At the panel I was on last night, one of the audience members closed out the conversation about asking what the role of men was in feminist television. It’s a great question, and it was sort of depressing to walk out of it to find out that Chris Meloni is leaving Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. It’s not really shocking that he’s made that decision — the show is headed for an overhaul, and Mariska Hargitay, who plays Meloni’s partner on the show, is only signed full-time for the first half of the season. I totally get why Meloni would want to move on to other things after more than a decade of an often-grim role as Det. Elliot Stabler. But I’m not looking forward to saying goodbye to a male television character who is constantly engaging with issues of sex and gender.
The show’s also been very careful to establish Elliot Stabler as a kind of idealized man. He’s a Marine, and not just any Marine, but a hand-to-hand combat specialist. He’s supposed to be such an ideal father figure that he’s helped deliver almost all of his children, that the department shrink asks him to step in as a father figure to a traumatized victim. Stabler’s main flaw is that he gets too angry at perps. The show’s ongoing look at police brutality is problematic, mostly because it tries to let the audience enjoy the revenge fantasy of watching Stabler beat up rapists and pedophiles, and then try to make amends for it later, via therapy, confession — the character’s Catholic, but that’s taking it a bit far.
All that masculinity can get exhausting, but it’s probably a necessary pretext for a character on a popular, middlebrow network show who spends both his personal and his professional life dealing with issues of sexuality, sexual violence, and gender expression. If anything, the show’s a pretty effective critique of the efficacy of traditional masculinity. Trying to protect your daughter by forbidding her from doing things won’t keep her from being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Beating up pedophiles doesn’t actually prevent more people from raping children in the future. But engaging with your colleagues and with victims, talking about sex, sexual violence, and sexual expression, and having empathy with victims can make you better at your job and put bad people in jail — and maybe make you a better husband and father. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, whatever its flaws and lack of subtlety, made its male main character’s struggles with issues of sex and gender a major part of the show. I hope that commitment stays even after Meloni’s departure.