If Only ‘SVU’s’ Olivia Benson Could “Lock Them Up”
Bingeing on the ‘Law & Order’ franchise can be a comfort if you let yourself fantasize about how the lieutenant would put the cuffs on a rogue administration.
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The stories sometimes start with Olivia Benson reading the perp his Miranda rights outside Trump Tower. Although the Special Victims Unit commanding officer follows protocol, her latest and greatest collar has already admitted to “grabbing women by the pussy.” In fact, he’s proud of it. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” he tells Benson. Little does he know that his lawyer, Michael Cohen, copped a plea, divulging efforts to suppress evidence of those crimes and many, many others.
Benson fights off a Julia Roberts smile during the perp walk. Maybe she’d pity the man in the handcuffs at her side if he weren’t so pathetic. His Scotch-taped tie has come loose again, flapping in the wind almost as vigorously as his strawlike hair. Benson could never—NEVER—pity someone as craven and cruel as Donald Trump.
Law and Order: SVU is celebrating its 20th season, and as we approach the dreaded second anniversary of the 2016 presidential election, I find myself doing something I never imagined: writing SVU fanfiction about Detective Benson—excuse me, that’s Sergeant Benson as of Season 15 and Lieutenant Benson as of Season 17—arresting our reality-star president. Then again, I was one of those naïve white feminists who didn’t think Trump had a shot at the White House until 53 percent of women who look like me voted for him.
Some people have impeachment fantasies. I have elaborate fantasies about Benson locking up the groper-in-chief, and while she’s at it, new Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, who swore that he couldn’t have sexually assaulted a teen classmate because he was virgin. (One of his accusers, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the same day as SVU’s 20th season premiere.) That nearly a dozen all-white Republican men tried to cast doubt on her story as many of them did on Anita Hill’s years earlier (I still believe Hill), only sharpened my fantasy of Benson being in that room, cuffs eagerly awaiting Kavanaugh’s wrists.
I began bingeing on SVU during the presidential campaign, when I was a journalist covering the threats that Trump and his “pro-life” puppet master, Mike Pence, posed to reproductive rights. The long-running series always seemed to be on TV. Try flipping past basic cable stations without the oddly comforting “two beat metallic sort of thunk” that opens every episode of SVU and its erstwhile counterparts in the Law and Order universe. Then try not to get sucked into an all-day marathon. As one episode rolled into the next, I didn’t have to think about the perils that Trump promised to deliver when he took office. I didn’t have to think at all. A classic police procedural doesn’t require the same degree of rumination as prestige dramas or, Lord help me, 24-hour cable-news channels fanning the flames of the Dumpster fire administration.
Mostly, I didn’t have to think because I could trust Benson to deliver. Mariska Hargitay’s iconic depiction of Olivia Benson is the beating heart of SVU. She’s tough and empathetic. She’s a single woman who then becomes a single mom. And she almost always gets her man—off the streets, that is. Benson’s jurisdiction doesn’t extend from the fictional streets of New York City into our national nightmare. If only it did, the scenes on the nightly news would end with Trump in the back of a police cruiser.
There’s poetic justice in the flagship of the Law and Order franchise staging the demise of the “law and order” candidate-turned-president. But it’s problematic, too. The very phrase is a racist dog whistle dating back to Richard Nixon’s administration. “Law and order” fuels Trump’s racist rhetoric and policies, so much so that The Ringer’s Kate Knibbs argued such coded language is no more—“it is loud enough for all to hear.” My enjoyment of SVU is, to an extent, a matter of privilege, an ability to criticize but not directly experience the objectionable depictions of excessive police force, gender identity, and mental illness, among others, that the series, like the system, perpetuates despite strides forward from earlier seasons.
SVU’s approach to sexually based offenses can be at once heartening and challenging. With some exceptions, they aren’t especially heinous for me to consume. Many of the bad guys are unequivocally bad guys. There are a lot of tidy endings with a confession in the “box” or a guilty verdict in the courtroom, though in reality, confessions can be coerced and juries can be biased. In reality, 994 out of every 1,000 rapists won’t face any consequences under our nation’s criminal justice system, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network statistics. The system has deeper roots in racism and mass incarceration than justice. But what is justice? Should it be restorative? I don’t believe that Trump will ever take responsibility for his actions, nor steps to rectify and heal the wide-ranging harm he has caused. Perhaps that’s why I’m imagining law enforcement as the solution for violence, for a change.
The reality is that Donald Trump could, in his own words, “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and “wouldn’t lose any voters”—let alone go to prison for sexually assaulting women or, hell, treason. Many women have accused Trump of sexual assault or harassment. How many depends on the news outlet and how it fact-checks and defines a “credible” story. There are 16 accusers by ABC News’ count, or 20 by The Guardian’s count, or just 11 by CNN’s count.
My SVU pulls me into an alternate reality in which the dedicated detectives who investigate Trump’s vicious felonies hold him accountable, statutes of limitations be damned. Olivia Benson—Liv—would encourage survivors to share their stories, then talk them through pressing charges. Though I have a soft spot for Casey Novak and especially Rafael Barba, Benson would collaborate with Alexandra Cabot, the greatest of all Law and Order: SVU district attorneys, fulfilling the internet’s femslash hopes and dreams for those two kids. They would sit together in Benson’s large office, the windowed one she took over from her retiring captain, a man, in Season 15. Benson would sip coffee from her Hillary Clinton mug as Cabot demanded more character evidence—the purported “pee tape,” the purported n-word tape. They needed everything they could find to discredit Trump, to combat defense attorneys who slut-shame survivors on the stand. “That’s why we’re here. To fight. For them. And the less perfect they are, the harder we fight,” Benson said in Season 19, and the same would apply to cases involving Trump. The Trump tapes don’t matter in real life, where Trump allegations never stick.
You better believe Benson and Cabot would make them all stick.
Cabot is no Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona-based Special Victims Division prosecutor (or “female assistant”) hired by Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans to interrogate and victim-blame Dr. Ford because they were too chickenshit to do so themselves. Cabot would call Benson as a witness. The lieutenant’s testimony would be damning for Trump. She would sit through the courtroom proceedings, and she would be there when the jury delivered its guilty verdict. Then, she would use her free time to wrap up the Russia investigation faster than the ever methodical, painstakingly slow Bob Mueller show.
My fantasy doesn’t just turn Olivia Benson into a superwoman. My vision is more complicated—and more problematic. In my reimagining, Benson is a white savior. She wields her badge and her whiteness and yes, her Julia Roberts-smile and Kohl-rimmed eyes and InStyle-approved hairstyles to advocate for survivors. That kind of savior rarely exists in real life for women, let alone for women of color. Neither do glorified, Cabot-style prosecutors. Many drive mass incarceration instead. Yet that’s what I’ve conjured. That’s what I’m applauding with the same fervor as white people who expect cookies for their allyship. Our good intentions mean nothing without action, without turning off the television and tangibly supporting the women of color, and especially Black women who too often get nothing more than empty social media #thanks in return for their advocacy. #MeToo was Tarana Burke’s movement before Alyssa Milano, a white actress, ever tweeted #MeToo.
Olivia Benson isn’t going to save us. (Ivanka Trump definitely isn’t going to save us, in case anyone was still harboring that delusion.) Fifty-three percent of women who look like Benson voted for Trump. According to a new Quinnipiac University poll, only 46 percent of white women believe Dr. Ford; 43 percent believe Kavanaugh and 11 percent don’t know. White women chose to vote for an admitted predator then and stood by a credibly accused one now, rather than check their privilege or interrogate their racism or examine their role in upholding white supremacy, despite the likelihood that many have experienced sexual violence or sexual harassment themselves. Far too many so-called allies are arguing for civility. I say fuck civility, and Benson would, too. But we largely escape the consequences of our anger because we’re both white women. Black women like Serena Williams are censured. White men like Kavanaugh are rewarded.
I recognize that idealizing Benson is very #NotAllWhitePeople. And yet, she means a great deal to me. She may be mere wish fulfillment, but she’s the very real, if imperfect, vessel for my female rage, my thirst for justice under an administration that undermines it, tweet by tweet. She’d wipe the smirk off Trump’s face. She’d wipe the damn floor with him. She’d lock him up.
These are their stories, the stories I write in my head.
The stories always end with Benson pushing Trump’s head into the back seat of the police cruiser, slamming the door, and thumping the roof with her hand.
“Lock him up,” Benson shouts.
“Lock him up,” the crowd chants. How’s that for a taste of his own vitriol? He couldn’t stand losing to a woman, and now one is going to lock him up. “Lock him up. Lock him up. Lock him up—”
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