Why do I still watch Law and Order: SVU?
Why do I continue to subject myself to a show that’s been around longer than my little cousin?
And through it all, I only have one question: what the hell happened to Olivia Benson?
Now, for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, let’s recap. Law and Order: SVU is a crime drama serial that is centered around the Special Victims Unit (a unit in the police force that helps handle sex crimes and crimes involving women and children) and their mostly revolving door of detectives who help bring these heinous criminals to justice. Introduced in Season 3, Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) when first introduced was the plucky counterpart to Elliot Stabler (played by Christopher Meloni). While Benson provided the loving “female touch” that the SVU lacked being a group of mostly old white men and then one Ice-T, she was never a central character. The show still focused on Stabler and his family drama, Munch being old and Tutuola being…Ice-T. When Benson did start to come into her own she was brutalized and victimized because hey, how else do you write a female character in a crime drama? Sexualized violence forever, am I right?
After Stabler’s character departed the series, Benson really took over and in time Hargitay expanded her role from just an on-screen presence to a behind the scenes force. She is now one of the producers and writers for the show and boy, has she taken the character of Olivia Benson to a new place. And by new place I mean all the same sexualized violence, misogyny and poor storytelling the show has had since its inception but now with added family melodrama and the occasional nod to her actually moving up in the ranks of the police force. In newer seasons, Olivia has taken on a son, Noah, and she sure does have feels about it. Motherhood is wonderful but Benson’s brand of motherhood cycles rapidly between obsessive and overly protective of her new acquired bundle of joy to dismissive of her adopted child because of her demanding role as the now leader of the Special Victims Unit. And while some of the push and pull she feels as a working mother are real, there are better depictions of that in the same show: Rollins struggles with leaving her daughter at home with one of the most patient babysitters in all of New York.
By now, you may be asking: Amanda: if you are so unhappy with the show, why do you still watch it?
Well, put a pin in that.
Let’s go back to Rollins. I don’t like her character just because we share a first name; I like her because she is given a more complex story-line. Rollins deals with gambling addiction, a premature and troubled pregnancy all while raising a child on her own with little to no complaining. Sure, she has that oh so lovable cinnamon roll that is Carisi to help her with her daughter sometimes but she does everything Benson does with grace. Rollins is empathetic, level-headed, pragmatic but still kind, generous and great at her job.
I take personal umbrage with this turn for Benson’s behavior because of how important Law and Order: SVU is to so many women. Like I’ve said, only in a highly fictionalized New York do crimes get convicted like this. Only in a fictionalized New York is every sex crime at least acknowledged. This series for so many is one of the first empowered women they see on TV. It’s a modern day morality tale. Crimes are punished, the bad guys are bad guys and the good guys always win.
But in all of this I’m still left with questions.Why did they have to sacrifice Benson for the sake of plot? None of the other female characters had to be taken down a peg. Why Olivia? Why did she become our St. Maria Goretti?
Now to pick up that pin I said for you to hold onto about why I watch this show.
My grandma loved Law and Order: SVU. Hell, on many stations, it’s one of the only shows still on. The show kept my grandma company while dementia kept confined to her bed. The show even contributed to some of the anxiety she had as the illness of dementia took more of her rationality and her mind. We had cameras rigged up in the house not just to watch her while we worked but also so she could see inside. She didn’t want burglars. She felt safer knowing she could see the front door and living room from her bed if she needed to. And when I’d come home from my dead-end mall job or the days I’d come down from my post-graduate ivory tower of a bedroom on my days off from work, I’d sit down and watch an episode or two with my grandma. I could for a moment or two put down my writer’s rage and just enjoy a moment with someone who I knew I wouldn’t spend much more time with. She didn’t care about how poorly the story was. She just wanted to see Stabler and Benson get the bad guy and they usually did. It was one of the few things we could bond on as she declined. I even began to echo some of her paranoia after watching the show for too long. Seriously, ask any of my friends about how squirrely I get after an all-day Criminal Minds marathon.
My gripe with Benson is personal and also from a creative standpoint. I gave up on female characters from an early age because so many were utter failures of storytelling. Law and Order: SVU shows that the writers can write genuine tension for a female character that isn’t a melodramatic custody battle or a John Wu-style parable about the “Good Guy with a Gun” myth. The show has always had issues telling some stories: the episode that was meant to comment on the Paula Deen post-attack racism controversy ended up with such a hyperbolic retelling of the original story that the moral grey area that makes the story so compelling was completely lost. The show still perpetuates concepts and ideas that are troubling while still being one of the best shows on TV for some hot, fast lady justice.
Female characters deserve more. A woman can balance a job, a child and her love life. A woman can have a high-stress job and still be a great parent or even just an okay one. A woman can love without being boring. A woman can be sexually self-actualized and not be a harlot. A woman can have the same stakes as a man and it not devolve into lady issues. A woman can be just like any other character. Olivia Benson can be more and should be more.
Don’t we deserve that after all these years?