My roommate my freshman year of college spent most of the time in bed watching detective-themed television shows, her favorite being Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I got sick of entering my room and hearing about rapists, murders, and child abusers, so I hadn’t seen SVU in years until I discovered Netflix Instant offered all eleven seasons of the show.
I became accustomed to watching an episode before bed every night, sometimes switching between seasons to follow a storyline I found interesting. Though I’d watched the occasional episode over the years, I was impressed at how sensitively it handled topics I’d become familiar with through women’s studies classes and the feminist blogosphere; including date rape, child molestation, and domestic abuse.
Though I’m sure most people who own a television have been sucked into the occasional SVU episode, here’s the gist: Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) are members of the Special Victims Unit of the New York Police Department, which handles sexually based offenses and crimes involving children.
SVU’s ripped from the headlines approach has done wonders for women’s issues. A recent episode last season explored the issue of huge backlogs of rape kits all over the country. Olivia always treats rape and sexual assault victims with kindness (herself the product of rape), and even causal viewers who might not be educated about rape come to understand the importance of a rape kit to identify the rapist. Understandably, as most of these women blame themselves for the assault, the message every time is not to blame the victim. Even among the detectives, I have rarely detected “slut shaming” or anything less than compassion toward victims.
Other crime shows can come across as far removed from real life, but rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse occur every day ““ and touch far more people than violent murders.
I read an article that stated the reason viewers, especially women, identify with the show is the opposing personalities of Detectives Benson and Stabler: though both want justice for the victims, they go about their work in different ways. Tough guy Stabler roughs up the suspects and expresses the anger all viewers feel that the bad guys are committing these crimes while the more gentle Benson comforts the victim and helps them navigate the complicated criminal justice system.
This does not mean that Benson only exhibits typical female characteristics ““ she has a mean right hook and has physically caught many a suspect. She can keep up the boys in her department and is treated with respect by her male colleagues.
Another reason to admire Hargitay is the charity she founded, the Joyful Heart Foundation, whose mission is to “heal, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse and to shed light into the darkness that surrounds these issues.” Close viewers will notice Benson always wearing a gold chain with a rectangle pendant. The pendant reads “Fearlessness” and represents Hargitay’s work to help victims of abuse. The foundation offers retreats and wellness programs as well as national awareness campaigns. Hargitay herself has trained to become a crisis counselor.
I ventured briefly into SVU fandom, but like most casual fans, I couldn’t keep up. I was aware Mariska Hargitay/Olivia Benson has a huge lesbian following and many fans take her childless, husbandless status as proof the detective is a lesbian, though Benson has had boyfriends on the show.
There are of course annoying parts of the show, especially in recent years: the plots have gotten especially zany with false leads and crazy twists in the last few minutes of an episode. Even I know the interrogation technique of screaming, “I know you did it!” doesn’t work and I roll my eyes at the many courtroom confession scenes. I confess little to no knowledge of the legal system, so I don’t know if cases are handled accurately.
Meloni’s Detective Stabler does get on my nerves sometimes. His quick temper and violent tendencies toward suspects are sometimes hard to watch, but unlike other shows, he is reprimanded, not treated like a hero for his outbursts. And he explores his anger issues in therapy.
Even with the ridiculous, I admire SVU for portraying women in a positive light. Shows that entertain and educate are rare on network television. I’m grateful NBC has brought hotly debated and controversial issues to America’s living rooms.