Over the last decade, as heroin overdoses have devastated white families, you could watch the gentler, kinder approach to white drug users play out in policy and press coverage. While black and Latinx people got stop-and-frisk, arrest sweeps and long prison sentences for even the most minor drug involvement, white people asked for ― and have mostly received ― responses that largely view addiction as a disease. That means emergency treatment, access to rehab, limits at pharmacies and fewer criminal charges.
But even before the current opioid epidemic, popular culture was laying the groundwork for this disparity. Where drug users of color were depicted as criminals who deserved punishment, white users, and especially white women users, were portrayed as “victims” who were entitled to compassion and care.
In a recent study that was published in the journal Contemporary Drug Problems, two colleagues and I did a systematic analysis of two popular television shows that deal with drugs: “Intervention” and “Law & Order.” In case you’ve missed ”Intervention,” this cable offering from A&E is a reality-based program that surprises (or tricks) people into rehab by telling them they have been selected to be in a documentary film about addiction. There’s almost no chance that you’ve missed ”Law & Order,” the ubiquitous procedural drama.
Our study looked at nine seasons of both shows that aired between 2000 and 2010, just before the current opioid epidemic accelerated. We examined 143 episodes of “Intervention” and 31 episodes of “Law & Order” that dealt with drugs.
We expected to find that the representation of white women on both shows was different from the way drug-related stories involving people of color were told. And we did. We also found that these pop culture staples reinforce deeply held cultural assumptions about the purity and goodness of white women, the echoes of which can be seen in contemporary coverage of and responses to the opioid epidemic.
We also found that these pop culture staples reinforce deeply held cultural assumptions about the purity and goodness of white women, the echoes of which can be seen in contemporary coverage of and responses to the opioid epidemic.
Our research found that 87 percent of main characters on ”Intervention” are white, and slightly more than half of those white main characters are women. Executive Producer Dan Partland has said that this is a deliberate choice, an effort to “challenge the stereotype of what addiction is.” Partland is referring to race here: There is a long history of stereotypes that portray non-white people ― Chinese immigrants, African-Americans and Mexican-Americans ― as the nation’s primary drug users, despite similar rates of drug use by white people. Apparently, countering those racialized stereotypes of addiction means casting white people as the “addicts.”
But in the stories they tell on “Intervention,” white women involved in drug use are afforded a sympathetic, three-dimensional telling of their stories that makes their addiction a tragedy, rather than a crime.
Take, for example, the 2006 Season 2 episode that features Kristen, a 24-year-old white woman from Wisconsin who identifies as “an alcoholic and a heroin addict.” The show’s producers weave in the specific details of Kristen’s childhood ― a well-loved girl, interested in art, riding her bicycle in photos ― into a strict formula to which each episode conforms. The idealized childhood is set in sharp relief against title cards that read “The Heroin Addict,” followed by images of Kristen shooting up.
In one shot, Kristen’s anguished mother faces the camera and asks, “What happened to the little girl I knew? She was in the gifted and talented program. She always wanted to do something with art, something creative.”
Kristen and the other white people featured on ”Intervention” certainly challenge stereotypes about addiction. In telling us about her happy childhood and showing us her mother’s anguish, these stories offer the white woman addict a kind of humanity that was never granted to African-Americans in coverage of the crack epidemic. The story of Kristen, like all the stories about white people on “Intervention,” is one of lost potential told through the lens of whiteness. These narratives are tragedies about racialized potential squandered: the advantages of whiteness, wasted.
These stories offer the white woman addict a kind of humanity that was never granted to African Americans in coverage of the crack epidemic.
Kristen “accepts the gift of recovery,” in the language of the show. She is filmed saying to her rehab counselor, “I remember when you said the only hope you had for me was that I could become a lady and a productive member of society, I just love you so much.”
Kristen’s story is key to the way ”Intervention” works. It tells a complicated, human story of addiction that also trades on ideas about white women’s innocence and propriety. As a viewing audience, we’re invited to be shocked by Kristen’s drug use and sex work; at the same time, we’re asked to pull for her redemption through sobriety and more mainstream employment.
Across the 10 years of ”Law & Order” episodes we analyzed, we found a similar pattern in the way white women are portrayed. Take for example the Season 11 episode from 2001 that revolves around a character named Caryn. Caryn is an upper-middle-class white woman described as “pretty and blond.” She becomes involved in smuggling cocaine for a cartel and confesses that not only did she smuggle drugs, she is also an addict.
The prosecutors and detectives discuss how to minimize the criminal justice consequences for Caryn because she’s a “first timer” who just wanted a thrill. Police and prosecutors weigh her possible conviction for smuggling against the harm it would have on her husband and his career. Rather than facing prosecution, she is placed in a witness-protection program that will shield her from retaliation by the drug cartels.
In American popular culture, drug cartels are an archetype of criminality. But because Caryn is a white, upper-middle-class woman, she is inoculated against the taint of the cartel’s criminality, despite smuggling cocaine on a military flight. Caryn is portrayed as a victim of the cartels rather than an active participant in a dangerous criminal enterprise.
Within the frame of “Law & Order,” Caryn is worthy of protection, rather than prosecution. On “Intervention,” white women like Kristen are treated as worth protecting, too. The underlying assumption made by these shows is that white women are inherently innocent and virtuous, and that their crimes should be met with compassion, not incarceration.
These narratives are tragedies about racialized lost potential: the advantages of whiteness, wasted.
Of course, some white women involved with drugs do get caught by the system and do real prison time. But mostly, they walk. People of almost every race/gender category are more likely to be incarcerated than white women are.
The stories we tell ourselves matter. Our popular culture tells very different stories about people of color and drugs than it does about white people and drugs. And white women are a particular focus of sympathetic storytelling in popular culture. From “Girls” to “Orange is the New Black” to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it is white women’s stories that dominate the cultural landscape.
One reason these stories matter is because they laid the groundwork for the response to the heroin overdoses that began to affect white families around 2013. So when white families asked for a gentler approach to drugs than the harsh one meted out to communities of color, there was an entire culture prepared to say yes. As seen on TV.
Jessie Daniels is a professor at The City University Of New York, and the author of the forthcoming book Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.