Inside ‘Law & Order: SVU’s’ Transphobia Controversy
The latest episode of the crime drama centers on a young author who presents as female. Why, then, does a show used to handling such sensitive topics consistently misgender her?
The setup for the latest episode of Law & Order: SVU is typical.
After giving an emotional reading at a small bookstore, a young woman, glass of wine in hand, ducks outside for a break after talking with publishers and admirers alike. She goes by the name Bobbi O’Rourke, and she’s apparently the author of an emotionally-charged memoir called Blue Barracuda, which details her time spent as a child prostitute. As soon as she sneaks out the back door, the scene cuts to a shot of police lights flashing eerily on the outside of the building, a full squadron of police cars assembled. And it’s not hard to surmise that something pretty terrible has happened to Bobbi. In fact, as Detectives Carisi and Tutuola soon find, she’s been murdered— bludgeoned to death with a brick.
What happens next unfolds in quintessential SVU fashion: it turns out the young woman was assigned male at birth and isn’t, in fact, the author Bobbi O’Rourke—instead, she’s a young sex worker named Tammy who was hired by the publishing firm to act as “Bobbi” during the reading, since the real Bobbi is a recluse and has never shown face. And, it turns out, the woman was killed by a former client who was enraged that she was a trans woman, and wanted to prove that he “wasn’t gay” just because he had sex with her. From there, the detectives uncover an even bigger mystery, involving two reclusive, elderly Jewish brothers (one of whom is played by Wallace Shawn, aka the “inconceivable!” guy from The Princess Bride) and their dead mother.
The episode, with its wild twists and prurient subject matter, fits in neatly with the rest of Dick Wolf’s oeuvre. But what comes as a bit of a surprise is the way in which the writers—and, by default, the characters—choose to handle Tammy’s gender identity and pronouns.
The first uncomfortable moment comes early in the episode, when Lieutenant Olivia Benson, already at the scene of the murder, explains to Carisi and Tutuola: “She’s not a she—physically, anyway.” The detectives had been wondering why they’d been called in for what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill murder case—but as Benson explains, since the victim is transgender, “we may be looking at a hate crime.” At this point in time, Benson knew little about Tammy (including that she wasn’t the “real” Bobbi), except that she presented as female; yet apparently felt the need to clarify that Bobbi/Tammy wasn’t “a she” regardless.
Later, back at the squad room, Carisi continuously refers to Bobbi/Tammy as “he,” despite having no evidence to support that Bobbi/Tammy identified as male. Detective Rollins, in the meantime, has been reading Bobbi’s book and concludes, “Bobbi wasn’t transgender. Robbie just figured out that he made more money pretending to be a teenage girl.” It’s meant to serve as a clarification, and indeed, for the rest of the episode, everyone refers to Bobbi as “he.” But with little to go off other than Bobbi’s written word, it seems odd for the detectives to erase, or at the very least, overlook the fact that, one way or another, Bobbi presented as female.
Eventually, Carisi notices that something doesn’t add up, and goes to confront Bobbi’s publisher about her past as a sex worker. After a bit of questioning, the publisher finally admits that he’s never seen the real Bobbi, instead paying young Tammy to act as Bobbi for the reading. When pressed about Tammy’s identity, the publisher snaps, “Taffy, Teddy, Tammy, whatever the hell he was calling himself that week.” But neither the detectives nor the publisher have any reason to assume that Bobbi’s stand-in, Tammy, identified as male. And misgendering her, despite the fact that she ends up being a relatively minor character, just comes off as lazy and offensive.
Given the convoluted storyline involving Tammy/Bobbi, it’s possible the SVU writers didn’t intend to misgender Tammy—in an ironic twist, the detectives have to lecture the elderly brothers about transphobic slurs and political correctness when they’re brought in for questioning, after one of them uses an offensive term to describe Tammy. But Twitter users were quick to point out that the mistake was one that could be easily fixed, tweeting at SVU showrunner and executive producer Michael Chernuchin, as well as Mariska Hargitay.
Both Chernuchin and Hargitay issued statements, of sorts, on Twitter, with Chernuchin apologizing. “I am so sorry that the promo for tonight's episode caused hurt and confusion,” he tweeted earlier today. “It was misrepresentative of the story.” Chernuchin went on to include a screengrab of Rollins’ line explaining that “Bobbi” was really “Robbie,” ostensibly to explain away the misgendering. But as users aptly pointed out, this revelation comes after they’ve found the body, and after Bobbi/Tammy has been misgendered several times.
Hargitay, for her part, thanked fans for speaking out, saying, “You matter more than you know. We will do better.”
It’s a misstep for a show that often manages to handle potentially offensive storylines with grace and consideration for victims. While many fans have pointed out that the show has a long way to go in terms of LGBTQ/POC representation (which it does), SVU is normally capable of portraying these sorts of storylines in a thoughtful manner.
Fans also noted that Chernuchin’s “apology” actually didn’t do much in terms of recognizing the offensive nature of Benson’s line saying that Tammy wasn’t “a she” due to her biological sex.
User @Larkin21 summarized the issue thusly: “Olivia Benson said something incredibly offensive, without being called out. Other fans refuse to see how offensive it is because Olivia said it.” They continued, “What comes out of Liv’s mouth has weight & the writers know this.”