FROM SOLVING CRIME TO SAVING SOULS, OR WHY SUPERHEROES CAN’T HAVE SEX: THE CASE OF OLIVIA BENSON

In season 1 of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, detective Olivia Benson had newly joined the “elite” task force, “dedicated” to sex-based criminal offenses. She was not in the first flush of youth, but she was definitely still young, her waist slender, her jawline smooth and delicate. She had an affair with a fellow-officer, notably dumber than she, and she comments on the good sex. She wears a dark pink shirt which reveals her back, midriff and cleavage in preparation for a date, which she hopes might lead to love and marriage. She is interested in solving the sex-based criminal cases of New York. The personal connection is made clear early in the season: she is the child of rape herself, but it is not the focus of her professional life.

Fast forward more than ten years to seasons 15-16. In the meantime, Olivia Benson has been voted American TV’s most popular female character: she is adored for her strength, her intelligence, her dedication. She becomes a Sergeant, and heads the SVU unit. She is also abducted -twice- by a serial rapist/killer, who nevertheless fails to rape her. The fact that he did not / could not rape her is a major plot point and is discussed at length over two or three episodes. At the end of the second abduction, the rapist shoots himself in her presence, after having tied her up. In the next episode, she breaks up with her live-in boyfriend, the now-craggy fellow-officer from season 1 who is still hanging around. She adopts a baby who is the child of a murdered whore and brutal sex-trafficker. She puts herself in terrible danger to “save” other young girls. She has become saviour now. The personal and professional has melded, and superhero Olivia Benson has emerged. She is no longer just “solving sex-based crimes”, and she has no time for sex herself- that is messy business for lesser human beings. Olivia is now a Saviour. Saving young girls, often dressed in pink and white, and the occasional girlish-looking boy. Saving reformed whores. The word “save” is constantly tossed around in season 16 when describing Olivia’s actions- Olivia is no longer the smart ambitious young female cop from season one who sleeps with her male colleagues when she feels like it: she has become (or in her own words, at the end of the season, “grown to be” ) a Mother, not just to the poor innocent baby she literally saved and then legally adopted, but a Mother and Saviour to all poor kidnapped raped murdered pink-wearing often blonde pretty American girls. Thank you, Olivia Benson. Thank you, Dick Wolf. Thank you, America.

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