On “SVU,” criminals are held to justice as we would hope them to be in reality and Olivia Benson represents whom we would hope to encounter if we ourselves had been assaulted
“Law & Order: SVU” has become ubiquitous in American and arguably global, popular culture. Not only has the show aired for 16 seasons, but it has also leaked from primetime to other facets of entertainment. Recently, Taylor Swift named her cat after Mariska Hargitay’s character, Olivia Benson, and Chris Meloni’s butt has become a Tumblr meme in itself. It has been renewed for a 17th season, securing its place as a cultural phenomenon and iconic television show.
However, the show’s subject matter can be borderline traumatizing at times, as it often details accounts of violence against women. Why were so many viewers compelled to binge watch and obsess over the program?
On “SVU,” criminals are held to justice as we would hope them to be in reality and Olivia Benson represents whom we would hope to encounter if we ourselves had been assaulted. She is overwhelmingly compassionate for the survivor and risks her own wellbeing to find justice for them.
In the end of each episode, she usually finds that justice. It is her presence and persona that has compelled so many people to watch the show with such fervor. Her persistent refusal to blame the survivor is a narrative we often find lacking in reality. But “Law and Order: SVU” is a romanticized portrayal of the judicial system, in which the perpetrator is always caught and the justice system shows compassion for the marginalized.
In reality, only 32 instances of rape out of 100 cases are reported, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, data that opposes the routine reporting SVU constantly reiterates. This low rate of reporting is due to the fact that only seven instances lead to arrest, with three cases assigned prosecutors and finally only two given felony convictions and spending at least one day in prison. These numbers paint a portrait of how seriously dismissive the judicial system treats the issue of rape.
But the fact that perpetrators on “SVU” are overwhelmingly convicted is not the only way the show mischaracterizes the justice system in this country. Detectives that are shown as nearly analogous to police officers in the program are portrayed in a positive light. Although they often blur the lines of morality and legality, their intentions are almost always shown as being good. The detectives and police officers of “SVU” resemble white knights fighting against the villainous and corrupt perpetrators of assault.
However, if current events are any indication, police brutality is a problem. The recent militarization of Ferguson, Missouri after Office Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown this past year is the most salient instance of this. Purpose more pertinent to this discussion of SVU is the murder of Eric Garner, in which an NYPD officer held Garner in an illegal chokehold that killed him.
Besides the instances of direct police brutality against black people in this country, there are instances of the criminalization of self-defense.
Marissa Alexander is a woman who fired a warning shot in her own home after her estranged husband attacked and threatened to kill her nine days after she gave birth. She was convicted in the state of Florida of aggravated assault and given a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison. Her attorneys argued that she was defending herself, specifically under the state’s Stand your Ground law. Despite the glaring injustice that Alexander faced from the judicial system, she served three of her 20 years after making a plea deal.
Cece McDonald, a black transgender woman, was attacked by neo-Nazis outside of a bar she was passing with a group of friends. While defending herself, she stabbed the assailant and ran for her life. He died from the injuries he sustained shortly thereafter. McDonald was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 41 months in a men’s prison after pleading her case down from second-degree murder.
Although “Law and Order: SVU,” is a long running, impressive program, the fantasy it presents could affect our attitudes towards the police and judicial system in this country, especially considering how often they themselves can victimize those who they are meant to protect. Media is a powerful force — especially television shows like SVU, a show that has aired for a length that can equate to the lifetime of some of its viewers. Can a show that celebrates a system that has wronged so many blind us from the critical thought processes needed to analyze it? Ask yourself that next time you’re watching Benson take down a perpetrator.