This is a big one. I’m a little afraid to touch it, to be honest, she said about two fictional television characters who never kissed even once. But there it is — as you know, every woman over the age of menarche is required by law to watch Law & Order: SVU whenever reruns air on USA. SVU has been on the air for a solid decade and a half, and I’m willing to wager more than one lesbian sexual awakening has been sparked by Olivia Benson’s short hair over the years.
A brief Chris Meloni aside, before we get down to business: I love the guy, I really do. He looks like an angry, confused bald eagle. He has the tallest eyebrows in the world, he’s real full of muscles, and he was on Oz and Wet Hot American Summer. I love and accept him unconditionally. Stabler and Benson have a real thing going on. It may or may not be romantic, but they are unquestionably each other’s person. I’m not going to deny that. If I’d ever watched The X-Files, I’d probably call it a real Mulder-and-Scully type of connection, but I never watched that show. So I don’t want to explain him away or write him out.
But Eliot Stabler is a married man. (He’s also off the show, at this point, but we’re going to confine ourself primarily to the first seven seasons, so it doesn’t matter overmuch.) He’s stuffed full of ethics; that’s why his muscles always bulge out of his dress shirts. He’s her partner. He’s never going to be her boyfriend.
Assistant District Attorney Alex Cabot, though. Assistant District Attorney Alex Cabot. Do you have any ideas the goddamn feels this woman and her relationship with Olivia Benson has inspired over the years? The careful, annotated watching? The 5000-word essays about whether or not the almost-matching pair of necklaces the two began sporting in season 4 mean they’re in a committed relationship? The fan videos? One-eighth of the Internet is just Liv/Alex fan videos set to slow Spanish ballads.
Longtime fans of the show remember the delightful season-2-era Butchification of Olivia Benson. She was already delightfully dry and self-reliant (“It’s two for a dollar!” “Just the one tomato.”), but in season two she went from pinging to breaking your gaydar. The haircut played a huge part in it, as did her ridiculous level of swagger. Moments like this didn’t hurt either:
Everything about the two of them was electric, and people…noticed. They fought differently with each other: intensely, and in each other’s personal space, and using each other’s first names. (You know who calls Olivia ‘Liv’ on this show? Eliot, and Alex, and nobody else.) Olivia asks her out to get drinks. They linger. They stare. They make my heart hurt. It got the people going, as they say. And the producers noticed. And the actors noticed. And still they toyed with us.
I remember sitting in my dorm scrolling through AfterEllen and actually gasping out loud when I saw someone had asked Stephanie March about the Alex/Olivia relationship:
Finally, when Melissa Lee of ILoveTelevision.com asked whether Alex and Olivia are in love and just not realizing it yet, March answered, “I’m not saying we’re not…I’m not saying we’re not in love.”
I still don’t think there’s any real chance the writers are going to develop a romantic relationship between Olivia and Alex.
But even a few years ago, questions about a romantic development between two ostensibly straight characters on a popular mainstream TV show wouldn’t have even been asked in a mainstream press conference, let alone answered in a way that seeks to encourage viewers to read between the lines.
I love Olivia–particularly Butch Olivia (I pretend that the weepy, baby-crazy, silk-shirt-ensconced Olivia of later seasons doesn’t exist, as do you), but Stephanie March kills me. That episode of 30 Rock where she plays brilliant Plastics engineer and lesbian Gretchen Thomas? I can’t be the only dyke who pretended that “I am a lesbian” was somehow SVU canon.
Liz Lemon is quite possibly the straightest female character in human history, but I still ship it, even now. Stephanie March’s voice is just pure lesbian catnip. It’s husky and authoritative and it wears sensible shoes and powder-blue Oxford shirts. She looks like a lioness who has temporarily assumed human form to amuse herself. Her hair makes me want to kill myself. And watching her slowly let her guard down with Olivia over the course of several seasons is the most maddening, slow-burn tease in the world.
There’s a reason the lady cop has been a staple of lesbian wet dreams for centuries. Give me a full-jawed, wide-stanced woman with broad shoulders who doesn’t cross her legs when she sits down and looks good in a trench coat, and I’m hers forever. Put two of them together, make one of them an impossibly luscious-yet-authoritative blonde, and you’ll have to peel me up off the floor. And if they’re both good people? Both hard-working, with jobs they care about deeply, who treat their friends well, who care about honesty and justice and victims’ rights? Look, it’s a stereotype for a reason that all lesbians fall for ethical cops and veterinarians and social workers and family therapists. We get hot for fairness.
The two of them go from this:
That’s from the episode Whereof We Do Not Speak — where Alex has to join the Witness Protection Program and leave SVU (aside from a few later, disappointing guest turns). Olivia is a wreck. She’s soft. She’s vulnerable. She’s been filleted. Her voice cracks, her jaw wobbles, her eyes fill with tears. It’s the episode that launched a thousand ships, and they still won’t give us one goddamn kiss. Olivia never leans over and pulls Alex’s glasses off. The top of Alex’s desk never gets swept clean and christened. Their voices never get close and husky until they turn off from a dark, quiet kiss. Olivia never takes off her leather jacket and lets down her guard and takes a fistful of Alex’s hair in her hands.
But we still have the fanvids.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.