"Law & Order: SVU" casts Mike Tyson as a rape victim

Critics call out Dick Wolf for asking viewers to sympathize with the retired boxer convicted of a 1992 rape

By Prachi Gupta

Published February 7, 2013 5:46PM (EST)

On Wednesday night, "Law & Order: SVU" aired a controversial episode casting world heavyweight champion and convicted rapist Mike Tyson as a rape victim-turned-murderer. [Spoiler alert] Tyson plays Reggie Rhodes, a misunderstood death row inmate who reveals to SVU detectives that he was repeatedly sexually abused and raped, and the man he murdered was one of his abusers. The episode was emotional and gut-wrenching; show producer Dick Wolf called it "one of our strongest episodes in the last five years." Showrunner Warren Leight thanked Tyson for taking on a role "a lot of actors would not be brave enough to play."

But in real life, Tyson was convicted of raping 18-year-old Desiree Washington in 1992, and served three years of a six-year sentence before resuming his boxing career. USA Today's Mike Foss describes the awkward viewing experience, writing, "Watching Tyson's performance, you are asked to feel bad for the character he is playing, whilefully [sic] aware of the real-life actions of the actor whose life detoured into criminal activity." Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker goes one step further, calling the role "creepy":

"This 'SVU' gig of his is pretty creepy. Unlike 'The Hangover,' it takes a specifically horrible event in Tyson’s life and uses it as a viewer draw: Let’s see Mike Tyson — excuse me, 'Reggie' — as a man who was raped repeatedly as a child and is now serving time in jail for murder, convicted under dubious ethical circumstances. The episode invites the simultaneous reaction: Awww, poor guy, followed by, wait, do I really want to feel sorry — even while aware that he’s just playing a role — for someone who was convicted of a crime that could be (and for all I know, was) a 'ripped from the headlines' 'SVU' storyline, one in which he’d be the perp, not the victim? That’s the thing about pop culture: We bring to it everything we know about a performer’s personal life; it inevitably plays a part in how we analyze the work of that performer, in any field."

Fans of the show have been protesting the casting since it was announced in January, inspiring two Change.org petitions to reverse the decision, to no avail. Marcie Kaveney, a sexual abuse victim and "Law & Order: SVU" fan, authored one of them, telling TheWrap, "'SVU' is a show I've followed for a long time ... I think survivors consider this their show."

But in January, Leight took to Twitter to support the decision:

"We understand the casting of Mike Tyson seems inappropriate to some 'SVU' fans. While in no way excusing his past actions, it's worth noting MT was convicted over 20 years ago, and served his time. In recent years he has found sobriety, and started a foundation to meet the comprehensive needs of children from broken homes. The episode itself deals with many issues, including the ongoing effects of childhood abuse, the possibility of rehabilition, and the potential for disastrous results when individuals and/or the justice system pre-judge or fail to contextualize. Because of SVU's subject matter, all of us have a profound sense of our responsibility. Our intent, as always, is to provoke discussion and awareness. We ask you to keep an open mind. Thanks."

And Tyson, for one, seems proud of his work:

[embedtweet id="299390146082635778"]

But in an interview last year, Tyson didn't take responsibility for the rape of Washington, saying "I was set up -- I don't care what people say." Even if Leight's claim is true — that Tyson's reformation is complete and whole — casting him in a role with such dark parallels to his own highly publicized life still seems cruel to the show's fans. As Kaveney told TheWrap, "it's kind of being a rape apologist, saying 'Maybe he's had this violent childhood and that's why he's become this violent person.'" Everyone deserves a second chance, sure, but does that mean they should get a TV show to do it?

Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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Acting Boxing Law And Order Svu Mike Tyson Murder Rape Television