Law and Order SVU is a prime time NBC show that has aired since 1999 and has become immensely popular with viewers. The show addresses difficult topics in crime, such as family issues, domestic abuse, sexual assault and most commonly rape. When the show first aired it was extremely controversial and was not expected to keep viewer’s interests because of the harsh, real topics and conflicts that are portrayed by each episode’s plot lines and characters. The show directs most episodes towards addressing rape and sexual assault against women characters, most often portraying such characters in a feminist point of view. The two main characters in the show are Detectives Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler, acting as partners in crime against all offenders in the Special Victims Unit (SVU). More often than not, Benson and Stabler find themselves in situations of extreme sensitivity and are required to act with respect and understanding along with their dutifulness to upholding the law. In this case study the controversial television show’s topics will be addressed by Lisa M. Cuklanz and Sujata Moorti in their article confronting the feminist viewpoint of the show’s plot towards women who are portrayed as inherently malicious, Television’s “New” Feminism: Prime-Time Representations of Women and Victimization, juxtaposed against Ranald D. Hansen and Virginia O’Leary’s experiment Causal Explanations for the Behavior of Women and Men: Two Different Schema? which supports the position citing that women’s negative behaviors are not inherent and are instead driven by external (and not merely internal) factors.

The Monstrous Maternal Defined
The monstrous maternal is the prevailing representation of mothers who commit forms of abuse towards their children or husbands in the home-realm in both fictional and non-fictional sources in the media. The media representation utilizes language in order to separate the good mothers, who abide by traditional gender roles and cultural expectations to embrace internal and external strains of motherhood, from bad mothers who fail to withhold cultural and role expectations by committing neonaticide (abuse/mistreatment of children in the mother's care). The monstrous maternal theme in Law and Order SVU is supported by words and statements indicating the severity of the crime committed in addition to negative responses and reactions by others to the crime committed by the young mother (Lewis).

Sexual Assault In the United States
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) in 2007 there were over 448,000 victims of abuse, sexual assault and rape. At least 44% of victims are under age 18 and 80% are under the age of 30. Every two minutes, someone is assaulted in the United States and 60% of attacks are not reported to the police unfortunately. RAINN reports that two thirds of offenders are known by their victim(s), while 15 of 16 rapists will never spend a day in jail; scarily enough, 38% of rapists are either a friend or acquaintance of the victim. Men are most often reported as offenders, women are rarely seen as anything other than the victim(2009).

In the television series Law and Order SVU (Special Victims Unit) women are portrayed in multiple lights such as weak victims, helpless females and heartless criminals, many of which dominate the series' episode plotlines. Many elements come into play in the show, such as the types of assaults, the types of victims and how the victims react to attacks but it is common for women to be depicted as manipulative and sometimes deserving characters. The article Television’s “New” Feminism: Prime-Time Representations of Women and Victimization written by Lisa M. Cuklanz and Sujata Moorti describes a show rife with inaccurate feminist views as well as characters that continue the “monstrous maternal” and other victim stereotypes. Though the article brings up interesting points, it is clear that Law and Order SVU holds a positive viewpoint on feminism with its plot lines; according to Ranald D. Hansen and Virginia E. O’Leary in Causal Explanations for the Behavior of Women and Men: Two Different Schema? the women shown in most episodes have other motives than maliciousness when committing a crime, such as self defense and self preservation as well as environmental factors.

According to Cuklanz and Moorti “The criminal women on SVU use their power in the domestic realm to harm those closest to them, particularly their own children. Their criminality is often linked with misguided maternalism…the narratives articulate an anxiety about feminine characteristics and the power women possess within the private sphere” (303). The monstrous maternal figure is shown especially in narratives involving the home, where qualities such as nurturing, caring instincts held by women are used dangerously to commit horrible crimes. Popular culture depicts two primary types of “bad” or “evil” mothers, the first being possessive, destructive and all-devouring, the second being the opposite but equally as negative as the first; the second is over-indulgent and uses the child vicariously to satisfy her own needs while at the same time projecting onto the child “resentments, disappointments and failures for which the child also has to suffer” (Cuklanz and Moorti, 314). SVU episodes frequently involve mothers who abuse their children in one way or another, are blamed for the child’s wrongdoings or mothers who murder their husbands due to stress in the home sphere.


Common ways the show displays mother/child abuse is when the mother abuses her maternal role by withholding food, manipulating children psychologically or failing to nurture. In the episode “Chameleon”, based off facts of the highly publicized store of Aileen Wuornos, a women named Maggie is first seen as a rape victim but ends up “a dangerous killer whose crimes served no purpose but personal gain and the fulfillment of a misguided maternal role” (Cuklanz and Moorti, 316) once her crimes are discovered. Seen as the twisted devoted mother, Maggie had used her maternal role to manipulate those around her to pity her as a victim and think she was a helpless woman who was only defending herself, and instead murdered men out of malevolence and pure evil. Eventually the truth would be uncovered that Maggie murdered a young mother, took the woman’s baby and raised the boy as her own. Cuklanz and Moorti clearly see the not-uncommon character as a woman who “manipulated feminist perspectives on rape as well as social stereotypes about the maternal instinct not only to avoid detection, but also to protect herself from justice” (317). The episode ended with Maggie escaping the death penalty because she had successfully influenced the court system and public into believing it would be wrong to kill a woman who was a desperate mother, instead of a vicious sociopathic killer.

To watch a clip from "Chameleon" click here. Maggie is seen attempting to manipulate Detective Stabler using her feminine looks and sexuality to distract him from getting the truth.

“Chameleon” is not the only episode revolving around the monstrous maternal figure. In “Shaken” a desperate mother shakes her baby when it does not stop crying, therefore killing the infant. In “Careless” a foster mother murdered a child in her care, making the girl drink dishwashing soap until she passed out and was poisoned. More than two-dozen episodes feature criminally insane, violent, or otherwise dangerous mothers (Cuklanz and Moorti, 314). All episodes attribute a mother’s violence to a misdirection of a maternal role and malevolence rooted from within. There are no episodes featuring a husband or father killing, hurting, or manipulating his children, possibly because of “prevailing mother-constructs dictating that mothers be gentle and self-sacrificing” and because mothers are usually “blamed as individuals, rather than blame being placed on social structures and governmental priorities” (Cuklanz and Moorti, 314) which supports the stereotype that all mothers must be good parental figures because, internally, it is natural for women to have instinctual qualities that project a nurturing, caring person. According to Cuklanz and Moorti the characters on SVU commit such heinous crimes because motivation comes from within the self, and not from any exterior sources. Any problems that arise with a maternal figure are pointed out to be the result of psychological issues and pure evil.

There have been many social experiments dedicated to finding the root causes in motivation for differences in women and men’s behavior, and one such study by Ranald D. Hansen and Virginia E. O’Leary, Causal Explanations for the Behavior of Women and Men: Two Different Schema?, reported their findings. Three experiments were conducted, each exposing subjects to hypothesized stimuli that are stereotyped according to sex, such as environment, emotions, and behaviors among test subjects in questions. Each experiment found “differences between women were seen as accounting for more behavior variance than differences between men…women’s behavior was attributed more strongly to personal factors and less strongly to environmental factors than men’s behavior” (Hansen and O’Leary, 7). At first it appears that hypothesized stereotypes were supported by research findings because the test subjects apparently were motivated by different stimuli according to sex. In Hansen and O’Leary’s studies, they at first found that women were more likely than men to desire more information regarding test subject’s variance, while men desired more information regarding variance amongst environments (7).

In the third experiment Hansen and O’Leary conducted they attributed differences in behavior categories to stimulus amongst men and women and found that, while there was no obvious variance between the sexes, they perceived a distinct change when emotions became involved (9). Women were more affected by their emotions and perceived emotions of the involved parties when asked what they thought. Later on, when all three experiments were conducted and examined, the researchers found that “expectations may lead perceivers to base causal attributions for men’s and women’s behavior on different causal information” in addition to suggesting that “such biases imply that women’s behavior is over-attributed to personal factors and men’s behavior is over-attributed to environmental factors suggesting that sex has considerable psychological salience as an information processing category” (Hansen and O’Leary, 10). Clearly the socially based stereotypes associated with sexes and behaviors affect the way people act and how they attribute their actions. Society places stereotypes on men and women alike, and such expectations produce self-fulfilling prophecies that result in women believing they act differently in situations due to a different range of emotions than men. Such beliefs are not true.

Clearly cases involving women who are believed to act maliciously because of internal motivation in Law and Order SVU do not do so because of evil internal intentions, but due to other reasons instead. In one episode a young college girl keeps her unexpected pregnancy a secret and is suspected of killing her child when it is born. Based off of true events at the Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, a fetus was found in a dumpster, dead, wrapped in a blanket. It appeared to detectives that the mother murdered her newborn baby and discarded the body. Eventually it is discovered that the young girl did not in fact kill her child, it was stillborn. The detectives automatically jumped to the conclusion that the girl killed her baby out of selfishness and desire to not have to deal with an unwanted burden that would prevent her from having a social life and undesired responsibilities. The girl did not consider such motivational factors and she was the recipient of an absurd amount of negative attention and was scorned by her college peers on campus because of the publicity her case got. People in the police station-detectives, chiefs, and others-assumed that the girl was motivated by internal, evil factors that are supported by Cuklanz and Moorti’s theory of the “monstrous maternal” figure; it is obvious that such conclusions are made that further the social expectations that women are motivated by internal, emotional factors and not by the environment.

Hansen and O’Leary point out that such stereotypes are not actually true and do not exist. Society attributes extreme actions by women, especially violence and hatred, to emotions and by doing so it casts a wrong light over violence and women. The young college student did not kill her baby, and tried to rid herself of the evidence of the stillborn only because of her environment she was surrounded by. She felt such immense pressure aimed at her by her peers, parents and college that she felt the only way to deal with the traumatic experience was to act as if it had never happened. The girl did not kill her baby and was subjected to horrific treatment by detectives, all resulting from stereotypes.

Detectives Benson and Stabler, the main characters in the show, formed the opinion that she was guilty of murder based on their background in horrible crimes previously committed by women they had encountered and the girl was unjustly accused of murder. In the end of the episode, it became clear to the audience as well as detectives that the girl was acting out of self preservation and pressure from her environment. Her parents placed an extreme amount of pressure on her to be successful in school and life in general and such weighted expectations resulted in the girl feeling trapped, alone and helpless. Research findings support just the opposite of Cuklanz and Moorti’s theory of women motivated by internal emotions to be the “monstrous maternal” and instead show that women are just as likely as men to be affected by the environment surrounding them.

The women in Law and Order SVU (Special Victims Unit) are shown acting as the monstrous maternal figure supported by society’s role expectations, plot lines and character’s actions. Each woman commits an act of violence towards either her child or husband in the family realm, where such relationships are seen to be sacred in the right that all mothers are instinctively nurturing and selfless, not accounting for the individual in each situation. Through examining Ranald D. Hansen and Virginia E. O’Leary’s research findings it becomes apparent that the women in SVU cases act out in response to environmental stimuli in addition to internal motivation, not due purely to internal emotions as Lisa M. Cuklanz and Sujata Moorti would have people believe.


Cuklanz, Lisa M., and Sujata Moorti. "Television's "New" Feminism: Prime-Time Representations of Women and Victimization." Critical Studies in Media Communication. 23.4 (2006): 302-321. Print.

Hansen, Ranald D., and Virginia E. O'Leary. "Causal Explanations for the Behavior of Women and Men: Two Different Schema?." Midwestern Psychological Association. 143.962 (1977): 1-14. Print.

Lewis, Jocelyn Renee. "Media Representation of Maternal Neonaticide." Texas A&M University, 2008. Web. 15 May 2011. <http://repository.tamu.edu/bitstream/handle/1969.1/85970/Lewis.pdf?sequence=1>.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. (1999-2011): http://www.nbc.com/law-and-order-special-victims-unit/

"Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: Statistics."RAINN: Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. RAINN, 2009. Web. 15 Apr 2011. <http://www.rainn.org/statistics>.