREAT regardless of size or connection, and he wouldn’t mind it so much if she advocated for all the LGBTQWERTY acronym groups, but her obsessive focus on lesbian crime is a little off-putting. Never mind the fact that the show also constructs her as a media-manipulating donation whore. At one point she has flyers printed up about a speech she’s going to make, and the print shop owner typos it as “Babs Daffy,” sending her into a rage. Nearby Benson and Stabler break up her harassment of the printer and Benson quips, “It’s a typo, not a hate crime,” when Babs accuses the printer of systemic anti-lesbian bias.
The twist? He’s the killer in the end. I know, right? You’re facepalming, aren’t you. AREN’T YOU.
There’s a second, related twist in the episode, that is more of a grey area for me, and I’d say something about spoilers but I just told you who the killer was so this probably isn’t an issue. Okay. So the kiss with Benson (or lack thereof, we’ll get to this in a second) happens while Babs is under police protection in her apartment. The killer has struck one of the Lesbestrong members and made it clear Babs is next on his list, so Benson and Stabler talk her into police protection by appealing to her vanity, basically (Benson: “What will Lesbestrong do without Babs Duffy at the helm?”). After Benson is relieved, a while later the detectives get a phone call that someone’s been shot on her fire escape. Great! They rush down there, ready to face the killer.
Who turns out not to be the killer, but Babs’ boyfriend. In a fun bring-back, poor Sharon — poor exonerated, I-loved-her-because-she-soothed-my-fury, grieving Sharon — arrives on the scene and, seeing the man being carted out on a stretcher, hauls off and decks him. Good job!
Anyhow, yeah, you read it right: boyfriend. This is twist #2: Babs has been experimenting with men, particularly this one man who was trying to sneak in and see her, and she kind of likes it. She’s… she’s… ZOMG BISEXUAL.
Okay. Now this is why I said I am divided on this plot twist, and here’s why.
1.) Bisexuals are basically invisible on TV, so the idea that she ends up being bi in the end is actually kind of neat for me. I think it was an interesting choice. This also lets the show do this really ridiculous but sort of interesting “reverse closet” bit where, when the man is uncovered, Babs suddenly backpedals into affirming her lesbian cred (“I like girls! A lot!”). The rest of the episode deals with Babs struggling to “come out” to Lesbestrong, who she expects will (and who do) see her as a traitor when she does it. It’s a twist on the coming out rhetoric that I find refreshing, if weird, and it does highlight some of the systemic bias that bisexuals find coming from “the other side.” There’s just as much, if not more, hostility towards bisexuals in the gay community, who frequently see them as indecisive, “fake,” or ultimately as traitors who can’t “let go” of their heterosexuality. That said,
2.) Oh god, you guys, when this is the bright spot of the episode, and it’s so questionable from so many angles, something seriously awry is going on. The entire thing reads a little bit like a bad punchline, and it sort of is. The universal disappointment of the Lesbestrong people — and crowd shots at her “coming out” make it all too apparent — is frustrating. Why couldn’t the reaction be mixed? The group is coded as militant anti-male lesbian so yes, some of them being frustrated about it does not shock me. But at least some of them should have been viewed as, if not outright supportive, then at least not hostile, especially in an episode where they’ve tried to make the point a few times that gays and lesbians aren’t a monolith.
Still. Like I said, mixed bag, but I thought that was neat.
Okay. And so now, to cap it all off: the kiss (or lack thereof).
Again, I expect that this link will get purged from YouTube in short order, so click it while you can. Skip to around the 2:15 mark to watch the scene with Benson protecting Babs at home. It’s more context than the clip I showed you above, showing what leads up to this entire [eff!]ed up scenario:
Right. So when I first saw this, a few things went through my head.
1.) Okay, the kiss (or attempt thereby) does not come as out of nowhere as I thought. Babs is clearly sounding Benson out with a few of those questions and, having come to the satisfactory conclusion that Benson is probably a lesbian, makes a move. It’s a very aggressive move, one I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with, but the Babs character is highly aggressive, so the move itself — while unexpected and sort of offputting — isn’t necessarily out of character or out of left field. This was a situation where episode context made things a little easier on me, but
2.) That actually makes Benson’s comment to the woman who relieves her as Babs’ bodyguard — “If I were you, I’d stay outside” — about ten times more dickish, to me. Now, when I saw it in the video, it was already annoying and rude. Stay outside, there’s HORNY LESBIANS IN THERE D: and you might get KISSED D: and we know that’s how they BREED NEW LESBIANS D: which is just stupid (AND, I add, massively out of character for Olivia Benson). But like… Olivia works with lesbians and victims of assault and women all the time. Shouldn’t she be sensitive to the sorts of questions Babs was asking, and Babs reacting out of both terror and admiration for this woman who is protecting her life? It’s not helped by, in the following scene, Benson returning to the station and then asking Stabler if she gives off a “gay vibe,” with the clear message being WHAT IF MORE LESBIANS ARE ATTRACTED TO ME? D: and this is, again, stupid.
So yeah. The kiss scene, not ringing my bell. But here is the far and away winner: in a burst of total jerkwad stupidity, NBC Universal cut the kiss from the airdate episode. Instead you see Babs sort of… twistlunge at Benson’s face and then there’s this obvious, ridiculous jump cut to Benson going “Whoa, that’s not on the menu.” Yeah. Now the scene makes even less sense, Benson seems even more hostile to lesbian attention, and NBC comes out looking like homophobic dipwads with a double standard, since at the end of the episode, newly-minted bisexual Babs plants a big wet one on Stabler as a cutesy bookend to their episode-long antagonism being resolved. And while I too would like to kiss and perhaps do other things to Chris Meloni (if you or your publicist are reading this, Mr. Meloni, my apologies for the creepy imagery) I don’t think it’s quite fair to leave that in but have poor Mariska Hargitay pulling away from Kathy Griffin like she’s made of freakin’ uranium. So.
Why did they do that? I really don’t get it, and I wish they would release a statement about it. What’s interesting to me is that GLAAD has blogged about their displeasure with this, but they took a… different tack than me, and one that I am not 100% sure I can get behind. Some of their issues coincide with mine: the weird man-hating lesbian schtick, the interesting but bizarre construction of Babs as a bisexual. However, one of their points appears to be “YOU PROMISED US HARGITAY ON GRIFFIN ACTION AND WE DIDN’T GET IT YOU BASTARDS” which… I don’t even know. Just because someone has a lesbian fanbase, the lack of a lesbian kiss in the episode — even if one was filmed and then not used — constitutes a betrayal of the fans’ trust. It’s a stupid, heteronormative, totally annoying decision, but probably not exactly for the reason you cite.
So, anyhow, there it is: “PC” in a nutshell. It’s just a very strange episode full of very strange decisions that seem, as that GLAAD blog post points out, very atypical for the otherwise LGBT-friendly Law and Order: SVU. Never mind that NBC’s sudden backpedal on the lesbian kiss just doesn’t make sense and they have yet to offer a satisfying rationale, if one even EXISTS. It’s one of those episodes that just makes you stare at it and go, “What were the writing staff thinking?!” when it’s all over. Which is a shame, because I rather like the show, and the cast, and I feel like the actors did their level best with a script that is just chock full of WTF from my point of view.