Like pretty much every woman I know, I have a major crush on Olivia Benson, the character inhabited by the subtly sexy Mariska Hargitay. Benson is one of the most badass cops on television, and she's a woman, who will pistol whip perpetrators of the city's most "heinous crimes" without batting a perfectly kohl-pencil-lined eye. But what also makes her unmistakably "good police," is her ability to empathize with the victims of sex crimes, never second-guess or patronize them, and certainly never slut-shame victims of sexual assault. So, like most of my woman-crushes, I pretty much want to BE Olivia Benson. She's self-sufficient, completely fulfilled by her career, and in the past few seasons has had relationships with men (yes, Liv dates! and currently is in a relationship with dreamboat Brian Cassidy, played by Dean Winters).
I'm not saying she's without her issues: she's had a rough childhood, being the child of rape, a fact that compelled her career to give voices to the victims of sex crimes; she lost her mother (a drunk) to an alcohol-related death. She knows nothing about her father, who committed suicide, and lost her partner, the hunky ex-marine Elliot Stabler, also known as the man she's had the most longstanding relationship with. But if you're an SVU fan as I am, this is old news. Brief recap of last season's cliffhanger: defeated by a mistrial of one of the series' most sadistic offenders, who has a penchant for holding his hostages at gunpoint, at which time he rapes and tortures them, Benson returns home to her Upper West Side apartment. Guess who's waiting for her, sticking a pistol under her chin? "Welcome home, Detective Benson." Throughout the summer, fans of the show started a #SaveBenson campaign, as we all feared the worst for our heroine.
I mentally prepared myself for the fact that Benson would be irrevocably changed by what her assailant had in store for her, and how she's going to get through it. I also found myself wanting to impart some Bensonian wisdom on my favorite TV personality: "You are not to blame." "You will not forget, but you will heal."
But Benson was not raped.
My question to the writers of SVU is, why not? Were writers afraid that viewers might view this "wonder woman" (her shrink dons this title on her in the season premiere, albeit to question Benson's own self-perception) differently if she were to be violated in such a way? Were the writers fearful that fans like myself might view Benson as "weak" if she were sexually violated? Doesn't this go against everything Olivia Benson stands for: changing the way women and men see victims of rape?
Duct taped and handcuffed to an old fashioned iron framed bed, Benson tries to a number of strategies with her assailant, William Lewis (played by Pablo Schreiber of Orange Is The New Black). In one of her survivor strategies, she's actually baiting him to force himself upon her: "We've been together for four days and I've seen a lot of talk but not much action." In those four days, Lewis burned Benson's flesh with metal, drugged her with vodka and sleeping pills, forced her to watch the rape and torture of another woman, and left her with a concussion, broken wrist, and cracked ribs. But to echo Benson's query, why hasn't this serial rapist had his way with the show's hero? This isn't the first time Benson had a close call with a sexual predator. In Episode 15 "Undercover" of Season 9, Benson is assaulted but not raped by a crooked prison guard who is raping female inmates. Although the near-rape attack leaves Benson traumatized, she still brings down the perp with a pithy cop one-liner: "Who's the bitch now?"
In last night's season premiere, Benson's attacker mocks her by calling her a "nice girl." I wonder about the message SVU is sending to women about "nice girls" and "wonder women" (SVU is hands-down Liv's show, especially since Stabler's departure). Can a rape victim still own the show and legion fans, men and women alike? In her recovery from her traumatic kidnapping and torture, Benson reveals to her shrink, "What I'm afraid of is walking into my squad room and having everybody look at me and wonder if I'm okay." Seems like the writers were wondering the same thing had Benson been indeed raped. This disturbs me, and frankly, it should disturb Benson as well.
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