Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Glamour and Racked, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
This Thursday kicks off the 20th season of “Law & Order: SVU.” Official posters released for the show proudly proclaim “20 years strong,” and that declaration is no understatement, indeed. The Dick Wolf drama is making history this year; it’s now tied with “Gunsmoke” (1955-1975) and its flagship “Law & Order” (1990-2010) for longest-running drama series. And while other court and police dramas focus heavily on the criminal, SVU has always sought to pull back the curtain and present a full picture of sexual assault, with careful attention given to the victims’ journey. It’s gritty and uncomfortable at times, but its power lies in its unflinching honesty.
The cast and crew have changed a lot over the last two decades, but one character has been on duty for the duration: Lt. Olivia Benson, played by actress Mariska Hargitay. We’ve seen Benson move up in the ranks of the NYPD, from detective to sergeant to her current role as lieutenant. She’s acutely attuned to the victims and forever tortured by her own personal connection to them, as a survivor of assaults herself.
Until SVU came along, police dramas of the 1990s were dominated by male characters – see shows like “NYPD Blue” and the original “Law and Order” (whose main characters were all male until its fourth season). And female characters overall were all too often relegated to bit parts or girlfriend roles. They were characters who could be strong, but only to a point.
I’m a late convert to “SVU.” I don’t typically watch crime procedurals, but a couple of months ago, I finished binge-watching the series. Every episode. All 19 seasons. More than 400 episodes. From arrests to interrogations to verdicts in the courtroom, I lived for every twist and turn and “I-can’t-believe-he-did-it” moment.
As I watched season after season, I began to relate most closely to Olivia Benson, who is flawed and complicated and continuously wrestling with her own demons, both on the job and in her personal life.
Early on in season one, we learn that her own mother was a victim of rape, which resulted in her conception. In season nine, she is attacked by a corrections officer while undercover as an inmate in a women’s prison. And in season 15, she is kidnapped and held hostage by a serial rapist. All these experiences have worked to blur the lines between the professional and personal. What happens to Olivia becomes a part of her and impacts how she views each case. Her job becomes more than just a job. She sees her mother, and later herself, in her cases.
Watching Olivia’s strength and her pain, how those two things could exist together, I didn’t feel so alone in a world that so often abuses and degrades women. Olivia showed me that you can be both fierce and fragile.
Now, I routinely ask myself: What would Olivia Benson do?
I can’t help but think Olivia Benson is the female role model we need in 2018. Especially in the era of #MeToo and violence against women, a TV show like “SVU” has never been more relevant – or more needed. What’s happening every week on “SVU” is also happening across the country. From Bill Cosby to Brett Kavanaugh to the recent #WhyIDidn’tReport hashtag on Twitter, we’re seeing the same message over and over: Women have had enough and they’re, at long last, raising their voice and demanding to be heard.
It’s not often that a character on TV so accurately reflects the cultural landscape of the times. Through the fictional world of Olivia Benson, the show is able to tap into something very real and be an advocate for survivors of sexual assault. In our culture of “escapist TV,” real can be quite rare.
It’s also rare to see the actress who plays the character continue the character’s work off screen, but that’s exactly what actress Mariska Hargitay has done. In 2004, she founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.
Plus, the national backlog of untested rape kits is an issue she’s centralized on the show and off. On the show, it’s been the focus of multiple story lines, including a cameo from then-sitting Vice President Joe Biden. And earlier this year, she released “I Am Evidence,” a powerful HBO documentary detailing the unbelievable numbers of untested rape kits that are basically just sitting in evidence storage rooms across the country. The documentary won awards at film festivals across the country.
The series has sometimes been criticized for some of its more lurid, “ripped from the headlines” plot arcs (the Anthony Weiner-esque character with the moniker “Enrique Trouble” stands out), and Hargitay in real life has also been responsive to the news in her activism; when notable incidents of domestic violence and sexual assault were plaguing the NFL, Hargitay’s foundation partnered with the NFL to produce public service announcements with players.
Hargitay’s mindful use of her “star status” matters a great deal in a world where rape victims are too often silenced, shamed and, at the very worst, told to “be quiet.”
“The rape kit backlog is the most shocking demonstration of how we regard these crimes,” she told People. “You can’t change or fix what happened to one person. What you can change is what might happen to someone else.”