Down to brass tacks, all communication is about influence. If you’re not moving the needle on something, you’re missing out on an opportunity, and you need to do better. But, in most cases, prime time TV is generally more about entertainment than social change. Mariska Hargitay, longtime star of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, says she hopes her program has done a lot more than give people an hour’s amusement.
Hargitay, who has played Detective Olivia Benson on SVU since the very first episode, says she saw the potential for the show to make a cultural impact since the beginning. “It’s an incredibly progressive show, progressive idea, and really starting a conversation and taking sexual assault, domestic violence, and these issues that were traditionally swept under the carpet…”
Hargitay said beginning that conversation and keeping it going is one of the things she’s proudest about when she considers her time on the program. “The conversation is in full swing, and that’s very exciting. I think the show has really been a huge part of the cultural education on sexual violence. I think we have taken on the issues of consent and the neurobiology of trauma and created a survivor-centric show that was utterly unique.”
For producers, writers, and actors on the program, the magic in their success has been the compelling packaging of often very difficult or even culturally taboo conversations. They took issues that, for generations, people just didn’t talk about and put those conversations in the voices of the actors on SVU, giving people the opportunity to discuss them by proxy, slowly helping to shift the nature of the cultural conversation around these issues… At least, that’s what Hargitay hopes has happened.
To test that idea, Hargitay parlayed her TV persona into a charity effort, the Joyful Heart Foundation, which seeks to “help empower survivors of sexual assault” as well as those who have been victims of domestic violence or child abuse. The actor says her time on the show inspired her to do more to help real victims.
“Being immersed in this material and learning the statistics and learning about the shame and isolation that survivors of sexual violence feel, that is what really called me to start my own foundation and to respond to the subject matter that I was being immersed in every day…”
It’s a unique transition, and it proves that the hopes producers and actors had for the show in the beginning have taken root. A serious message, delivered as entertainment, can start a conversation that people may otherwise avoid… and that can have serious real-world benefits.