What Makes Olivia Benson “America’s Favorite Female Character”

Television shows that feature empowered, multi-dimensional women and girl characters seem to be having a moment. One doesn’t have to channel surf for long during a typical weekday night before coming across the face of Olivia Benson, Cookie Lyon or whatever character Jessica Lange happens to be playing on American Horror Story.

Entertainment and content marking agency Trailer Park, in conjunction with QC Strategy, decided to take a closer look at the social mechanisms behind the trend in its latest study, “Nobody’s Damsel: A Study on Modern Women on TV and the Audiences Who Watch Them.” The study took the 36 women leads from across 17 of the highest-rated, women-centric dramas and sampled 1,200 viewers of those shows. Researchers then asked the group what traits and story lines they preferred for female versus male characters.

Out of a list of 40 traits to choose from, both men and women agreed that their favorite female characters were above all: intelligent, tough, beautiful, strong-willed and self-confident.

When it came to story lines, those aged 13-17 (Generation Z) were more likely to prefer non-traditional gender roles for both male and female characters as opposed to those who were 25 and older. For example, the younger respondents said they would like to see a TV show revolve around a man who moves to a big city after a bad breakup to find love, or one featuring a woman doctor and her residents at a major hospital.

Gen Z was also much more likely to espouse progressive views than those over 25, and were most likely out of all age groups to strongly identify as feminist. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed self-reported as feminist compared to 16 percent of those aged 25-34. The study put forth:

Gen Z may be the start of a larger cultural shift in television viewing preferences where gender equality will be expected rather than a notable exception.

Social media plays no small role in the feminism of Gen Z as it aids in the dissemination of egalitarian ideas. Researchers identified social media platform Tumblr as the most feminist of the networking sites with a whopping 36 percent of Tumblr users considering themselves strong feminists.

The study devoted a whole chapter to examining the pop culture phenomenon that is Sgt. Olivia Benson of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Mariska Hargitay’s character was the most-liked female character on television among men and women. She possessed the character traits and the storyline that both genders preferred in strong female characters and was found to be the most relatable.

The study stated in its closing remarks:

At first, Sgt. Olivia Benson may not seem like the obvious choice for America’s favorite female character. After all, Law & Order: SVU is headed into its 16th season and is no longer water- cooler style conversation fodder. However, she occupies a space at the intersection of preferred storyline, traits and relatability that gives her a wide lead in comparison to other modern female television characters.

The longevity of Olivia Benson in a media landscape where characters can fall in and out of favor with a fickle volksgeist proves the power and necessity of nuanced portrayals of women. Thanks to the influence of Generation Z and social media, we can hope to only see more of these characters in the future.

Photo via Shutterstock. Graphics via Trailer Park.



Associate editor of Ms. magazine