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Looking at Law and Order’s Olivia Benson Through a Foucaultian Lens

“In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.”
– Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, opening credits.


[TRIGGER WARNING: Rape, Sexual Assault, Torture]


If you’ve seen at least one episode of Dick Wolf’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, then you can probably hear voice-over actor Steven Zirkilton’s booming voice echoing in your mind, and maybe even hear a gavel hammering justice into a courtroom table. SVU is a scripted drama series about a cast of  empathetic detectives who have committed their lives to help the survivors of crimes  involving sexual assault and rape. The show is worth noting because it has attempted to subvert several common tropes in the representation of sexual assault, for example, with their vow to not visually represent a sexual assault on screen. This subversion from other prime-time television crime dramas is significant because SVU does not visually objectify women for an additional shock factor or to trigger the viewer’s anxieties. Though justifiably several feminist outlets have critiqued SVU for its representation of rape, with erroneous statistics of false rape reports and survivor stereotypes, we can still agree that there are feminist elements of the show, such as its main character; Detective Olivia Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay.

In real life, Hartigay is a trained rape crisis counselor and founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization who educates and raises awareness about sexual assault and domestic abuse. But has anyone taken a closer look at the story of Benson, the famous female detective who has devoted her life to taking down criminals that have made it their motive to violate women? As a child born of rape, Benson dedicated her life to catch rapists and sexual predators like the man who assaulted her mother, Serena. In a way, she is like a feminist Robin Hood—giving power back to victims and taking power away from predators.

Benson is often regarded as a heroine who mirrors echoes of the past feminist waves, because she is dedicated, seasoned, and tough. As a working woman in society with a successful rewarding career, she works to help oppressed groups find their voice, gain back their inner power, and sense of self.

Michel Foucault, supporter of feminism, father of post-structuralism, and author of The History of Sexuality, is well-known for his theories on power and discourse. Foucault defines discourse as ways of constituting knowledge with social practices and how they relate to one another. Discourse is more than just a way of thinking and assigning meaning, but a system of thoughts that systematically construct people and the worlds of which they speak. He analyses knowledge about sex in terms of social, physical, and emotional power, and believes that power is transferable, or can be transferred. In other words, there is no hierarchy of power, the distribution of power changes. He writes, “Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere….Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points.”  So if we were to draw upon the Foucauldian concept of power being based on the premise that power is mobile and transferable , then we one could argue that the character of Olivia Benson is a heroine that transfers the power taken from survivors of sexual assault.

Benson believes the definition of rape does not depend on a survivor’s identity or profession and does not tolerate sexism or sexual harassment. She is constantly advocating for survivors who are justifiably too afraid to stand up to their perpetrator, because she knows she can be the voice that perpetrator has taken from them. She assures the survivors in whatever way she can and defends them until the end. Even when her male counterparts doubt a survivor’s story, Olivia’s support is unwavering. As previously stated, Olivia Benson’s mother was also raped, resulting in an unplanned pregnancy, resulting in Olivia’s birth. Serena’s rapist wanted to dominate her his need to exert power over someone he did not deem his equal. Using Michel Foucault’s theories about power and how it is transferrable, we can view Olivia Benson as a representation of power fluidity in society.

Olivia did not choose to be born under such dark circumstances, so she became a police detective in order to resist the life and identity she was born into, a child that was not intended—a child that did not come from consensual intercourse. Foucault writes, “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power…more often one is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance, producing cleavages in a society that shift about,  fracturing unities and effecting regroupings.” Olivia shows resistance when she decides to join the police force, more specifically the Special Victims Unit. For example, in one episode a former co-worker says, “When the retired detective said it was ‘clear that the alleged victim was just fantasizing about the rape,’ Benson confronted him with his sexism and incompetence and stomped away in disgust…the scene clearly differentiated between the traditional police view of rape and Benson’s more feminist understanding.” Benson believes the definition of rape does not tolerate sexism or sexual harassment.

In another episode entitled Pornstar’s Requiem, a college freshman named Evie Barnes who had previously starred in pornographic films to pay for her tuition, is sexually assaulted by two of her peers when they discover the details of her double life. Unlike her male co-workers at the precinct, Benson argues that just because the 18 year-old girl was in adult videos in the past, it has no bearing on the terrible things the two boys did to her. She did not consent. Benson encourages her to press charges and insists that adult film entertainers have exactly the same rights as any other survivor of sexual assault. Benson even visits the dean of the college and ridicules him for blaming a female for her own assault. Her message is clear: survivors should not be blamed and no one deserves to be raped.

Benson is also no stranger to being attacked herself. In the end of the fourteenth season, she is kidnapped by repeated offender, serial rapist and murderer, William Lewis. Benson is forced to watch as he rapes and murders others around her, and is then tortured and beaten for four days. Benson was burned with cigarettes and metal hangers, and was moments away from being raped herself until manageing to break free and handcuff him. When he provokes her further, she becomes furious and enraged and beats him senseless. After watching so many traumatic events from a survivor’s perspective, Olivia refuses to show fear, but is left distressed and desolated by the near rape experience. She went through an experience much like those of whom she helps every day. This reaction is one that she has seen from many survivors while counselling them, and now she must take time to recover herself.

Despite Benson’s commendable and meritorious character, she is still a woman living in a man’s world. Although she is single in many of the earlier seasons and has never been married, she still works as a member in the police department under a male employer. She works under the chief and many male co-workers and colleagues, who are for the most part male. She also works closely with her partner, Elliot who is a white, middle-class male. So it’s difficult to class SVU as a strong feminist show, but Benson at least can stand as a role model for female viewers, as well as sexual assault survivors.

Olivia Benson is a determined and independent character who re-claims and redistributes power like just like Lisbeth Salander or Joan of Arc. She gives the power back to the survivors who have been violated and victimized, and takes power away from convicted criminals, making sure they are not given the opportunity to prey on more women or children, thus preventing further assaults. Benson is a driven detective that has created her own future and taken back power, liberating her and the survivors she helps as she puts away perpetrators and raises awareness about rape and sexual assault. The world needs more people like Benson, and hopefully one day there will be more like Benson, and less people like the monsters she fights.


[Images via NBC]

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Written by Elana Zambori

Elana Zambori is constantly the bigger person even though she stands at a solid 5'2. She is the liberal, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, outgoing, non-fiction loving feminist conservative parents warn their sons about. She is a college senior at the wild and wonderful West Virginia University double majoring in English and Women and Gender Studies and double minoring in History and Political Science. She is also President of the Panhellenic Association, which oversees the eight sororities on campus and works at the West Virginia Regional History Center. Elana is also an amateur wine connoisseur, aux cord enthusiast, Fitbit fanatic, reader of fiction, proud owner of a pink power ranger morphsuit. She rides her turquoise tricycle to Dunkin Donuts every morning.

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