There is nothing I love more than spending all day watching an Law and Order: SVU marathon. Not always watching, necessarily. More like listening while reading the Internet or sometimes drifting off into naps. Because yes, SVU is what I put on to nap. That's because after watching nearly 350 hours of this show, it has become a non-fat equivalent of mac and cheese and a bottle of wine. Just pure comfort.
And I'm not the only woman I know who feels this way. Nearly all of my good female friends are die-hard fans. (When the first seven seasons were removed from Netflix, my Twitter feed was basically a war zone.) My male friends, on the other hand, couldn't care less about whether Benson and Stabler should ever get together or that time Robin Williams faked an alibi by doing an elaborate series of impressions. So what is it with women and SVU? Here are seven theories:
1. Wish-fulfilment: The legal system in this country is f---ed. And everyone knows it too. After what happened in Ferguson, Steubenville, and every single state that's passed laws restricting women's control over their own bodies, there is barely any pretense left that the police force and legal system are pure forces of good. That's why SVU is so easy to love. When you watch an episode, you get to pretend for 44 minutes that we live in a world where people actually fight for justice for the disenfranchised. It's a world where cops are more likely to take a bullet for you than put a bullet in you and ADAs are actually concerned about not re-traumatizing victims during trials. But SVU also doesn't exist in a fairy-tale world where the good guys always win. By creating an idealized reality interspersed with reminders of real injustice, SVU is just relatable enough for the stories to hit home, but enjoyable enough to become a much-needed escape.
2. Olivia Benson: While the original Law & Order endured numerous cast shakeups, it's unlikely that SVU would be able to survive the departure of Mariska Hargitay. That's because Olivia Benson is the show. She's the audience surrogate. She's the hero. She's been through the wringer, but she isn't "damaged." She'll do anything to protect the victims she encounters, but she isn't your typical Strong Female Character. Her relationship with Elliott Stabler — one that was based on respect rather than romance — will never be matched (but especially when they go undercover as a couple, oh my God!). There's a reason Taylor Swift named her cat after Benson. She's perfect.
3. It knows how (and when) to keep it light: This show is dark. As the title card plainly states, SVU focuses on "sexually based offenses" which are "considered especially heinous" and often directed at women and children. There's child prostitution, serial rapists, incest, fatal domestic violence — whatever horrible thing you can imagine, they've covered it. Normally, a show like this would be practically unwatchable, but SVU finds ways to add a little levity without ever downplaying the seriousness of the issues they're covering. I'm talking Ice-T's one liners, Ice-T's facial expressions, everything about Ice-T really. Not to mention the time Captain Cragen rescued a monkey in a basketball or whenever they've had to name a hilarious fake website.
4. It's not just torture porn: There are all sorts of reasons one can throw out for why people shouldn't watch SVU. Yes, it supports the culture of consuming violence against women as entertainment. And yes, it contributes to the myth that false rape reports are a common occurrence. But at least they're talking about rape and trying to do so (mostly successfully) in a sensitive manner. Sexual assault is something rarely handled with care on television, making shows like SVU even more inspiring for victims who get to see these experiences taken seriously for once. And this is a popular, long-running broadcast show that regularly has conversations about the existence of rape culture. That's a big deal!
5. It's comfortingly predictable: The Law and Order franchise is known for its last-minute twists, but even these fit into a set of easily recognizable patterns. Do you spot a celebrity guest star? They did it. Was the perp arrested in the first 15 minutes? They didn't do it. Is a married couple bickering on their way home? They're about to find a dead body. No matter the episode or how many twists it may feature, it never strays too far from the formula. You know there will be a beginning, middle and end with comforting DUN-DUNs sandwiched in between. This helps keep the suspense at a level that's just enough to be intensely compelling but never so overwhelming that you can't watch it for eight hours straight.
6. It's instructive: When one thinks of "girly shows," images of star-crossed romance, shirtless CW hunks and Sex and the City-like gab sessions come to mind. And while it's true that men are more likely to watch violence on screen than women, it's women who are actually drawn more to true crime. And while not every episode is "ripped from the headlines," the violence on SVU does touch a very real, very true nerve. You'd be hard-pressed to find a woman that wasn't aware of the danger inherent in lacking a certain protruding feature of genitalia. And by watching shows like SVU, you feel like you're watching a how-to guide for surviving. You can learn warning signs, escape techniques, processes to healing and whatever it is you want to know about preventing yourself from becoming a victim. It also enables you to internalize the thing that scares you the most and overcome it, even if only in a small way. Basically, it's just like becoming Batman. Of course, this quickly becomes a snake eating its own tail because in addition to normalizing these fears, consuming so many images of violence can easily just create more. Two steps forward, one step back.
7. It offers a source of solidarity for survivors: After experiencing sexual or physical abuse, it's common for survivors to become isolated as they struggle to cope with the aftereffects, which can include everything from substance abuse, PTSD, depression, and feelings of blame or self-hatred. While for some survivors a show like SVU can act as a negative trigger, for others it becomes a comforting assurance that they aren't alone and that these feelings are normal. It becomes a place to imagine a parallel reality where Olivia makes sure everyone is looking out for your best interests, Elliott beats up and eventually arrests your assailant, Alex Cabot (or one of those lamer ADAs) gets him convicted and B.D. Wong counsels you along the way. It's basically the dream. Albeit a very twisted one.
Why do you think so many women love SVU?