Research has recognized doubt in focusing on meanings that emerges regarding the female sexuality within the television program Law & Order SVU specifically the character, Detective Olivia Benson. In order to examine the show’s meanings about female (lesbian/heterosexual?) sexuality, first I need to explore the ambivalence that surfaces followed by analyzing what this ambivalence means. Specific examples will be used from the show to build the argument. The virgin or whore dichotomy and applying lifestyle feminism will also be explored.
The meanings that emerge about the mixed messages of female sexuality for Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order SVU are depicted through her experiences, how she expresses herself through her hair style and how she is represented as a sexual being in the media. Sexuality is not discussed in reference to her sexual orientation, but popular culture determined it. In season 11 episode 13 “P.C,” Benson asked, “Do you ever get a gay vibe from me?” Stabler said, “Would it matter if I did?” She responded, “You’re not answering the question.” He said, “It’s not like you had a lotta luck with guys.” She replied, “It’s called being married to the job.”
The ambiguity of this character means opening the door to individual interpretation. Benson’s sexuality portrays her as an object of desire in fandoms and blog discussions. She is depicted as being almost celibate as she has no boyfriend or girlfriend. This intentional move on the producer’s part leads the viewer to use their imagination in answering the questions of her female sexuality. This vagueness of “is she or isn’t she” has resulted in a fandom who through the shows mixed messages, sees a lesbian. It is the audience that takes these potential subtle clues and creates a lesbian sexual identity for Benson through subtext, lack of a private life and by portraying a masculine side of a woman.
From a feminist perspective the ambiguity represents a strong and independent woman who has joined the boy’s club in a patriarchal police department. On the other hand, according to Meyer (2010), “Lesbian characters, whether they are regular cast members or minor characters featured in a few episodes, tend to be portrayed as lacking sexuality (i.e., they are rarely represented in intimate relationships or situations), personal rights (i.e., they are treated as undesirable and avoided by other characters), and are often afraid of being publicly exposed based on their sexuality (Moritz 1994). (p. 236).
A deeper examination of the ambivalence means that the message of diversity is being given in delicate doses to the audience. According to Inness (2008), “The message that diversity is good (so long as everyone is attractive) is undercut by the pattern that…nonhetrosexual females are less attractive” (p.140). Therefore, SVU depicts a complex character that depending on one’s perspective. She could be a lesbian or could be a straight woman who is attractive and intelligent working in a man’s world. Could it be that her sexuality is hidden in the background to promote a lifestyle feminist? She may look like a lesbian, but she is straight. Her character falls under the category called, lifestyle feminism. As Cuklanz & Moorti (2006) detailed:
“Lifestyle feminism is characterized by independent, assertive women who find self actualization through work outside the home, often in male-dominated professions. Olivia Benson fits within this tradition. She is an unmarried white woman, the lone female in her squad. Benson is a strong, capable detective who has very little personal life beyond the workplace, in strong contrast to her male partner Elliot Stabler. Lifestyle feminism narratives underscore women’s negotiations within the family unit to carve out a space of self-determination and Benson fits neatly within this idiom” (p. 305).
Could it be that the producer’s feel any romantic feelings could interrupt her career as a detective which in turn means, a woman cannot have it all? Or could it be that the detective is following typical stereotypes of a female officer portrayed on television? Detardo-Bora (2009) commented: The researchers studied the content of ten prime time television crime dramas. Of the sixty nine characters they observed, female criminal justice professionals were portrayed as young, White, and single. The issue of socialization and its connection to the media is a focus point regarding how people learn sex roles. It is through the media that female characters are portrayed with the same male behaviors and characteristics of their male counterparts. Detardo-Bora (2009) also observed, “Although a number of research studies have found distinct differences between male and female behaviors as portrayed on television, in this study, many of the female characters were depicted similarly to male characters (p. 163).
It all began with her hair from the first season to the current thirteenth season that has drastically changed from the look of a dyke to a more feminine appearance with longer hair. This has been due to the actress’s input into the progression of the character according to Russo (2007), “As the story goes, Hargitay, uncomfortable with aspersions cast on her own heterosexuality by her character’s gender nonconformity and lesbian following, systematically orchestrated Olivia’s “de-dykification” (p. 169).
It appears that both fans and scholars have questioned the ambivalence that surfaces in describing Detective Benson:
- Benson is portrayed as having ex-boyfriends
- No long standing relationship
- Mysterious looks between Benson and Alex (female ADA)
- Eleven seasons with short hair
- Always wearing a leather jacket
Throughout the series the character portrays maternal instincts that seem to hide her repressed feminine sexuality, yet continues to show her empowerment through her freedom and independence. A running gag throughout the series, as Benson puts it, “Why does everyone think I’m a lesbian?” Russo (2009) commented, “Her uniform includes t-shirts, sweaters, slacks and sensible shoes-no heels, no frills, and little jewelry except for what appears to be a man’s watch.” She has an unsuccessful dating pattern leading to the impression she is straight, yet gives images such as dress, male characteristics and behaviors referencing a different look at the character’s sexuality.
In addition to hair style, the wardrobe and behaviors of the character is considered to be masculine, as detective Benson’s image appears to be a dyke wearing tight t-shirts and according to Angie (2006), “…she is one of the few characters on TV to exhibit what are often considered to be d**e characteristics–with short hair, a leather jacket, and a gun at her hip, Olivia sits with legs apart, commanding the space around her.”
It is apparent that Detective Benson’s dilemma lies in the virgin/whore dichotomy. According to Hamad (2010), “Women’s sexuality is framed in one of two ways: virgin or whore, there is no in between…” Is the character then considered a virgin? Gottschall, Allison, Rosa, and Klockeman (n.d.) defined it as:
“The main idea is that men and/or societies divide women into two binary types: virgins and whores. The former type encompasses characters who are nurturing, “good,” and who express their sexualities within culturally sanctioned bounds. In practice, this means that “virgins” typically express their sexualities, if they express them at all, within marriage or another type of culturally sanctioned monogamous union. Women who fail to embody this ideal are “whores” they are explicitly or symbolically immoral and dangerously concupiscent” (p.1).
Based on this definition the character is both. She is a sexually ambivalent character and the opposition breaks down when it is applied to a lesbian (maybe) character. She rarely expresses her sexuality and doesn’t flirt (virgin) and is not in a relationship (whore) therefore, because she doesn’t fulfill the qualifications she is neither symbolically a whore nor a virgin, but both. Since Detective Benson is a good girl there are limitations placed on her sexual feelings and desires resulting in having a cloudy sexuality. The dichotomy is reconfigured to balance both the virgin and the whore within one character.
In Season 7 Episode 3, 911, the show portrayed Detective Benson going on a date with an unknown man, but it was quickly interrupted by the call of duty. Benson depicts her natural feminine sexuality by depicting maternal instincts as she wore a sleeveless blue dress throughout the episode while speaking on the phone to a young girl being held captive. As she hears the young girls horrific nightmare there is a close up of her quivering lips emphasizing her womanhood, potential motherhood and nurturer. The child asks her if she likes children and she responded, “I love them and would love to have a child.” As the girl’s cell phone begins to die, she’s sleepy and hungry then fades away. Detective Benson pleads, “Baby, please don’t leave me now,” as there is an extreme close up of her lips again. She then said, “Talk to me, sing to me” showing maternal instincts.
As the years passed in the series, this character is rarely seen or has spoken about being in an intimate relationship making her a virgin. Yet, this myth can be broken by Season 9 Episode 16, Closet, as she confesses to having a boyfriend, Kurt Moss, while speaking with an FBI agent. The undertone of sexual heterosexual activity with a male journalist was apparent and brought to the surface because of a current case. Benson stated, “We’ve been dating for a couple of months.” The FBI agent responded, “Who knows about it? She responded, “No one, he’s my boyfriend.” In one scene she gives her boyfriend a quick kiss on the lips reinforcing her feminine heterosexual sexuality. But, since she did not marry him and based on the definition, she is still considered part whore.
Yet, a different perspective shows subtext of lesbianism as intense eye contact was viewed in 2003 season five episode four “Loss,” Alex goes into witness protection program and Benson asks, “For how long?” In season two episode five, “Baby Killer,” Elliot, Benson’s partner invites Alex to go out for a drink with them to celebrate, Alex turns 180 degrees to look at Benson, who nods her head while smiling at Benson and accepts, “Sure.” According to Angie (2006), “It may be an indication of how far we need to go in the portrayal of lesbians and bisexual women on television that viewers get excited about a character like Benson despite no clear evidence that Law and Order’s Detective Olivia Benson’s sexuality message through the media she’s gay” (p.5). In season three episode eight, “Inheritance,” the character shows masculine qualities of aggression as she runs after a perpetrator. When she catches him she forcefully throws him against a brick wall after police already stopped him. “Look at my job. I have to be aggressive and violent…” she said. There is also a stigmatism associated with the stereotype of being nurturing and consoling as she holds victims hands and tells them, “It’s not your fault.”
As in postfeminist programming, this character is the first to doubt a woman’s rape claim. This doubt in combination with other elements, help structure the contradictory feminism of in the series. According to McCall (2011), “The notion that women possess inherent qualities of femininity has dominated much of human history. Because patriarchal societies have objectified women as Other, specific traits-nurturing, passivity, and emotionality-have come to signify the feminine” (p.1). Is it possible the character is refiguring heterosexual femininity in a new way? Today’s media is intertwining gender signs, codes and symbols which includes the appearance of refiguring heterosexual femininity. This character is not meek, but strong, she is not simple minded, but intelligent, she is not dependent, but independent and she does not follow the typical standards of stereotypes defined by patriarchal society such as, motherhood. She shows her femininity sparingly and incorporates masculine traits because of the “man’s” field she has chosen, police work.
In closer examination, it is a fact that the media reflects our cultural changes. So, is it possible this character represents women of today? The answer is yes. She carries an air of traditional values regarding her nurturing nature and intertwines masculine traits such as aggression and “marrying the job” which conflicts with the stereotypes of the portrayal of women. This is a reflection of a tougher woman, a career minded intelligent woman, a woman who is willing to fight for her beliefs.
In conclusion, it seems that the process of refiguring femininity relates to the changes in work patterns and the meaning of work for women relating to career, home and womanhood. She is a single woman, a professional and is not part of the domestic world. As viewers have watched Detective Benson grow the audience sees her social construction of selfhood becoming the voice of the new woman. The character’s images have shifted mainstream thinking of what femininity should be as a subtle rebellion against the stereotypes portrayed. Could it be the end of the binary of femininity and masculinity resulting in a blend of the two within one character, a female Detective?
Angie, B. 2006. (April 21). Interesting take on Olivia Benson. Online transactions. Message posted to group. Retrieved October 5, 2011, from http://specialvictims.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=olivia&action=print&thread=1330
Cuklanz, L. M. & Moorti, S. (2006). Television’s ‘‘New’’ Feminism: Prime-Time Representations of Women and Victimization. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 23(4), 302-321. Retrieved November 15, 2011, from http://cmst414.drkissling.com/fall2010/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/2006-Cuklanz– Critical-Studies-in-Media-Communication.pdf
Detardo-Bora, K. A. (2009). A Criminal Justice “Hollywood Style”: How Women in Criminal Justice Professions Are Depicted in Prime-Time Crime Dramas. Women & Criminal Justice, 19(2), 153-168. Retrieved September 12, 2011, from http://web.ebscohost.com.library.esc.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=10&hid=25&si d=0fd601cd-96f4-433d-a1c8-b43420b37c04%40sessionmgr14
Gottschall, J. Allison, E., Rosa, J. D. and Klockeman, K. (n.d.). Can Literary Study Be Scientific? Results of an Empirical Search for the Virgin/Whore Dichotomy. Retrieved November 18, 2011 from http://www2.washjeff.edu/users/jgottschall/Papers,%20etc/Gottschall%20Proofs-virgin%20whore.pdf
Lee, P. W. & Meyer, D. E. (2010). We All Have Feelings for Our Girlfriends: Progressive (?) Representations of Lesbian Lives on the The L Word. Sexuality & Culture, 14, 234–250. Retrieved September 30, 2011, from http://search.proquest.com.library.esc.edu/genderwatch/docview/749354497/fulltextPDF/1325ADC855C5D20F7D6/8?accountid=8067#
McCall, J. D. (2011). Woman or warrior? How believable femininity shapes warrior women. Retrieved December 14, 2011, from http://digitalcommons.library.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1954&context=theses dissertations
Russo, J. L. (2007). Hairgate! TV’s Coiffure Controversies and Lesbian Locks. Camera Obscura, 22(65), 166-172. Retrieved October 22, 2011, from http://web.ebscohost.com.library.esc.edu/ehost/viewarticle?data=dGJyMPPp44rp2%2fdV 0%2bnjisfk5Ie46bVOsKeyT7Ck63nn5Kx95uXxjL6nrkevpq1KrqevOLKwsUu4p7A4zsO kjPDX7Ivf2fKB7eTnfLuntk62qbBPt6uxPurX7H%2b72%2bw%2b4ti7ebfepIzf3btZzJzfh ruotEu0qa5Pr5zkh%2fDj34y75uJ%2bxOvqhNLb9owA&hid=12
Russo, J. (2009). Sex detectives: Law & Order: SVU’s fans, critics, and characters investigate lesbian desire. Transformative Works & Cultures, 39. Retrieved September 10, 2011, from http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/155/116