Benson's Bangs, Stabler's White Male Rage and Other SVU Especially Heinous Offenses
Okay, look. I have some business to address before I can do due diligence to the Mariska Hargitay elephant in the room. Because I will get to her. I have to. It is my moral obligation as a human any orientation. But, if I’m being absolutely honest, Mariska Hargitay and Olivia Benson scare me beyond comprehension, and I need a minute to collect myself before I get to her/her in their full essence.
I have some things to get to in meantime, though. Some tea might be spilled. Some shade might be provided.
It’s not entirely necessary to give any sort of adumbration of Law and Order SVU. If you are a creature with a pulse and a soul, you’ve watched 80-100% of the 9,700 episodes in the unfathomably long-lived Dick Wolf (And did he know when his erotic limerick writing career didn’t work out, he was going to be one of the most indomitably successful television producers in television history?) series that functions as a spin off of the original Law and Order franchise. If you ever skipped school—either out of genuine illness or some ennui that left you immobile under fifteen pounds of Pottery Barn Teen duvet covers and utterly incapable of doing anything other letting a marathon of Snapped on Oxygen or USA Network swallow you whole (NO ONE IS JUDGING YOU OR ME)—on a Tuesday or Thursday from 2003-2013, you inevitably found yourself immured in a literal 24-hour long marathon of SVU episodes that were often tied to together with a vague theme (“Ripped from the Headlines!” “Schoolyard Misbehaving!” “Sinister Siblings!” “Ice-T CONFUSED!” “Cragen Trying to Date!”). You’re either familiar with the series’ premise, or you’re at the point of intimacy where sexually based offenses being especially heinous is practically a meme to you.
So, there are a few establishing points to make that are crucially related to the show’s unique queerness before cracking open what made it the Ultimate GayMaker that it was for folks growing up and coming of age in my generation. First of all:
ELLIOT STABLER IS ABSOLUTE TRASH
Let’s not rush to tar and feather me just yet. I am right. But let me substantiate. My crime nerd queens over at True Crime Obsessed recently made a similar point and it has gnawed at me since. We all have the Elliot Stabler fetishes and fantasies. Christopher Meloni is perhaps one of the most radiantly sexual human beings to ever pace the earth aggressively. If Chris Meloni, at any point in my life, approached me and was DTF, I would absolutely drop everything I was doing, sever all ties, and fully commit to all of his carnal desires. I’m all about him, even in the absurdly skimpy jorts in Wet Hot American Summer. Christopher Meloni as an actual human seems to be, by all accounts, a totally normal, nice white man. And a fairly gifted actor. Which allows him to portray the indomitable shittiness that epitomizes Elliot Stabler.
It’s as hard a pill to swallow as it is to administer. But Elliot Stabler, who so many of us hit puberty adulating and eroticizing—and, who many queer women viewed as a “safe space” dude, a (fictional) man who was unbelievably sexy and represented a perceived respite and (fictional) protection from the typical onslaught of shitty men while still maintaining a healthy level of aggression—is A Bonafide Shit. In the early seasons, it seems like his favorite words are “tranny” and “hooker,” as if the acceptable ethos is “I’m a grizzled cop in New York and like these things are fine to say” rather than, “I spend my time witnessing and addressing the crimes against trans individuals and sex workers and perhaps I could EVOLVE.” Moreover, Stabler is dogmatically and obdurately Catholic (which is no shade to Catholics); he has no qualms with being disproportionately and inappropriately violent at work in such a way that transcends “sexy, passionately angry dude” and simply is dangerous and maniacally compensating for some disturbance that toxic masculinity proffers as the model for manhood (anyone who wants to suffer through Matthew Modine and the nearly unbearable Season Six episode “Rage” can see the ultimate encapsulation of this). Stabler seems to want a humanitarian award the way many men of that era (and now, honestly) feel they deserve for not being blatantly homophobic, racist, and only mildly misogynistic. He’s absolutely flabbergasted when his beleaguered wife Maureen seeks a separation and he would rather blame it on some “married to the job” bullshit rather than being a stubborn shitbrickhouse of miserableness.
Elliot Stabler represented a very important type of man, though. It was the “this is the best we deserve” model of man. This was the type of man I clung to as a queer adolescent. Hey! You’re not outwardly, virulently homophobic! Hey! You’ve never “technically” assaulted me or another woman. Hey! You casually disrespect consent and identities, but like, you’re not a categorical bigot at all! And we deserve better. We always have. And I like to think the brilliance behind Stabler is that it was a character designed to show what not good enough looks like, but I think that’s giving the show far too much credit. But Stabler, in all of his Trash Bag splendor, is crucial retroactively. He is demonstrative of how far we have come, if no one else has kept pace with us.
(Once again, though, if Chris Meloni is an open marriage…hmu?)
SAPPHO’S UTOPIA IS ALIVE AND THRIVING IN THE ADA POOL OF NEW YORK CITY
There’s a quintessentially abrupt and massively awkward—the kind of awkward only Law and Order or a Lifetime Movie or a drunk aunt asking about your “special friend” can achieve—moment in the original Law and Order, in which, upon being dismissed form the DA’s office, severe-blonde Serena Southerlyn (who, judging by that name, could have also been a seductive interior decorator on the last season of Designing Women) apropos of absolutely fucking nothing, asks her presiding DA if her dismissal is based on “her being a lesbian.” Aside from literally everything Peter Krause did on Six Feet Under, THIS MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE MOST INSIPIDLY INFURIATING MOMENT IN MY ADOLESCENT TELEVISION WATCHING CAREER. REALLY? FOUR EXCRUCIATING SEASONS OF WATCHING THAT CLEARLY POWER DYKE AND PROBABLY POWER BOTTOM (I DON’T KNOW THOUGH, I’M JUST WAGERING AN EDUCATED GUESS) FLOUNCE AROUND IN HER METICULOUSLY TAILORED MUTED-TONE SUITS AND IN HER FINAL MINUTES WE JUST GET “LOL DON’T GAY FIRE ME.” LIKE, BITCH. NOT EVEN A MILDLY GAY DRY HUMP?
When you’re desperately seeking some semblance of representation and some glimpse of women kissing, touching, fucking, eye-fucking, couch rubbing, literally anything that would satisfy as some vestige of semi-meaningful on-screen visibility or heaven-fucking-forbid arousal (maybe put the TIT in titillation, I DON’T KNOW), queering the women you routinely watch on screen is a particularly cherished activity to make you feel like loneliest, frigid queer in the Arctic abyss. This moment was so enraging because all the time and fruitless (but enjoyable) energy spent queering the VERY sapphic legal women of the L&O universe, to be thrown a 3 second bone felt like an insult. And felt very indicative of how media and culture regarded queer women in general.
Frustration aside, there was a lot to be said for these queering practices and how meaningful they were to burgeoning identities. (There was also something to be said for fantasizing that maybe the people on screen are gay as hell, and when they’re aggressive and attractive and aggressively attractive, having some alone time with your portable DVD player and a couple of seasons of L&O or SVU in the backseat of your parents’ Volvo (the straightest of backseats!) just have yourself a little discrete salad-toss session OKAY IT'S CALLED ADOLESCENT DEVELOPMENT, OKAY).
No assortment of women in one place better provided the brusque, strong-jawed, brutal-haircut-having queering potential like the ADAs in SVU. I’ve already been fairly circumlocutory in this post thus far so I won’t even begin to touch on the proverbial Lilith Fair that was that the mélange of pseudo-dykes and maybe-baby-gays that made up the original L&O ADA line-up (but I will gently scream-sob ABBIE CARMICHEAL). But whatever sweet, eager bean infiltrated the SVU writer’s room with her canvas bag and her Clark’s laced up just so looked at the gay-presenting gals of L&O and cried “OH, WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THAT.” After doing the stations of the cross before an illuminated altar of Holy Mother of Fake Dykes and Allies Judith Light (who played SVU’s Bureau Chief ADA Elizabeth Donnelly), the SVU team presented us with ADAs Alex Cabot, Casey Novak and Kim Greylek (and look, it’s not that I don’t find ADA Barba unreasonably sexy and flamboyantly overdressed, but that queen can take a seat today).
And WOW. What a situation those three were. Greylek (played by Michaela McManus) was the shortest lived and softest of the three, and, while her timing was a bit off as the last coming of the queer trinity, she has an indelibly important place in True Fans’ Hearts as being that fragile yet steely co-captain of the field hockey team we all ripped our hearts to shreds for and tried to sit behind in our [insert Honors Foreign Language Class here] just to do further emotional harm to ourselves because WHAT ELSE DID WE HAVE. (Note: this is deeply unhealthy aspect of the queer female community and to begin to address it right now would do an egregious disservice to the full discussion it deserves.)
Greylek never really stood a chance measuring up to the Double-Headed Queer Beast that was Alex Cabot and Casey Novak. On a specious level, these two had everything a queer adolescent or grown ass woman searching for everything from arousal fodder to a stalwart woman who refused to take any modicum of shit and answered to no one regarding any aspect of their general self—gravelly yet mellifluous voice; DRAMATIC bangs that illicit both anxiety and intractable attraction; the SNAPPIEST dress suits that only my mother could make look that flawless (look, there might be a maternal complex to my queerness, which, again, is far too complex of an issue to delve into now); the fiercest eyes and closing argument death stares that sent shivers down any queer kid’s spine and, you know, probably elsewhere further down; pursed lips for motherfucking days. But on a deeper level, Alex Cabot (Stephanie March) and Casey Novak (Diane Neal) were symbols of something more significant than characters to get your cockles up. They were isolated and resolute; they exuded a sort of energy that was protective and sexual but only threatening to those insecure enough to be threatened by them. Which is kind of what you need when you’re a queer kid or even queer adult who feels routinely marginalized; or unsatisfied with how you’re treated (or not treated): seeing a woman who you can not only project your sexuality onto but also seek some sort of confident, defiant, solidarity with is incredible.
And I could talk about the panoply of slash fiction and fanfiction that exists circulating around the ADAs and Olivia Benson, but I would have to permanently excuse myself from this post if I did.
OLIVIA BENSON IS THE EPICENTER OF ALL QUEER FEMALE SEXUALITY
Look. Listen. Look and listen. I can’t properly say what needs to be said about Olivia Benson or her IRL counterpart Mariska Hargitay.
Let’s get one elephant out of the room, though, and just address this: Olivia Benson’s hair is the gayest thing in the universe. Every iteration of it. And it made a MILLIONS of people gay just by being exposed to it. Moreover, the dramatic (and DRAMATICALLY GAY) transitions between Olivia Benson’s hair cuts were the externalizations of my behavioral disorders, and I always felt personally attacked by them, as I know many queer women did. I cannot forgive Benson, Hargitay, and the creative team behind SVU for this aggression.
Truth be told, despite the fact that she is one of the most astronomically beautiful human beings trapped in this mortal coil, I am perhaps one of the few queer women who did not have their love for SVU intensified or solidified because of an attraction to Benson/Hargitay. Don’t get me wrong. I undoubtedly find her incomparably attractive. But I could never relate to her sex appeal in the way I could with the ADAs or the weird rotation of Very Attractive Not Ice-T or Munch detectives (Carisi kinda looks like a shoe, but a very fuckable shoe? And don't get me started on the Adam Beach situation.)
I could never really be attracted to Benson/Hargitay because I was too consumed with deep intimidation and fear of her. And it wasn’t an intimidation that was born of negativity or lack (though, to be clear, we are ALL lesser beings than Olivia Benson)—rather, it was an intimidation that arose from ruthless similarity. Perhaps not similarity of looks, or job, or circumstance, (but maybe, tragically, hair) but something more unsettling to observe—similarity of rage (and outrage); similarity of violent dissatisfaction from continual transgressions and harm (both to self and others); similarity of ineffable pain channeled into essentially dissociative, frenetic protection of others; similarity of an overwhelming sense of isolation as a product of deep trauma.
Olivia Benson was intimidating because, unlike the directionless, entitled White Man Rage of Elliot Stabler, the character impeccably and brutally demonstrated the rage of someone routinely subjected to not only the microaggressions and abuses women put up with on a regular basis, but a unique brand of despondent rage that resembled and mimicked the sentiments harbored by so many queer women. Aside form having literally the most preposterous array of absolutely horrendous things happen to her in the past 20 seasons (it’s like a disaster film starring the Rock level of unfathomably ghastly things happening to this woman again and again and again), Benson’s past is besotted with turmoil, trauma, and rejection. And yet she is a woman who is continually traumatized, continually engulfed in her own hurt, but continually stalwart and persistent. She does not subdue her rage, or outrage, to accommodate for anyone’s expectations of what resilience should like. She does not always handle her anguish or past particularly well, and it doesn’t fucking matter. Benson is both the sum of and greater than that which rips her apart. Her rage refuses to be quiet.
And as a queer woman, especially a queer middle schooler, that type of fierceness coupled with unbridled ire informed by brokenness was intimidating because it mirrored so much of what I and we went through but perhaps could not articulate or did not want to. But the intimidation Benson evoked was from a place of respect. She was perhaps not gay or queer (except, again, THAT FUCKING HAIR) but she was a beacon of savage hopefulness—albeit intimidating hopefulness—not that their could be a protector, but that there was a place for of unmanageable rage/outrage that we are incessantly told is hysteria or bitchiness or misguided; that there could be a beautiful, self-possessed, successful, ruthless woman (even if she was fictional) that embodied all the destructiveness, all the alienation, all the sorrow that we so often felt (even if it wasn’t from the exact same source). Benson is an icon for her complexity. Benson, in ways that should not be trivialized because she is fictional, is a voice and palisade for queer women—and, especially, queer survivors—that permitted countless queer women the space to announce their desire and anger.
And never forget, Benson’s hair made us all gay.
So, that was perhaps more long-winded than I had hoped. So, let’s cut to the chase. Does SVU hold up by today’s standards? In terms of queer visibility and queer acceptability? Yes and no. SVU was one of the few serial shows to have plots—albeit standalone, episodic plots—that included queer voices, queer identities, queer stories. SVU was probably the first show I saw trans* characters, even if they were abysmally minor and somewhat problematically presented. Moreover, as I’ve attested to throughout this post, SVU had amazing queering safe space and representational capabilities. So many conversations about SVU (and television in general) that I have had with queer women have more or less been “I knew I was gay when Benson would cry or be a boss bitch,” or “I felt safe with and attracted to my therapist/teacher/coach because she reminded me of Casey Novak” etc. etc. This has been a character of the show that has persisted throughout it’s 20 year run, though the initial, profound gay impact of the show doesn’t have quite the same feel in a mediated world that is more open and fluid. The glimmers of gay and spaces of queering we found in the show in the early 2000s cannot be properly appreciated or carried on today, but meaningful remnants of them still undoubtedly exist for a new generation of baby gays. SVU has also consistently had one of the most racially and ethnically diverse casts--with B.D. Wong, Ice-T, Tamaria Tunie, Danny Pino, Raul Esparza, and Michelle Hurd playing prominent (though technically not leading) characters.
SVU, as we knew it in its gay glory, had some undeniable flaws—flagrant trans* insensitivity; problematic perspectives on the multidimensionality of consent; mishandling of language and understanding of sex worker and LGBTQIA representations; ELLIOT FUCKING STABLER; etc. To be honest, the show only developed a sensitive core when Ice-T came on, which is truly fascinating and wonderful. But for all the shows flaws, it was never inauthentic. The problems in the show were not from a place of malic or purposeful disregard for various individuals or communities, but a depiction of how people spoke, thought, and functioned, regardless of the issues with these behaviors. Earlier seasons that many of us queers were suckled on do not “hold up” by today’s standards, but they’re in no way misrepresentations of the world we came of age in. Importantly too, SVU provided a space in which trauma, assault and abuse narratives (primarily sexual but also physical, emotional, psychological, and familial) was shown in a way that also gave queer individuals a way to feel “at peace,” so to speak, with trauma.
As a queer survivor of trauma who has a close community of individuals who identify similarly, SVU has, and continues to be a place of comfort and normalcy in spite of often overwhelming feelings that your trauma is your entire self. SVU, perhaps more so for queer women than men, an indelible part of so many queer narratives. Sure, Olivia Benson made us all gay, but SVU is an inextricable part of the queer canon.
We are the elite squad of queers that took a show and made it ours. These are our stories. (Look, I abhor myself more than you ever could.)
Now I have to go have some moments with some slash fiction.