“Law & Order: SVU”: Feminism In Pop Culture

This is an essay I wrote earlier this year when I first noticed and began building the theory that “SVU” is a feminist show. I have since watched a lot more episodes (most, in fact, in reruns, hooray for USA!) and have been taking more specific notes which I will eventually add to these initial thoughts to create a full, more flushed-out and supported theory. In the meantime, let me know what you think!

My addiction to “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (otherwise known as “SVU”) is fairly new, and is fueled largely by a startling discovery of its feminist undertones. The feminism is clearly illustrated in one of the lead characters of Detective Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) and is supported by the character of her partner, Detective Elliott Stabler (Christopher Meloni).

Stabler’s married, and he’s Catholic so he’s got four kids. He’s quite attached to his family, and doesn’t mentally desert them when he goes to work. Many of the cases in which he gets personally involved–often to extreme degrees–are ones where the players are reminiscent of his family: he’s said things like “You know I’ve got a daughter your age” on many occasions.

Benson, on the other hand, is single. And it’s totally ok and not a big deal. The only time it ever really comes up is when she asks Stabler about his take on a case as a family man: “If Kathy [his wife] did this, what would you do?” In a very early episode she was dating this crime reporter, who turned out to be really sketchy so she booted him out in a very admirable way (“Ok, I’m going to go wash my face, and my hands, and my mouth, and you’d better be gone before I come out”) (episode 1.19).

It’s these early episodes which triggered this theory. I’ve only seen two in reruns so far (as I’ve said, I’m a relatively new fan), marked mostly by Benson’s startlingly different character. The most noticeable difference was the hair–neck-length and slightly layered, considerably different from the very short hair that I’m used to. And I don’t think long hair suits her–it doesn’t seem to fit the character at all. It felt like they were trying to make her something that she as a character simply did not jive with.

What I saw as “wrongness” of the character didn’t end with her hair. It became clear that the character was supposed to be this standard chick–from the make-up to the gait to others’ reactions to her to her dating (the whole date scenario was only slightly unconventional, displaying the show’s willingness to compromise by breaking some stereotypes while leaving the rest firmly in place). Again, I’ve only seen two of these early episodes but the transition and development of the character from the two-dimensional stereotypical and very gendered female with a bit of power into the Olivia Benson I know and love is quite clear.

Make-Up: The current Benson is not a knock-out. She is pretty and thin by real-life standards but certainly not by the media’s. Not only is her hair very short (though in the newest episodes it has grown out a bit), her make-up is minimal and natural, displaying a complexion that is not flawless in color or shape. The Benson from the first season was considerably whiter and brighter, and it’s not just four-plus years of doing “SVU” that’s made her lose this clearly false mask of face.

Gait/Clothes: Another thing I noticed about the original Benson: she seemed sort of awkward in her clothes and in how she moved in them. My conclusion is that they had her wearing pants suits (one convention they were willing to break) but still had her walking in a standard feminine way (another convention firmly in place). This caused what I saw to be awkwardness in her clothes versus her movement.

The new and improved Benson often wears a combination pants suit and casual top, both androgynous and feminine elements, and the awkwardness is gone. She walks and moves like a regular person–a regular, REAL woman, that is, what fits her personally–not like how the media dictates a woman should walk (no matter in what profession or capacity) lest she be declared unfeminine.

And that’s another thing. The current Benson’s femininity is never brought into question. Countless times I’ve thought, “Oh, here it is, this is where she’s called a dyke.” Or the opposite–“This is where some good-looking straight-laced white guy hits on her and she suddenly becomes all girly and flushed and subordinate”… but it never happens.

Other’s Reactions: In one of the early episodes, Stabler introduces Benson as his new partner to a friend of his. The man says something about her being better-looking than Stabler’s last partner. Benson responds to this remark with a smile and an almost demure “oh thank you.” Later in the same scene, Benson refers to a woman in a photograph they’re showing the man as “a babe and a stone-cold fox.” The man says, “No, you’re a stone-cold fox. And a babe.” There is no response and we move onto the next beat (episode 1.2).

Because the response isn’t important. It’s not about that. Even a smiley and demure “oh thank you” merely reinforces the idea that it’s not about her reaction to these comments. It just establishes that “a stone-cold fox” and “a babe” is what she is–it’s a given, no matter how gender-biased and unprofessional it may appear to us “unconventional” and “progressive” types.

Oh, but the new Benson… her status as a hot mama or a woman is not only not questioned, it’s rarely even brought to the table. Those comments by that one guy in that one early episode appalled me, mainly because it was the first time I’d seen anything like it. She is a cop first and foremost, not a woman who happens to be a cop. She acts like a cop and is seen as a cop by her colleagues, superiors, suspects, etc., and thus the audience. Her femininity has been used very infrequently as a TOOL–usually with which to aid in the interrogation of a suspect–and that is all, from what I have seen. (The early comments were also appalling because of the reaction. I think and would hope that the new and improved Benson–how I know her to be–would not respond in that way.)

Yes, she is a cop first and she’s a damn good one, and she’s not good IN SPITE of the fact that she’s a woman. As her role of cop first she defies many stereotypes of a woman first: she is often rough, even violent, with suspects. This very issue was raised in an episode when a rapist’s defense was that he was the product of his mother’s rape, so violence is in his genes. Benson, we learn, is also a child of rape. She talks to the shrink, Huang, about his after the trial (where the man is found guilty). She wonders about herself, whether or not she’s prone to violence. She thinks, I am violent with criminals–maybe I have to be violent in some way, and just by luck I came into being a cop. She asks, what’s the difference between him and me, besides luck? Huang responds that regardless of her tendencies, she’s fighting FOR good, not against it, and that luck or genes has little to do with what kind of person she is, morally (episode 3.8).

So she’s got all these issues, this baggage. Like all these cops on these shows. And, like the MALE cops, her issues and how she got to where she is are not strictly female (a.k.a. gendered, a.k.a. deviant). They are human. So maybe she’s human first. Whatever the case, she is anything but a gendered body first.

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