I knew we were in trouble, as a culture, when Fox canceled “Cops.”
Mind you, I hadn’t watched the show since I was in my early teens. It always seemed like cheap voyeurism to me; there are only so many shirtless men ambling down suburban streets with a beer in their hand who you can watch swear they have no idea how that bag of white powder got in their pocket before you get a little bored with the concept.
However, that wasn’t the police’s fault. They acquitted themselves well on the show — as people trying their best in the face of an oft-thankless job.
Some were more likable than others, and there were those few exceptions you wished would exchange a bit of testosterone for a trifle more gray matter. That said, the program showed the human side of the job, and it did it effectively.
Too effectively: After calls from civil rights groups to end the show, it was canceled by Paramount Network, its former home, shortly after George Floyd’s death.
Apparently, it humanized the cops too much; Color of Change argued that it offered “a highly filtered version of crime and the criminal justice system — a ‘reality’ where the police are always competent, crime-solving heroes and where the bad boys always get caught,” according to The New York Times.
If you were broken up over this, consider the fact that there are 30-plus seasons of traffic stops gone wrong for you to enjoy. However, as a sign of anti-police sentiment, it was a portent. Anything that showed policing in a positive light was about to become fair game for the cancel culture.
Even recognizing that, I’m surprised how quickly they came for Olivia Benson.
It was a story that I overlooked when it was published in Rolling Stone on June 12, but it still bears examination because it’s amazing how quickly the mob has come for the beloved “Law and Order: SVU” character, played by Mariska Hargitay.
But no, E.J. Dickson makes it official: “Sorry, Olivia Benson Is Canceled Too: The ‘Law and Order: SVU’ protagonist gets lionized as a TV ‘good cop.’ That does real-world damage.”
Now, there’s no question that she’s a fictional good cop — or “good cop,” as per Dickson. I say this with full knowledge, too, that she’s a political mouthpiece of sorts, and one who doesn’t agree with me.
“If there were a patron saint of liberal women, Olivia Benson would be it, to the degree that Taylor Swift (a totem for white femininity if ever there was one) named one of her cats after her,” Dickson wrote. “And to a large degree, this makes sense.
“For 21 seasons, Olivia Benson has served as the quintessential Good Cop, the embodiment of all of the qualities we wish law enforcement figures would have: she’s tough but fair, vulnerable yet steely-eyed, displaying constant compassion for survivors and providing no quarter to abusers. She always fights for and believes victims, a marked contrast to real-life law enforcement officials, whose record on convicting sexual offenders is abysmal. The fact that in real life, Hargitay has used her platform to advocate for eliminating rape kit backlog only adds to the character’s bona fides.
“Olivia is a social justice warrior in the truest, most non-pejorative sense, a law enforcement officer who isn’t motivated by quotas or high school bully impulses, but an earnest desire to do right by survivors at all times. Only a demon, a sociopath, or the President of the United States would take issue with her. She is, by all standards and measures, awesome.”
Given all that, one might think that she’s a perfect example of didactic art, the kind of character that begs life to imitate her. So why, pray tell, has Dickson cast his lot with the demons, sociopaths and Donald Trumps of the world?
“A not-insignificant number of police officers have credited the show with their deciding to enter law enforcement, and it’s safe to assume that an even larger number of viewers watches the show and believe that police officers like Olivia Benson are fundamentally on the side of the vulnerable and disenfranchised,” Dickson wrote.
“And this trope has significant real-life implications: according to a report from Color of Change (which features a screen grab from SVU on the cover), crime series ‘make heroes out of people who violate our rights’ and ‘do not depict the reality, causes, or consequences of [racial disparities in the criminal justice system] accurately.’”
Yet, Dickson noted (correctly) that in writers’ rooms across Hollywood, police are going to be depicted differently. You’re not going to see any more Barney Millers or Olivia Bensons.
And to the extent that Benson still exists, Dickson is disappointed she’s not going to be taken to task — even if her character “is, by all standards and measures, awesome.”
“But Olivia Benson won’t change, not fundamentally, because nobody wants Olivia Benson to change,” Dickson wrote. “We’re probably not going to see her making an effort to hire more police officers of color. We’re probably not going to see George Floyd incorporated into plot lines in anything but a cursory, ripped-from-the-headlines way. We’re probably not going to see her being taken to task in front of an internal review board for overseeing a cop roughing up a black male suspect.”
But her character is written in a way that she’d make the effort to hire police officers of color. She wouldn’t oversee a cop who roughed up a black male suspect without intervening.
Dickson acknowledges “Law and Order: SVU” is fantasy. It operates in a New York City where the same set of police officers and prosecutors handle every high-profile sex crime and elder-abuse case in Gotham. Benson is, like Joe Friday, a composite of everything viewers of the era want to see in a police officer.
Everyone understands this isn’t reality — although if the reality of policing was a bit more like “SVU,” it sounds like Dickson would be happier. The fact there are people joining police departments based on Benson’s example should hearten Dickson, not frighten him, then.
Instead, what activist groups — and Dickson, I suppose — apparently want is police shows that depict cops as sadists, crooks, bigots, power-trippers and orchestrators of systematic oppression.
As for plot development, I suppose these cops would be taken to task and punished severely so viewers at home know the evils visited upon minorities and and the dispossessed by law enforcement. And then they’d be defunded. This sounds like a show I’d like to watch.
“The truth is that, if you agree that the system is broken and great changes need to be made on all levels to fix it, you can’t pick and choose what needs to be changed. No matter how much you love Olivia Benson, you have to be willing to grapple with the fact that she plays a major role in perpetuating the idea that cops are inherently trustworthy and heroic, and that many viewers are unable to distinguish between the gossamer fantasy of how justice should be handled, and how it actually is,” Dickson wrote.
He went on to argue we need a revolution and those “can’t be built on the backs of the exceptions.”
“It’s the simplest equation there is: if all cops are b—–ds, and Olivia Benson is a cop, that means she’s — kind of — a b—–d. (Mariska is cool, though),” he concluded.
Dickson seems to think Olivia Benson is bad because good cops are the exception, except he never proves good cops are the exception. He assumes the truth of the argument he’s making from the beginning — presumably because the readership of Rolling Stone believes that, too.
The evidence he provides, such as it is, involves quotes from Color of Change. I’m sure they mean well, but they’re an activist organization with an obvious bias that provide no concrete facts for the assertions made in the quotes Dickson used.
When this passes — and it will pass — Dickson and those who believe as him will be left with the uncomfortable truth that people like police procedurals and they’ll continue to like “Law and Order: SVU.”
He’ll go down in some corner of pop culture history, however, as having written one of the more ridiculous pieces of cancel-culture folderol I’ve seen in 2020.
Congratulations, I guess.
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