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A dive into the most celebrated on-screen female detective from the Law-and-Order franchise and what makes her relevant even after 25 years. 

Who dunnit?

Perhaps the quintessential phrase of every detective/cop show perfectly captures the audience’s point of interest. The spotlight is always on crime. A heartless killer, a damsel in distress, 2 cops, and after a series of life/death situations, a couple of gunshots, and cops running around, we finally get our killer all wrapped up in a 1-hour long episode. Detective shows have always been narrative-driven, with little to no focus on any of the detectives’ lives, featuring male detectives majorly and if you’re lucky,  a female one sometimes but relegated to bit parts or girlfriend roles. They were characters who could be strong but only to a certain point and never enough to tank the show’s TRP. However, the focus here shifts to that very show and its protagonist, a figure who not only captivated an entire generation but also left an indelible mark on the collective consciousness. So profound was the impact of this character that the actor portraying her began receiving letters detailing personal experiences with abuse, motivating her to attain certification as a rape counselor. Thus unfolds the tale of the longest-running character in television history: Detective Olivia Benson. (yeah, Taylor Swift named her cat after her!)

Dramatic Cue: In 1999, Dick Wolf introduced us to a new show, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit bringing us the staff at Manhattan SVU, a squad of detectives, medical examiners, attorneys, etc., who deal with victims of sexual abuse and children. The show is centered around mainly 2 cops, Det. Elliot Stabler and Det. Olivia Benson or Captain Olivia Benson, now. True to its name, the show focuses on the dilemmas surrounding the charges against criminals based on the nature and severity of the crime highlighting the complexity of the US judicial system. Unlike traditional crime procedurals that focus solely on solving cases, SVU focuses not only on finding the “right” criminal rather, on the right amount of evidence to convict them. It incorporates legal proceedings and courtroom drama as integral parts of its storytelling showcasing the legal challenges and ethical dilemmas faced by prosecutors in pursuing justice.

Amidst all of this, we have the badass Olivia Benson. She stands out from the rest of the squad due to her empathy and determination. She is flawed and continuously fighting both her personal and professional demons. Watching her strength and pain, how those two could exist together, you don’t feel so alone in the world that often abuses and degrades women for their struggles. Early on, we learn that her own mother was a victim of rape which resulted in her conception. What happens to Olivia becomes a part of her and impacts how she views each case. She sees her mother and later herself in her victims, affecting the way she interacts with them with absolute compassion and warmth. Routine detectives depend solely on absolute objectivity, focusing mainly on solving the case and hunting criminals, Olivia, despite her remarkable intelligence, prioritizes making victims feel safe and supported. She understands that an equally crucial part of her job is to foster a sense of security, encouraging victims to open up and aiding them through the healing process. And, it is because of Olivia’s commitment to her principles that the show despite the shifts in format and a revolving door of cast members over the years still stands the test of time. Throughout the show, Olivia’s love life has been a topic of both joy and heartache for viewers. From fleeting romances and long-term relationships, we get a glimpse of her emotional vulnerability. Despite the fandom constantly shipping  Elliot and Olivia, the show’s creators chose to prioritize adding depth to their characters individually allowing them to explore a relationship based on mutual trust and shared experiences.

Olivia Benson has been the most culturally important character when we talk about issues relating to assault and abuse. The credit for that solely goes to the actress who breathed life into Oliva- Mariska Hargitay. When she began working on the show, while her co-stars received fan mail, Mariska received tragic letters of her viewer’s stories of abuse as they confided in her as if she was the character she played on screen. Mariska’s commitment to the character ignited a fervor for real-world change, elevating her stardom to a realm where it radiated not just on the television but also in the corridors of social justice. 

The actress underwent formal training and became a certified rape crisis counselor, and founded the Joyful Heart Foundation for victims of abuse. She also testified in the US Congress on the rape kit backlog and never misses an opportunity to talk about the cause. Mariska’s life story is crucial to understanding the relevance of Olivia Benson because it is a testament to her unwavering dedication to the cause that has blurred the lines between fiction and reality. It’s difficult to know where Olivia ends and Mariska begins and for this reason, a dark show like Law and Order: SVU that gets inspiration from real-life newspaper headlines is a comfort show for many. Olivia has been vital to Mariska’s personal growth as well. The actress recently opened up about her own experience with sexual assault which she had tucked away for many years and remarks on how her playing Olivia Benson and working with victims in reality healed her. Mariska’s mindful use of her “star status” leaves us with the most influential “actor to activist” story. 

The show, with Olivia at the epicenter, can be used as a focal point to trace the evolution of technology, social media, language, and most importantly, our ever-progressing attitudes about victims of abuse. Over 25 years, the show continuously evolves, igniting conversations around abuse and playing an important role in the #MeToo movement, and advocating about the rape kit backlog. It began with damsel-in-distress storylines but has expanded to a broader range of issues related to sexuality, gender, identity, and societal attitudes toward these topics.

 It reflects a societal shift towards more inclusive and diverse storytelling, where the victims are portrayed as multifaceted characters with agency and strength, diving deeper into the need to change outdated laws. As a Bollywood-influenced girl myself, the thing that astonished me the most was the fact that there is absolutely zero mention of Olivia’s age in the show. Mariska turned 60 this year and the show never tried to showcase her as an eye candy. Unlike the usual depiction of female detectives where they strut around in high heels and tight blouses, Olivia has been left to age gracefully. Olivia and SVU form a fabric of righteousness and integrity, embodying their dedication to justice. Their only “crime,” it seems, lies in the unfulfilled desire of fans who long for Olivia and Elliot to become a couple. This unrequited love story, akin to the slowest slow-burn ever, remains a case beyond Olivia’s investigative reach. 

Dun Dun !

Read Also: Do Male-Directed Women-Centric Films Perpetuate Mansplaining?

Image Credits: The New York Times 

Saanvi Manchanda 

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