Minorities in Law & Order
By Mary Climer
Throughout history minorities have been shown as people who cannot think for themselves. When I say minority, I mean race, sex, and sexual preference. Times have not changed much for minorities, especially in the media. In movies and television, women and other minorities in strong lead roles are rare. The popular television series Law & Order is no different. It has been on the air for over 10 years and has had to deal with women and race on and off the air. Law & Order is a one hour show that is split in two. In the first half hour, it is up to the detectives to find who committed the crime and in second half, the District Attorney's office prosecutes the case. When it first aired in 1990, the entire cast was male. Three years later, the network NBC threatened the creator, Dick Wolf, with cancellation unless he put some women on the show. 1993 introduced viewers to two new characters: S. Epatha Merkeson as the African American Lieutenant Anita Van Buren and Jill Hennessey as Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Claire Kincaid. This was the beginning of how Law & Order handled women and race.
Sexism has not decreased during the past years and still is present in the workplace. In the seventh season episode "I.D.," ADA Jamie Ross experiences this first hand:
Judge Marks: Ah, Ms. Ross, how nice of you to join us. I gather you stayed later than A.M. this morning? Was the gentleman more impressive today?
Jamie: Your honor I've been busy.
Judge Marks: What I'm suggesting.
Jamie: On a matter of business for this court.
Judge Marks: Oh and I thought our business was here. Whatever kind of romp you've been up to........
Jamie: Is relevant to this case, if you'd stop focusing on my sex life.
Judge Marks: You're in contempt. I want a check for $200.
Jamie: If you try to fine me......
Jack McCoy: Not now! Approach your honor?
Judge Marks: If she brings her check book.
Judge Marks was told that he should "call in sick" and recuse himself OR he would be brought in front of the Committee for Judicial Misconduct on charges of sexual harassment and other offenses since not only had he acted like a sexist pig towards Jamie, he had gone out of his way to poach Jack's case after Jack got a ruling of his overturned on appeal. Marks recused himself.
When Lt. Van Buren first came to her job, Detectives Lennie Briscoe and Mike Logan were skeptical of her. In the sixth season episode "Aftershock", Anita told Claire that when Lennie walked into her office, she saw in his face that she was not what he expected. In the fourth season episode "Black Tie", Logan discusses with Van Buren her handling of a rich victim, accusing her of undermining his and Briscoe's efforts. Her classic comeback to Logan is "What you can't handle is my rank in a skirt".
Sexism as this is not the only negative stereotyping still existing in job fields. Racism is also still going on strong.
Wolf does an excellent job to illustrate that racism is still a problem. Anita Van Buren is an African American who excels at her job. She had taken a test to become a captain and got the same score as a younger white woman with less experience. Having seniority, Lt. Van Buren should have received the job but she did not. Instead the department chose the white woman over her. Van Buren sues the department for discrimination. After the lawsuit, the police department seemed to punish her for suing them. All these incidents are related to racism. In the eighth season episode "Monster", Commander Dietz punishes her detectives for her actions. Lennie complains that he could not be in two places at the same time and wants more bodies on the case. Anita and the commander face off:
Anita: Five more teams for one shift. That's all I need.
Deitz: Can't spare them.
Anita: I bet if this was some five year old white beauty queen you'd be out ringing doorbells yourself.
Deitz: This has nothing to do with race.
Anita: Then it's me.....my lawsuit.
Deitz: Anita, don't get emotional.
Anita: Are you all so petty you would endanger the lives of the people who count on us to protect them?
Deitz: Petty? The department has better ways to spend its resources than defending itself against petty lawsuits.
Anita: I was within my rights. The department promoted a white woman with less seniority. Maybe you all forgot, but we can sit at the lunch counter now.
Deitz: That's crap. People stuck out their necks out to help you get where you are, Anita. You should be grateful.
Anita: Grateful? No, no, no....I worked hard to get where I am. I'm appreciative, yes, and I can carry myself the rest of the way if you give me the chance.
Deitz: As far as the department is concerned, you've had your chance.
Anita: All right. I'll step aside and reassign someone else to the case. Just put extra people on the street.
Deitz: Can't do that either.
Anita: Then what?
Deitz: They want you to resign, Anita. Course they can't make you, but so you can stay, keep banging your head against the wall, but the wall's gonna stay there.
In the fifth season episode "Competence", Anita shoots a teenager in self-defense at an ATM. During the investigation, Detective Mike Logan tells Burnett, the captain of IAB (Internal Affairs Bureau), and also the official in charge of investigating the propriety of the shooting, "Well what is it that bothers you Burnett? That she's wearing a skirt or that she's black?" Racism and sexism are on screen, but I believe it also happens behind the scenes as well.
I get the feeling that Wolf is a bit of a sexist himself. After all, he did not put a woman on the show until the network threatened to cancel the show if he did not break the gender barrier. When he finally did put women on the show, they were put in the background. For instance, yes the lieutenant is black and a woman, but the lieutenant does not have a major part in the show. The new ADA is a woman but she [does] not have a final word in most of the cases. Up until 2000, the District Attorney (DA) had been a male. The lead prosecutors have always been male and are often the ones who make the final decision on cases. Dianne Weist resumed the role of the DA when Steven Hill left. DA is a very high ranking for a woman, but the DA does not have as extensive a role on the show as the Assistant DAs. Weist's character, Nora Lewin, usually lets her EADA Jack McCoy make the final decisions on cases and deals by telling him that "it is your case". The [female] ADA characters also seem to have some problems which weaken their credibility despite the fact that their male counterparts have almost the same problems.
So far there have been four different women ADAs. The first was Claire Kincaid. Throughout her two year span she was shown as one to have affairs. Before she took a job with the DA's office, she slept with a judge she was clerking for. During a fourth season episode where Claire and her boss at the time, Ben Stone, prosecuted the judge, Claire's affair with the judge became a serious hindrance to the prosecution's credibility. It has been rumored and never denied that she was sleeping with her boss, Jack McCoy. Jack has had three affairs with his female assistants, but yet the show acts like it is no big deal that he does it. In the sixth season episode "Trophy", Claire had to prosecute one of Jack's former lovers. The affair did not seem to hurt the prosecution, but rather help it. Clearly there is a double standard. In the sixth season episode "Pro Se," a schizophrenic man kills several people with a bayonet. We learn in a prior case a year or so ago, Claire had cut the man a quick deal on a fairly minor, non-violent offense. Now that the defendant has killed several people, DA Adam Schiff criticizes her for making a bad plea bargain in the first case. She stands up for herself and Adam takes her off the case. Now if Jack had done that, Adam would not have been so harsh on him. I have seen Jack mouth off to Adam and Adam just gets upset and moves on. When Jill Hennessy wanted to leave the show, they killed her off. When Claire left Jamie Ross took her place. Her weakness was being a single mom and she had personal problems. She is constantly at war with her ex-husband Neil over custody of their daughter Katie. She is always worried about not spending enough quality time with Katie. When Neil brings her to court over custody, she is forced to resign from the DA's office to be with Katie. Angie Harmon came on as Abbie Carmichael, Jack's new ADA. Wolf somewhat made up for the weaknesses of Claire and Jamie in Abbie. Abbie was strong and concise and stubborn. Abbie disagreed with Jack on almost everything, voiced her opinion, but he followed his own agenda anyway and she had to follow his lead. She made a lot of noise but never actually did anything to circumvent Jack or radically change his mind. When Abbie did leave, she left to work in the United Stated Attorney's office.
Steven Hill was DA Adam Schiff for ten years. As DA he was solid and hardheaded. He was never soft and easygoing. Adam also had a sarcastic sense of humor. Dianne Wiest took over Steven's spot as DA Nora Lewin. Nora is completely different from Adam. She is very soft-spoken and not as stubborn. It seems that Jack has more power than she does. She also does not have such a dry sense of humor. If you were to watch Law & Order for the first time you would probably get the idea that Nora fits the typical grandmother profile. She is not as headstrong as Adam was.
Law & Order is one of the best dramas on television in history and now. It shows realistically how sexism and racism are still around and strong, but the creator seems to be a hypocrite when it comes to women. It is more exciting watching the two detectives find the suspect and the lead prosecutor crush the witnesses and defendants on the stand. Those three are males. Every once in awhile the women will have an exciting episode, but it is usually the males who get to do the zestful questioning and prosecuting. I am a faithful watcher of Law & Order and have been for a long time. I applaud on how realistic the show can be, but I wish that Wolf would give the women more of a chance to shine.