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A 2003 Chicago Tribune article sealed my fate right before I was about to finish grad school some five years ago.
She wakes up with her pillow in shreds. She's sweating, lightly but all over. She doesn't know where she is at first -- everything's strange, the lights and the shadows are confusing -- and then realizes she's in her own bed in her own room in her own apartment, a place that ought to be familiar, but nowhere is familiar. And no one is near.
Written by culture critic Julia Keller, who two years later won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, the article "Olivia Benson's a memorable role for television -- and for women" totally did me in.
Before reading it I had no clue what I was going to do with my life post expensive postgraduate degree. “Be awesome,” wasn’t a career choice back then. Northwestern University laid out our paths to Pulitzer thusly: move to Gobbledygook, Mississippi to work for the Nobody Cares Daily on the overnight “cops beat” covering drunken cow tipping, work your way up for 10 years and maybe switch to something really fun like city council meetings, then after another decade someone from the New York Times will call you and you can start all over again in the big city.
I never knew you could be something called a “culture critic.” Keller was the first one I “met.” And, oh, what a first date it was.
Keller's story on Olivia is a lyrical breakdown of the type of role every actress should get to play -- the mysterious good guy with a past. It's also pretty much how I'd like my obit to begin.
Olivia is dark, but she's also lit from within: lit by luminous mysteries that won't let up on her. Seeing her on the street, you wouldn't dream of approaching. It's a privacy thing and also, frankly, a self-protective thing; no telling how she'd react.
A J-school professor assigned Keller's story for a class I was taking on "arts and culture reporting." A dribble of saliva dripped down my chin as I read it on the “el” home, diligently checking for pervs as I read a line then scanned the crowd, read a line then scanned the crowd...
Here was a talented woman writing beautifully about a beautiful woman talentedly playing a woman whose talent gets overshadowed by her beauty. And of course this rabbit hole lead up to some male-dominated mine fields -- journalism, entertainment, law enforcement.
The fact that a writer like Keller could exist at The Trib, get the "girl story" and knock it out of the park? That's when I figured out what kind of writer I wanted to be someday. And I've been chasing that dream since.
I've also been watching "SVU" ever since, because according to Keller, Olivia had "a passion for making the world the way it ought to be, a place where all the bad guys get busted, all the roads are straight and all the poetry rhymes." Who wouldn't want to stay in and study with a lady like that?
But what a difference 8 seasons make. I've been speculating for years that the job would break Olivia eventually. That her maddening quest for perfection in herself, her partner Elliot (who left last season) and the world at large would one day send her over the edge.
I mean the girl needs friends! A kid? An orgasm. Something, anything, to relieve the tension in between Olivia and every other living being around her. Because if pressure bursts pipes then Liv is about to blow.
What's disturbing for me is that Olivia's role on television was as the groundbreaking ball buster who didn’t have to be a bitch. Her laser-focused success as a detective wasn’t circumscribed by her sex. So "bitch" wasn't even a viable adjective. Olivia was a woman who acted like a man and thought like a man.
That is to say she was given the luxury of maleness, never having to truly be concerned with how a single-minded career could affect the rest of her life, which looks like it really sucks.
Liv’s love life is non-existent. Her family life is non-existent. I'm not even sure Olivia herself exists outside the cement walls of the precinct. All this was fine in the beginning when the yin and yang of young Olivia’s life seemed to be in some kind of secret harmony we viewers just weren’t privy to.
But after 13 years on the job, “Law & Order: SVU” is struggling to paint Olivia as anything other than exhausted, expired and plain ole bitchy.
With Elliot -- her male mirror image -- gone, Olivia is lashing out at everyone who isn’t as impossibly dedicated as she is.
“It’s hard enough showing one rookie the ropes, and now we have two? I mean what is this, a day care?” she complains at the very start of Season 13 when two new detectives join the squad. She's as petualant and stingy with her career as a toddler with a security blanket.
“This is a whole different world,” Liv explains to her new and much younger partner. “Not everyone has the stomach for it.” Nobody has a stomach like Liv’s, maybe not even Liv herself.
In a recent episode, after a tough loss for one of her “vics,” a male prosecutor warns Olivia, “This job? Fighting this hard? Win or lose it comes with a cost.”
“I look at the uni-s, these kids in the squad room and all I can think of is, ‘I’m so tired,’” admits Liv outside on the criminal court building’s steps. She’s leaning against an imposing Greek column, letting the weight of it take hers on for a size.
“That’s what happens when you live for the job,” he warns her again.
“I do OK on my own.”
“You sure about that?”
I want Olivia to be OK on her own. For her to be the same Olivia who Julia Keller wrote was “splendid in her misery. Golden in her loneliness.” The one whose role is “memorable.”
But perhaps Olivia’s a different kind of role model. A cautionary tale. I want to believe that a woman can go around defending right with might without taking any blows, so for me there’s something almost sinister in Olivia’s slow deterioration.
Does a woman not have the right to eat herself from the inside out with Jesus-high standards but none of his compassion? Or is a woman dedicated to a cause predisposed for burn-out vis-a-vis her vagina? I don’t know, you tell me xoJane Justice League; would an SVU without Olivia even look the same?