It’s hard to look at Mariska Hargitay without seeing Detective Olivia Benson, the character she has played on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit since the series premiered in 1999. It’s hard, in fact, to think of a television franchise that has affected the American psyche as deeply, and maintained such a hold for so long, as the Law & Order dynasty, which first aired in 1990. In Gone Girl, Nick Dunne (the flawlessly mediocre Ben Affleck) mimics the show’s iconic gung-gung sound effect when the police question him about his wife’s disappearance, and his life begins to seem, to him, like a scripted drama—even before he realizes that his wife has damningly implicated him in her apparent murder. And, as it turns out, the investigation she has set up makes intuitive sense to both observers and detectives because they know it so well from TV.
The Law & Order franchise has shaped Americans’ understanding of the law to such an extent that the actual legal system can sometimes seem discomfitingly unreal, because it is so little like the version we know from television: the one where prosecutors are incorruptible crusaders for justice, defense attorneys are conscienceless sophists, and trials take place in gleaming edifices of dark wood and marble—and where, perhaps most crucially, the viewer’s own belief in the defendant’s guilt can allow them to cheer for all sorts of systemic injustices and dirty tricks, because that’s how you have to play the game, sometimes, if you just know you have the right guy. Meanwhile, in the legal system that actually exists, trials rarely make sense of the crimes they address, and human beings, as it turns out, can fail to remember things that seem impossible to forget, and can sincerely believe that they have seen and experienced things that never happened.
Enter Detective Olivia Benson—or enter Mariska Hargitay. Or maybe, more accurately, enter some combination of the two. In HBO’s I Am Evidence, a documentary directed by Geeta Gandbhir and Trish Adlesic, and produced by Adlesic and Hargitay, Mariska Hargitay helps lead the viewer into a confrontation with one small aspect of the justice system: the staggering number of untested rape kits currently languishing in evidence lockers across the United States. As of the documentary’s completion, the total is at least 400,000. What this number really means—and what I Am Evidence strives to make real for the viewer—is that 400,000 Americans, 400,000 human beings, have been the victims of sexual assaults that have not only never been prosecuted, but have never been investigated at all.
How did this happen? Later in I Am Evidence, Michigan State University psychology professor Rebecca Campbell reports that “On average, 86 percent of sexual assaults that are reported to the police are never referred to the prosecutor’s office.” She proposes that police officers often doubt the credibility of victims because they have a perception that “the victim didn’t behave right.” When police are not educated about the effects of trauma, Campbell says, “they bring to the interaction a certain expectation that victims should behave a certain way,” paraphrasing: “‘If you’re really traumatized, you should be crying, you should be upset, you should be demonstrative. You should be grateful for my help… And if this isn’t a real victim, then we’re not investigating it—and we’re certainly not testing the rape kit.’”
Asked how long she waited for the results of her rape kit—which went untested for a decade—a Detroit woman named Ericka Murria tells us: “I gave it up on that day. I never waited … I couldn’t even expect anything, or I would not—I would not—I don’t think I would be here today.” Her response was the result not just of emotional self-protection, but of what the police told her when she reported her rape—a response that helps answer the question of why a rape victim might not display as much gratitude as the police might hope for from a “real” victim. “I’m just gonna be honest: Nothing’s going to happen,” Murria recalls a police officer telling her father, when he asked how long the investigation would take. “We’re going to put this in a file. We’re going to put [it] in a box. It’ll have her name on it… I’m not sure when we’ll ever get to it, or if we’ll ever get to it… I can take you to a storage room right now, full of people that are before her, that haven’t been tested for years.”
Ericka Murria is black, and over 80 percent of the rape kits that have gone untested in Detroit—around 9,000—are connected to the sexual assaults of black women. “I believe,” veteran Detroit social worker Kalimah Johnson says in the film, of the police department’s failure to investigate these cases, “that there’s just a lesser sense of value for women who are black.” “This thing,” Murria says, “goes back to slavery: how we were forced to carry things in silence. Our pain. Our anguish.”
When she began playing Detective Benson on SVU, Hargitay says in I Am Evidence, “letters started coming in from viewers. These men and women were disclosing to me their stories of abuse. First it was a few, then it was more, then it was hundreds, and then it was thousands. A majority of them included some version of, ‘I’ve never told this to anybody before.’ And here I was, an actress on a TV show, getting these letters.” Why was an actress on a TV show able to serve as an outlet for all these unspoken traumas?
It can be difficult—it can be unbearable, at times—to face the injustices barely concealed within the legal system, without a heroic figure of some kind to offer guidance. By producing and appearing in I Am Evidence, Mariska Hargitay is offering her own hand to viewers, and accompanying them into a world that might otherwise be too awful to countenance. Her presence in the documentary is comforting, but sporadic, like Glinda’s in The Wizard of Oz. She is visibly trying not to act as a heroine or a savior, and to allow viewers into the story without making it a story about her. She makes speeches and talks passionately with Wayne County District Attorney Kym Worthy, but her greatest gift to the viewer is her face as she listens, utterly shocked and present, to the details of this travesty she is trying to understand. She creates a space for the viewer to listen alongside her, and to try to take in this inexplicable world, so different from TV drama. If she can be brave enough to wade into this world—more frightening than anything on SVU, because it has no moral, no escape hatch—then maybe viewers can be brave enough to join her.
But Hargitay has also been Olivia Benson for nearly 20 years, and sometimes it seems like Hargitay herself is taking comfort, just for a moment, in believing that this world can be a little like Law & Order. “There’s something great when somebody says ‘You can’t do it,’ and you’re like, ‘You know what, fuck you,’” she says, late in the film. “‘I can do it. I can do it. You don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. And all it takes is focus, dedication, and commitment.’” For Detective Olivia Benson, this might be true. But in the real world, one heroine, no matter how strong, is no match for a legal system, and beyond it a whole society, characterized by inequalities that claim more victims than any one narrative has space for.