The hit TV show ‘Law & Order SVU’ just wrapped up its 20th season with an episode that brought issues of immigration and Islamophobia in a two hour season finale. The show stars decorated and deeply compassionate detective, and now lieutenant, Olivia Benson played by Mariska Hargitay, and it teaches (receptive) viewers about issues of consent and how to respectfully listen to and treat victims of sex crime, but it also, among many other problems with the show (like the profound violence towards women depicted on the show that borders on the lines of voyeurism), indoctrinates viewers into putting faith in the criminal justice system to run smoothly and do its supposed job of serving justice to those who are guilty.
I was once a passive viewer of SVU. I’ve been watching ‘Law & Order SVU’ since freshman year of high school. I never knew anyone personally who had been a victim of rape or sexual abuse. I watched the show for nothing more but entertainment purposes. Looking back, my experience as a viewer was problematic; now, I see the issues with the show, but I also acknowledge that I learned some lessons through the show that investigates cases (through the perspective of law enforcement, a specialized New York Police Department squad) that focus on “special victims” that range from rape victims and sex trafficking, to victims child neglect.
Hargitay’s character, Lieutenant Benson, whenever she speaks to victims of assault, immediately takes the side of the victim. Instead of the all-too-common narrative of innocent until proven guilty, she takes on the mantra of guilty until proven innocent. There are some exceptions, but most of the time, the word of the victim is the truth. Some costars in the show ask Benson what the victim was doing in the moment of the attack, but Benson immediately thwarts those attempts at victim blaming. She empowers women who have had violence inflicted upon them to voice their stories and their history, although it is imperative to keep in mind that our justice system is flawed, for it forces abuse victims to constantly relive their painful experiences.
Her attitude towards victims of sex crimes, like sexual harassment and rape, has taught me that it’s possible to change out collective perspectives when it comes to listening to real stories of victims, and that it doesn’t always have to be backed up by physical evidence.
However, this message is difficult to parse out if this is just another TV show you watch ever Monday night. When I watch SVU, some times I am disgusted by the horrific events that it portrays. Who is the show being made for? Is it some way of honoring these victims? Or is it educational?
In a study conducted by the Journal of Health Communication, it stated that, “exposure to the Law & Order franchise is associated with decreased rape myth acceptance and increased intentions to adhere to expressions of sexual consent and refuse unwanted sexual activity.”
In each episode, the detectives of the “elite squad” make clear their attitudes towards common, degrading attitudes towards victims of abuse. It might not reflect the reality of law enforcement, but it creates a space on prime time television where a narrative of putting the victim’s pain and reality above everything else. In a time where Donald Trump’s comments about women are defended and protected, Olivia Benson fights for a more thoughtful, supportive, and healing way of dealing with violence against women.