Each new television season brings stronger and stronger female characters. Olivia Pope (Scandal) has the president of the United States wrapped around her little finger. Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones) is the queen of dragons with a birthright to rule the Seven Kingdoms. Selina Meyer (Veep) once again battles it out to be our next fictional TV president. The common thread is that all of these TV ladies have Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) of Law & Order: SVU to thank. Hargitay’s Olivia Benson has been the reigning queen of TV strength and power for more than 17 years. We fell in love with her courage and tenacity the minute she stepped on screen in September 1999, and our love is unequivocal and everlasting. That’s why a QC Strategy survey found Olivia Benson to be America’s favorite female TV character — by a lot! And here are some reasons why.
In the very first episode of Law & Order: SVU, “Payback,” we saw some badassery from Benson straight away. She and her partner, Elliot Stabler, are called to a crime scene of a cab driver who had been stabbed multiple times. But this is the Special Victims Unit, i.e. sex crimes, so, Stabler wanted to know, “Any specific reason you called us out?” The officer then tells them that the victim’s “cigar” was cut off and taken. Benson learns that the memberless cabbie was an imposter. His real identity is Stefan Tanzic, a Serbian war criminal and serial rapist who attacked 67 women. Benson is visibly upset and seething. She questions Tanzic’s widow and is unsympathetic when the widow makes it clear that she knew all about her husband. It’s Benson’s unwavering empathy and advocacy for sex crimes victims that draws us in fast.
This episode is the first and only time we meet Benson's mother, Serena (Elizabeth Ashley) and learn that she, too, is a rape victim, and Benson is the product of that assault.
“Payback” is also where we get this classic exchange:
Olivia Benson: Who'd want to cut your penis off?
Victor Spicer: Take a number.
Benson is not afraid of thugs, rapists or serial offenders. In fact, she’s not afraid of much. Benson gets down and dirty beating up her fair share of criminals. She pulls her weight as a detective, and at no point is she apologetic for her gender or her rage against those who perpetrate sex crimes. In an episode titled “Bullseye,” she knocks out the perp (Henry Ian Cusick) with one punch. In another episode, “Florida,” she slams her suspect’s (Josh Casaubon) head down on the table, throws him to the ground and kicks him until he confesses. If Dick Wolf made a montage of Benson giving suspects a beat down set to Beyoncé’s "Run the World (Girls)," we would watch it on repeat.
There are too many classic episodes to go through them all, but fans agree that Season 10’s “PTSD” is a monster Benson episode. Not only is she dealing with the murder of a pregnant Marine who claimed she was raped in Iraq, but Benson also goes up against some serious armed forces misogyny — all while dealing with traumatic flashbacks of her recent sexual assault. Benson tells the Navy judge advocate general officer who accuses her of hating the military, “My problem is with any institution that refuses to address rampant sexual trauma.”
It doesn’t hurt that this episode also stars Ryan Kwanten (True Blood), Dominic Fumusa (Nurse Jackie) and Frank Whaley (Ray Donovan). But it is this little exchange that makes us stand up and cheer when Benson testifies on behalf of the female Marine:
“Like a lot of victims, Cpl. Cruz didn’t immediately report her rape because [victims] often blame themselves.”
“Shame. Fear. Many times they feel violated again by the medical exam or by having to tell their story over and over to law enforcement.”
Preach it, sister!
Guest star Andrew McCarthy, as Randolph Morrow: “Honey, I’d like a mineral water, no ice.”
Benson: “And I’d like your balls in a blender, but ain’t life a bitch.”
Perp: “I was just trying to help her up.”
Benson: “With your penis?”
Suspect: "Where's Kristen? I would like to see her."
Benson: "And I would like to see you castrated with a rusty steak knife. Neither are going to happen, but we can both dream."
Some of Benson’s most inspiring quotes are things she’s said to victims, such as:
“I understand the shame and the stigma, but keeping the abuse secret doesn’t make it go away.”
“By keeping quiet, you're giving him power over you.”
“It’s not your fault. What happened to you doesn’t make you the monster.”
“Once you tell your story, it can be empowering.”
Look, I’m not going to compare Olivia Benson to Castle or Monk because that would be unfair to those shows. However, L&O: SVU fans have noticed that most cop shows follow some quirky sleuth who is chasing after the murderer of a con man or trying to figure out who stole the diamonds. But Benson and Stabler go after some very real and very intense felons. They chase sex slave traffickers, pedophiles, necrophiliacs, serial rapists and war criminals. Benson is not playing around! One of the strongest aspects of her character is, the more deranged the criminal, the more willing she is to dig in and bring him down.
Think about it: After just a few months of dealing with abuse victims, deranged criminals and district attorneys who let vicious offenders go on a technicality, most of us would run screaming to the nearest shrink demanding some heavy meds. But not Benson. We never hear about her sleepless nights, stress-related migraines, nervous tics or crying jags. She’s strong, solid and a great role model. Next time you are in a bad situation, ask yourself, “What would Benson do?” That will be the right answer.
When Mariska Hargitay began playing Olivia Benson, she learned quickly about sex crimes and victims' rights. So real was her portrayal that victims around the country began to contact her for help, some even revealing their trauma for the first time. Hargitay knew that she had to react in the best and biggest way possible, so she created the Joyful Heart Foundation. To date, she has raised more than $27 million to help heal, educate and empower victims and their families. That makes Hargitay just as badass as Benson.
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