thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

How to be awesome like…Olivia Benson.

In gender on December 8, 2011 at 2:44 am

Melissa Sexton

So, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to write about anymore “bad-ass” chicks – I was going to try and branch out, embracing the lessons I taught myself in writing about Bella: women don’t have to be armed to be awesome.  I even made a good-faith effort and started writing about my favorite rom-com heroines, and how many of them dismantle stereotypes without a crossbow or combat boot in sight. But then I was watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, my favorite background show for busy work or mentally unplugging when I’ve become totally brain-dead. I’m a sucker for a good crime procedural. While I know the formula and can usually predict the outcome, I find something soothing in the repetition. But SVU remains my favorite of all the crime procedurals, and I know it’s because of the characters. There is a high energy connection between the chief, Captain Cragen (Dann Florek), his two primary detectives, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), and the rest of the crew – including my favorites, the psychiatrist Dr. Huang (B.D. Wong) and the medical examiner Dr. Warner (Tamara Tunie). The show may be often unrealistic (if anywhere NEAR that many attacks occurred in holding cells and precinct offices, the police would stop being a viable association), but the relationships between the characters are incredibly realistic.  And Olivia Benson is a wonderful, complex, grown-up, messed-up, and admirable character that I love as I love few other primetime TV characters.

Beautiful eyes, but a gaze of steel.

So what is it that separates Olivia Benson from all the other sexy female cops out there?  I’ll tell you by suggesting how you can be as awesome as she is.

1. Don’t rely on your sex appeal to get your job done.  One of the things that most irks me about television portrayals of female cops is the way that their sexuality often seems to be front and center. Think Beyonce in If I Were a Boy. Everything she does is sexy, from cuffing a perp to driving a car, and of course her partner is constantly one step away from jumping her.

Damn girl, work the uniform.

The female in uniform is often a sexualized object. Her gun-toting is alluring, not authoritative. While Olivia Benson is undeniably sexy, her character refuses to bank on her sex appeal in order to do her job. One thing that intrigues me about the show is how her partner, Elliot, gets hit on more on the job than Olivia does. While men challenge her authority often, they don’t tend to hit on her.  When they do, she often has a scrappy rejoinder.  My favorite?  “Screw you, sweetheart!” a wealthy businessman tells her during interrogation. She slams her hands down on the table, and says, “Oh, I can screw you harder.” She proceeds to lay out the exact sentence he is facing for his crimes.

This is what cops look like: badges, scarves for cold weather, hoofing it on the streets.

2.  Only be a bad-ass with the bad-guys; otherwise, empathize. Because in reality, as Benson’s character shows, the real work of being a detective and being a cop is not the shooting, foot chases, or high speed pursuits. It’s talking to victims in the aftermath of horrific crimes and trying to help them navigate the convoluted legal system.  A repeated theme of the SVU version of Law and Order is how sex-crimes detectives have the hardest job of all because they have to deal with living victims suffering from significant emotional trauma. While SVU does occasionally glamorize or sexualize such violence, it also is very thoughtful in thinking through how our society simply does not have systems in place to help people deal with such violence…and how difficult it can be to help a victim through such work. Benson repeatedly surprises me with her ability to mix toughness and incredible emotional sensitivity. Whereas Elliot’s reaction when he identifies closely with a victim tends to be violent rage, Olivia’s reaction oscillates between sneaky, semi-legal attempts to solve the crime on her own (she’s like a grown-up Veronica Mars with just a dash of Pretty Little Liar about her – I’d say Hannah plus Spencer – in such moments) and incredible acts of emotional generosity. She takes in children whose parents leave them in her custody. She personally guards a rape victim for weeks until she can track down her rapist. Olivia Benson proves that strapping on a gun and participating in violence does not exempt you from the ethical imperatives to be good to others and tend to emotional as well as physical suffering.

3. Deal with your past – it will take some time. Olivia, like Veronica Mars, like the Pretty Little Liars, is not a girl who has it all together. But she models what it might look like to actually deal with a life marked by suffering and trauma. Throughout the show’s many seasons, we slowly learn that Olivia is a child of rape – that her mother does not know who her father is and that her relationship with her mother is permanently marked by their past. Her decision to work in Sex Crimes represents a complicated desire to get over her past, to make up for her mother’s years of untreated alcoholism, to atone for her own sense of guilt towards her mother, to solve her mother’s yet-unsolved crime, to make something positive out of the tragedy that is at the center of her life, and to help other women deal with the horrible trauma that her mother never overcame. What I like about this narrative is that it, again, complicates the tough-as-nails cop veneer. Olivia occasionally sneaks away on super-sneaky business having to deal with her mother’s case; she comes to irrational conclusions when she thinks she has discovered new clues; she gets sensitive but abrupt and dismissive when other detectives attempt to reach out to her about her past. She does not pretend that this never happened to her life; but she tries on different responses, modeling what it might look like to actually grieve and deal with traumas that cannot truly heal. Her life takes the up-by-the-bootstraps feminism of Top Model, say, and puts a more realistic face on it: to turn your suffering into empowerment is going to take a long time, is going to require you to be honest with those closest to you, and is going to be full of pain and set-backs. But her desire to turn suffering into empowerment enables her to do an incredibly difficult job well and with emotional commitment.

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