Stories about transgender crime victims are risky. Television doesn't always get the details right, and falling into stereotypes can create problems instead of illuminating issues.
However, Law & Order: SVU Season 17 Episode 3 gave us a nuanced story about two teenagers, one of whom happened to be transgender, and the tragic way their paths crossed.
I thought the opening sequence was especially effective. The contrast between Avery's home life and Darius' let us know that this was not going to be a simple story of bullying going too far. Avery's parents were in the kitchen making her smoothies and telling her to be careful while walking in heels, while Darius had to watch his little sister because Mom had already gone to work.
The bullying scene itself was slightly stereotypical, but I can forgive that because it's the only scene in the whole show that felt like it was taken from dozens of other movies and TV shows rather than from real life.
Only one way to find out.Boy
What made this story stand out was that both Darius and Avery were three-dimensional, interesting individuals. Darius was especially well developed, with an English teacher that encouraged his interest in art and friends who put him down for being talented enough to get an adult's attention. While Avery was less developed, her interest in graphic novels and commitment to forgiveness made her into a human being and not just a token transgender character.
I was a little worried that having Avery's attackers be African-American could lead to the suggestion that all kids with dark skin hate LGBT kids. I was glad that SVU chose to address this directly within the story.
Let me be clear. This behavior is in no way indicative of our community. We strive for inclusion.Principal
I also really appreciated little nuances like the uniform who, instead of being a stereotypical transphobic cop, wanted to respect Avery but was having trouble getting his pronouns correct. Even Rollins' conversation with Sonny felt realistic because they were just two cops sharing their own points of view.
What makes a boy decide to be a girl? I mean, is it cause he likes boys and doesn't want to be gay?Sonny
Then there was the issue of Avery being charged as an adult with manslaughter and the commission of a hate crime after Avery died. Crime victims die so often in the midst of the hour that I wasn't surprised that Avery did, but the timing – right after she received Darius' apology drawing – made it poignant anyway. I was also really touched by Avery's parents trying to honor her memory by practicing forgiveness towards Darius.
I wish the DA had come to the service. Avery was all about forgiveness.Avery's mother
I was surprised to find that I didn't agree with the DA that Darius should be tried as an adult or that this was really a hate crime. I expected to when I saw the previews. However, because Darius was so well-developed, I saw this more as an instance of bullying gone wrong where the victim happened to be transgender.
From the beginning, it seemed that Darius was struggling to fit in with his friends. The other two kids involved in the incident mouthed off to the principal before being taken out of a classroom where they were probably not paying attention anyway. Darius was found in the library, drawing, and was polite and soft-spoken. His explanation for why he attacked Avery in the first place underscored how much of a role peer pressure played.
Darius' Mom: Darius. Why would you do that?
Darius: I didn't want my friends to think I was gay.
Obviously, that doesn't make what Darius did right, not by a long shot. But I had the feeling that if the kid his friends were laughing at happened to be fat or wore thick glasses or was bad at sports, Darius would still have gone along with the bullying to prove he belonged. So I didn't think this was a hate crime, because Avery's gender identity wasn't the main issue. It was Darius' inability to stand up to his friends and fear of being labeled as different.
I also found the idea of punishing Darius as a deterrent to other haters to be more than a little disturbing.
I don't often go against the wishes of the victim's parents, but I don't want to see another child die simply for being who they are.DA
Making an example out of someone who's done something heinous is one thing. But in Darius' case, I had to wonder if it would have the opposite effect than the DA intended.
I thought maybe other kids like Darius – kids who had good hearts and were struggling to rise above poverty, crime and other negative environmental factors – might think that there's no point to trying to be good because if they mess up they'll get punished severely anyway. And since Darius couldn't fit in at school, what is the prison environment going to do to him? Most likely he will have to harden himself to survive and his innate goodness may be lost forever.
I really give SVU kudos for even-handed storytelling that leaves me with more questions than answers, especially on controversial and topical issues.
What'd you think? Was Darius' sentence fair, too light or too harsh? Weigh in below.
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Jack Ori is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.