Pop Culture

Law & Order: SVU

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.

11 replies on “Law & Order: SVU”

I love SVU. It is by far one of my favorite shows, even if it does skew the shark-jumping line more often than not lately. My only issue is that sometimes I think they still try to work within this “middle America” framework (I know, that phrase is so problematic and I can’t stand myself for saying it, but I don’t really know how else to describe what I’m trying to say so please bear with me!). It is certainly a show designed to advocate for victims, but every once in a while the writing reveals that they are unwilling to challenge the status quo in terms of “traditional” value systems. Any time Stabler has a “Super Catholic” episode, I cringe, because it seems like they go overboard to validate his Puritanistic views on being “too” sexual. I understand the need to appeal to a more sexually conservative audience, but at the same time, some things really are just backwards, regardless of whether or not it is a widespread belief. Same goes for “alternative” lifestyles–I remember a recent episode in which a child was kidnapped and the prime suspect was the mother, who happened to also be a world-renowned anthropology professor. She was independent, brilliant, and wanted to (gasp!) raise her son alone in a non-Western culture. They completely demonized her in that episode, and instead of recognizing how awesome it would be for a kid to grow up in that sort of non-traditional lifestyle, the reaction was “whoa! Crazy feminist lady, CRAZY!”

Anyway, point is, I love that show but the creators/writers/producers could really push the envelope a little more if they challenged their audience a bit more.

Another thing I love about SVU is that (even though this is sometimes contrived, script-wise) they often show multiple sides of controversial/difficult issues: one character will express resigned annoyance at X situation and another character will say, “hey, it’s not his fault” or whatever. The episode with the frozen embryos/couple trying to save their daughter’s eggs was a good example of this–Eliot was super pissed that they were harming their daughter for the own “convenience” or whatever, and Olivia was like, “maybe it’s an act of love, I dunno.” And the show doesn’t say like, she’s right he’s wrong! It just leaves it there for the viewer: this is a complicated issue and both sides have reasonable reactions to this difficult moral decision. I think that’s really important.

I LOVE SVU. I watch as much of the marathon that I can every Tuesday. And I also watch it on Netflix. I don’t know why it’s so compelling, (probably many of the reasons you mention above) but I really love it. I find the characters believable and sympathetic, and I think your analysis of the presentation of women in the show is really accurate. The only time I stop watching is when I start to have nightmares about scary things.

I love SVU. Sometimes it gets pretty bad (like the plotline involving Olivia meeting her half-brother or the plotline about Stabler’s daughter getting into trouble) but when the show is focused on the case and it’s not getting “personal” it’s really wonderful. It’s also probably the most feminist mainstream television show out there.

I really like Detective Munch, too.

Munch is the best! I love his random trivia. He is seriously underused though.

I liked the plot about Olivia’s half brother – one of the plots I skipped episodes to follow – but only when I thought he was a rapist, not when he turned out to be a good guy. (oops, spoiler!) I did not buy that another police officer had framed him.

I don’t think there’s much keeping up with the show–I mean, I am for the most part a dedicated viewer, but I don’t like ongoing plots on the show. I like them to be single case shows (sort of like detective shows of old). I also don’t like the det. personal lives to get told on the show, that’s not why I watch.
But I will say that Ice-T’s acting skills have really improved since the show has had him on… Oh and the non-tested rape kits episode was really great, because yes, that *REALLY* happens, and I’m glad that could open peoples’ eyes (even if it was also just a preclude to the new crappy Law & Order show).
Also… SVU is the highest rated Law & Order show, so people like watching sex crimes!

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