SVU: Does Being A Survivor Give License To Kill?

By Katiee McKinstry

Have you ever seen Law & Order: Special Victims Unit? Olivia Benson and the rest of the precinct have been fighting stigmas around sexual assault cases since 1998. While there are a lot of articles out there about SVU, fellow Funky Feminist writer Koli Marie and I decided to start a weekly column about each individual episode. That’s right friends, we’re going all the way back to the 90’s, starting with Season 1 Episode 1. (I’m watching on Hulu, by the way. They have every episode!) I could go on and on about what this show means to me, and how it’s shaped me as a feminist; however, in order not to gush, I’m going to just go through the episode and tell you my thoughts. Without further ado:

(Trigger Warning: SVU talks about survivors of sexual assault. If this is something that could be harmful to you in any way, please don’t continue reading.)

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Well, there’s a lot to unpack in this episode. In this case, two survivors of Stefan Tanzic’s assault murdered him in his cab; they stabbed him to death and cut off his genitals.  I think I will divide it into a couple parts, and how they are worth discussing in the feminist community. The first topic I’d like to cover is language. The show premiered in 1999, and in the 90s’ we didn’t have the language that we do know. Should we fault shows for being politically incorrect? No, because they didn’t have the knowledge on how to be accepting and PC. Some examples of this are found with Elliot Stabler. He uses terms like “he-she” to describe transgender people, and throws the word “gay” around with negative connotation. Like I said, we can’t fault the writers here. Language has evolved over time, as we adapt new terms and acknowledge people in a different way. However, it’s interesting to think about the vocabulary we have adopted over the years, and how that plays into political correctness and feminism.

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Secondly, I think one of the key themes of this episode lies in the survivors. It is revealed in the pilot that Olivia is the “product of rape” as her father sexually assaulted her mother. Olivia says she is a “product of rape” and discloses how much she hates her father to her mother. It is obvious that Olivia is new to SVU because her captain and partner keep pointing it out, a unit that is completely voluntary. Cragen, her captain, expresses concern about Olivia’s ability to remain unbiased in the unit, and he is proven to be correct. Although, Olivia does get to use her “free pass” as Cragen put it. Olivia struggles to arrest and blame them, because she knows that their children will grow up without their mother. If her mother had killed her father, she would have too. Liv tries to help the women the best she can, because she understands the desire to get revenge on their abuser.

So this begs the question, is it okay for survivors of sexual assault to kill their abuser? I think no, and here’s why: I don’t believe anyone deserves to die. Tanzic should rot in a cell the rest of his miserable life, for sure. Stew in his punishment. On the other hand, is it wrong to punish a survivor who retaliates against their abuser? Everything in me, similar to Olivia, says no. Still, murder is also a crime; it’s against the law. Shouldn’t there be a specific punishment  for murder? Stabler and Cragen both said in the episode, “we can’t pick the vic” meaning that they can’t choose the person who was murdered or who murdered them.

What do you think? Should survivors be punished for retaliation? Is it okay for survivors to retaliate? Like I said, since 1999 SVU has been asking these questions, and tackling the stigma surrounding sexual violence. Honestly, I have been an avid watcher of SVU since I was in high school, and it shaped me into the human I am. I started volunteering at Rape Response, Inc because I was so inspired by Olivia Benson to try and effect change. If you watch the first episode and would like to chat about it, send us a DM on Instagram or my own @rosecafletic or drop a comment below. I’d be happy to talk! Also, make sure to check out Koli’s article about Episode 2, coming soon.