SVU’s Mariska Hargitay Is Under Fire for ‘Pro-Police Propaganda’

Advocates are calling for Hargitay to quit the show for misrepresenting sexual assault survivors' experiences.

SVU’s Mariska Hargitay Is Under Fire for ‘Pro-Police Propaganda’
Photo:Dimitrios Kambouris (Getty Images)

A criminal justice reform publication is calling for SVU’s Mariska Hargitay to “quit the show for good” and claims the actress is “promoting the false narrative that police need more money to end the rape kit ‘backlog.’”

Published in The Appeal’s newsletter this week, the report slams Hargitay for being selected as one of Glamour’s 2021 “Women of the Year,” and call the decision “unfortunate” because “she and everyone else involved with SVU are complicit in what is likely the single worst piece of pro-police propaganda produced over the last few decades.” The publication also accuses SVU of “laundering the reputation of the NYPD and its sex crimes division.”

On SVU, the longest-running primetime live-action show in US television history, Hargitay plays Captain Olivia Benson, the commanding officer of the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Unit. Inspired by her work as Benson, Hargitay started the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 to help end the backlog of rape kits, which refers to the hundreds of thousands of collected rape kits across the country that sit untested in police departments, supposedly because they lack the funding to test them. As a solution, Hargitay’s foundation calls for more funding for police to end this backlog. Notably, experts — as well as The Appeal’s reportinghave emphasized that the backlog exists not because of lack of funding, but because police departments — which receive substantially more funding than public resources for abuse victims — choose to not send rape kits to labs.

It’s not a coincidence that the most frequently invoked defense of police is the supposed safety and justice they provide to victims or potential victims of sexual violence. Some critics of SVU note that shows like Hargitay’s play a significant role in mythologizing police departments as advocates for survivors when, in real life, it’s quite common for the opposite to be true.

One survey of 20 anti-violence organizations and rape crisis programs that have worked with over 5,000 sexual assault survivors in New York City, where SVU is fictionally based, found the majority of these groups said the NYPD is failing to meet the needs of survivors. The Appeal notes local police departments “are routinely sued or criticized for failing to investigate rape cases and retraumatizing survivors.”

A study from 1992 found that 40% of police officers are domestic abusers. And while just five out of 1,000 rapists will ever be incarcerated, 90% of incarcerated women — most of whom are women of color — are survivors of sexual violence. These realities, none of which are depicted on SVU, make it relatively clear why most victims of sexual assault don’t report their experience to the police.

One sexual assault survivor told The Appeal that the NYPD detective assigned to her case had assault allegations waged against him and even claimed that the NYPD gaslit her into believing she hadn’t been assaulted. The survivor went on to say: “If I had a dollar for every time I heard, ‘This can’t be true. Olivia Benson would never let this happen!’ I would have enough to cover my hospital bills and therapy for my trauma.”

SVU and Hargitay, whose off-screen advocacy for survivors has been praised by a number of stars and advocates including #MeToo co-founder Tarana Burke, have yet to respond to The Appeal’s demand that she quit the show for its misleading impact on the conversations around sexual violence and policing. This is also not the first time that the show has been in hot water, having been criticized before, particularly last summer in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. At the time, the show was lambasted for serving as “copaganda,” or essentially free PR for police departments, prompting SVU to focus the show’s season 22 premiere episode on police brutality and racial profiling last November.

Representatives from Hargitay, SVU and the NYPD did not immediately respond to request for comment from Jezebel.

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