“We all know about the snarky coverage of conservatism, right? That’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the overly kind coverage of conservatism.” —Jeff Sharlet
As a loyal viewer, I’d like to give a nod of approval to last Thursday’s (October 17, 2019) Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode, entitled “The Burden of Our Choices”. As Chrissy Stroop, Jeff Sharlet, Frank Schaeffer, and others have pointed out on numerous occasions, evangelical Christians are given far too much leeway by the mainstream media. They are treated with kid gloves and allowed to control their own narrative, and no one calls out the danger to pluralism and democracy that they represent. I’ve noticed a similar treatment in how fundamentalist Christians are portrayed in secular entertainment media, particularly when the storylines involve abortion. Many fictional characters who identify as “pro-life” Christians or Catholics are written sympathetically, and any portrayal of fundies is cartoonish and outlandish. The plot lines pay lip service to “both sides” and then almost always kowtow to the Christian belief system. Law and Order: SVU has certainly been guilty of this in years prior. But then there was last week’s new episode.
“The Burden of Our Choices” was about a thirteen-year-old girl being raised by her evangelical mother and stepfather in Ohio. In a nutshell, she discovers she is pregnant and sneaks out in the middle of the night to board an NYC-bound bus to procure an abortion. If you know the show, you have already guessed that the girl’s parents understandably panic, report her missing, and after the first commercial break the SVU team has found her and met her at the hospital.
Like I said, SVU has done this storyline before. And before last Thursday, the arcs have always resolved in ways that tiptoe around the evangelical persecution complex. A convenient miscarriage, and it turns out the strict, hard-nosed, fundamentalist father supported her all along. The young pregnant teen in a Quiverfull, Duggar-esque family, also a victim of statutory rape, remains pious and firm in her belief system, but it’s okay because her rapist gets caught and put away at the end. And how nice that they get to neatly sidestep the entire situation from the vulnerable teenager’s point of view. But last week’s episode was impressively different.
The episode itself is not all that great, from a cinematic and television construction point of view. It dragged at times, some side plots were really stupid, and a lot of the guest acting was way over the top. But the plot hinged on this very young girl (who you later discover is a rape and incest victim) desperate for an abortion but her mother’s authoritarian and obsessively held religious beliefs forbids it. The mother automatically assumes she gets the final – or more like the only – say over her daughter’s terrifying situation. I was fully expecting the story arc to reconcile in favor of the mother. They always do.
Imagine my surprise when the judge upholds New York’s law, does not release the minor back to her mother and Ohio’s repressive abortion restrictions, and the episode ends with Detective Amanda Rollins supporting the girl as she voluntarily walks with a nurse to complete the procedure.
I firmly believe in the importance of this specific episode. It’s one of the first times I can remember a mainstream, popular, prime-time television show standing up to the anti-choice evangelical beliefs that have pervaded modern life in undetected, pernicious ways.
The writing and acting communicated to viewers that the SVU squad understood the danger this young girl was in specifically because of her evangelical upbringing. The squad used their full power and knowledge of the law to protect her. Olivia Bension and her staff deployed some creative but completely legal maneuvering to keep her in New York, where the Religious Right hasn’t used illiberal minority rule to eviscerate reproductive freedom, so she could have a full choice. They effectively sideline her mother’s oppressive religion.
Once upon a time, I was a teenager growing up in that repressive, purity-culture stained world, and not by choice. I got out, and was fortunate enough to not ever be a victim of stat rape, or to be faced with an unplanned pregnancy. But let’s just say that I’m forty now and I still shudder at what could have been. SVU accurately portrayed the layers of terror young pregnant girls in that religion face. It’s traumatic enough to be a rape victim. It’s scary enough to find yourself a pregnant teenager. But instead of showing support with compassion and pragmatism, evangelicals pile on with their sex-obsessed shaming and fabricated “morals” to make an already vulnerable person’s life infinitely worse.
Young girls in this religion need help sometimes. They need allies, they need actual adults in the room, adults who will see them as human beings and not arrows or pawns for Jesus. Adults who can think past Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s greedy agenda (or who find it morally repugnant in the first place). They will need adults like Detective Rollins to physically be there when their parents won’t, because trust me, many parents will choose their church over their own child. Watch this episode. Watch how the SVU squad moves quickly and deliberately, how they use the power of the law for the girl’s safety and humanity. Watch how they calmly refuse to be swayed by the mother’s tantrums and guilt trips. It’s instructive. SVU is famous, sometimes infamous, for their “ripped from the headlines” shows. And yes, some of those such episodes are dramatized beyond credibility or frustratingly oversimplified. Their portrayal last Thursday though, of how entitled and controlling evangelical Christian parents can become when they find themselves with a pregnant teen, was damn accurate. As was the portrayal of how life could be for young girls in these red states who’ve stripped abortion rights down to nonexistence. As this Religious Right fantasy becomes more and more of a reality, young girls are going to need allies in blue states. This fictional show was a pretty decent starting point in that necessary conversation.
Oatmeal, Cranberry, and Chocolate Chunk Cookies
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- ¾ tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- 8 tbs 1 stick unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- 2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not steel cut)
- 1 cup dried cranberries
- 4 ounces or 1 cup dark chocolate chunks
- Place an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silpats.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until smooth. With the machine running on low, gradually add the flour mixture. Now add the oats, cranberries, and chocolate chunks. Mix until just incorporated. The dough will be stiff.
- Using a regular ice cream scoop or a ¼-cup measure, scoop 12 (2-inch) mounds of dough onto the prepared baking sheets. You’ll have 6 cookies per sheet and you want them spaced evenly apart. Use the back of a spoon or just your hand to flatten them slightly.
- Bake 13 to 15 minutes, until the cookies are slightly golden on the edges. Allow them to cool on the baking sheet for about 20 minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack (or eating them outright).