Warning: this article contains mentions of sexual assault, domestic violence, abuse and police brutality.
The month of September marked the 24th anniversary of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” (SVU) premiering on television. Arguably one of the most successful and longest-airing shows in history, “SVU” is not only entertaining but has also had a positive impact on cultural and societal change since its initial air. These are their stories.
Since the show’s beginning, Mariska Hargitay’s character, the fiercely bold champion for the underdog, Olivia Benson, has played a titular force in the show’s progressive push for social change. Firstly, the audience sees Benson start out as a young detective and move through the ranks to sergeant, lieutenant and now captain of the Special Victims Unit. This strongly promotes female empowerment in a largely male-dominated workforce. In addition, the writers of the show make sure to highlight Benson’s nurturing and loving nature towards the victims she helps, which is refreshing as most typical cop shows portray the female officers as stone-faced, cold and closed off, when that usually isn’t the case.
Benson shows that women in all workplaces don’t have to sacrifice who they are in order to fit in and do their jobs properly. In addition to this, her reassuring, compassionate and comforting nature, has allowed the show’s audience to realize that if they or someone that they know has been in a situation that they see portrayed in “SVU,” it is absolutely OK to seek help.
Reports of sexual assaults didn’t necessarily skyrocket once the show premiered, but many victims recall that the stories portrayed in “SVU” helped them come to terms with their own experience and get the help and support they needed afterward, with many even seeking legal justice. According to Rolling Stone, Hargitay stated that victims who are also fans often choose to relay their stories to her, which gives her the strength and motivation to keep playing Benson in the show. Hargitay also founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, which, according to their website, aims to “transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse and support survivors’ healing.” In addition to this, she produced the 2017 documentary, “I Am Evidence,” which tackles the personal stories behind the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits that are currently in police possession. Hargitay is also a certified rape counselor.
According to Time Magazine, those who watch “SVU” on a regular basis or have a familiarity with the show have healthier attitudes towards consent, causes of sexual violence and various special victims related crimes than those who watched other crime shows, such as “CSI” or “NCIS.” The article stated that this is likely because viewers not only see the investigation of the crime, but the actual carrying out of justice and prosecution of the offender, while other law enforcement shows typically focus on the crime scene, analysis and glorification of violence.
Since “SVU” has been on the air for over two decades, it has stood the test of time throughout multiple generations. Because of this, the show often tackles important issues that are hot topics of the time that are being featured in the news or are current events, such as vaccines, racial equality, LGBTQIA+ rights, women’s reproductive rights and more. The show also does a great job of showing all perspectives of the issue that the episode is about, so viewers can start to form their own opinions based on them as well (even though a credible news source or journal article would probably be better than Dick Wolf, but to each their own).
Though “SVU” does an excellent job of making a more empathetic and culturally sensitive audience, it isn’t without its flaws. Many critics claim that a few of the characters, Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) in particular, perpetuate and normalize police brutality and embody the “bad apples” in law enforcement. I wholeheartedly agree that if these characters were real, they would be horrific officers of the law and should not be allowed to be in that position. In nearly every episode, Stabler can be found losing his temper and physically assaulting either his fellow officers, or more often, suspects. Although these actions are 100% wrong and should never be condoned, I don’t necessarily believe that the portrayal of them in “SVU” perpetuates the cycle of police brutality. If anything, I think it shows the harsh reality of what happens behind the scenes or in some cases, in plain sight, in law enforcement settings that the general public isn’t typically made aware of.
“Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” has obviously made a huge impact on American television, with spin-offs being made of it and the characters being known by just about everyone. Although it may seem like another TV show to simply put on as background noise, if you take the time to actually watch it and take in some of the important lessons from the episodes, it is definitely worth your while to do so. The societal and cultural impact of “SVU” cannot be denied, and the empathy and compassion levels of Americans have undoubtedly risen since the show’s premiere. Dun dun.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of The Torch