The Women’s March mobilized millions around the globe to come out and participate in something they may never have considered before: using their voices, and their feet, to say enough of the politicking of others affecting their rights and their bodies! Among the many celebrities showing support for the this noble cause was actress and advocate Mariska Hargitay, widely known for playing beloved detective Olivia Benson on the popular crime drama “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” (which will be airing its 400th episode on February 8th #SVU400). Of course, to the hundreds of thousands, nay millions, of supporters/fans of the actress, myself included, this was nothing new for Hargitay. Indeed, the actress has spent the better part of the past two decades fighting for justice on behalf of victims of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault—both on the show and in real life through her Joyful Heart Foundation, which she founded in 2004.
Hargitay, daughter of Hollywood icon Jayne Mansfield and body builder Mickey Hargitay, recently celebrated her 53rd birthday on January 23rd. Her birthday is an important event each year for fans as even something so personal as this has been transformed into an opportunity to raise money for her widespread activist work. The week of her birthday is known to supporters/participants on social media under the hashtag #MariskasBirthdaySpiritWeek, and during this “spirit week” all posts supporting Mariska, and using that hashtag, were met with a fifty cent donation from 12 sponsors, towards a $1,000 goal. The joyful hearted woman who created the spirit week and fundraiser is a poster using the handle “therealjoyfullaughter” (Many of Mariska/Joyful Heart Foundation enthusiasts take handles using words that seem to express all things Mariska represents to them—“joy,” “gratitude,” “hope,” “peace,” “justice,” “love,” “kindness.”), and she started spirit week in 2015. She tells us that “each year the response seems to get bigger, so we continue. Mariska stands for so much and we appreciate her. This also encourages the fans to unite under something positive.” This momentous effort realized and surpassed their goal this year, resulting in a $2,450 donation to the Joyful Heart Foundation.
Hargitay is popular on social media because of her incredible empathy and dedication to her fans—many of whom are victims of violence who have only disclosed their stories because of inspiration attributed to finding Mariska and her messages of hope and, of course, her character Olivia Benson.
The actress/activist is known for taking the time to respond to, encourage, and—even while on the job—embrace fans who have made the pilgrimage to the streets and sets of New York City to meet the heroine who has brought light into their world. I myself made this same pilgrimage in February of 2014 while doing filming for a micro-documentary for a University project on the issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. I, like many others, was met with a welcoming smile and warm embrace from Hargitay in the moments she had between filming scenes. This same scenario has been on repeat for Hargitay for years, well documented on the social media accounts of many whose days were brightened by their brush with the actress and her realness. This authenticity is something I was able to effectively harness and use in the creation of domestic violence/sexual assault education lectures I bring to my local middle and high schools. Hargitay’s “No More” campaign, popular during the NFL domestic violence scandal and maintaining today, resonated across demographics. Using the faces of many celebrity supporters, e.g. Maria Bello, Debra Messing, Ice-T, Mark Herzlich, Amy Poehler and others, these public service announcements came into our households conveying the powerful message of No More Excuses—for violence, for victim blaming, for bystanding. Mariska produced these, and other popular PSAs, in order to start getting right to the heart of the matter: we needed to change the way society looks at these crimes. These efforts to end this violence have been known widely as a “joyful revolution.”
“Inspired by her deep connection and love for Hawaii, where she first experienced her own heart awakening, Mariska founded Joyful Heart in Kona in 2004, with the intention of helping sexual assault survivors heal and reclaim a sense of joy in their lives.”
From there Hargitay has created many programs for survivors through a tri-fold approach of Healing, Education, and Advocacy. She has trained as a rape crisis advocate. And she has worked side by side with legislators—and Vice President Joe Biden—to secure funding for existing programs, and for spear heading other initiatives such as her endthebacklog.org, a nationwide, state by state effort to test the DNA of backlogged rape kits in each district, “demonstrating a commitment to survivors to do everything possible to bring healing and justice.” As Vice President Biden puts it, “DNA technology is the guilty person’s worst enemy and the innocent person’s greatest friend.” Biden is a pioneer in creating legislation to end the epidemic of violence with the writing of his Violence Against Women Act, and is a close friend of Ms. Hargitay as they work tirelessly together to effect change, even making a trip together to visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline headquarters in October (Domestic Violence awareness month) of 2013; and, further, Hargitay and the producers of Law and Order, welcomed the Vice President in a guest role as himself in the Season 18 episode “Making a Rapist”—a “ripped from the headline” episode inspired by the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer—where he applauded Benson and company for their work on ending the backlog, a nod to their “real life” efforts.- thejoyfulheartfoundation
Since Joyful Heart’s foundation, Hargitay’s “real life” and “work life” have overlapped so often that she effectively mobilized the fans (and beyond) to engage in the current participatory culture of audiences in this age of convergence culture. Without getting too technical, what has happened is that, since the show’s debut in September of 1999, audiences have gone from passive consumers of these “fictional stories” to active consumers/participants in “ripped from the headlines” narratives. Where the actors/producers/writers are interacting with them, often live, and are encouraging or motivating them to take action beyond watch for entertainment, sometimes blurring the lines between fiction and reality to the point where viewers conflate Hargitay with her character and expect her to take their case. This interaction is generally positive, though, and happens in many ways, across many platforms—usually through social media like twitter or Instagram, as discussed earlier. Through this interaction Hargitay has found a way to be herself AND be Olivia Benson at the same time. There is, for example, a necklace that Hargitay’s Benson wears in the show—the “fearlessness” necklace—that is a symbol of strength and empowerment to the character. This necklace is available to purchase from the Joyful Heart Foundation’s Heartshop, with the proceeds going to the organization’s charitable efforts. The hashtag #fearlessness has become one of the most primal messages from Benson, Hargitay, and Joyful Heart to the community of victims and advocates that they speak to. This mobilization of viewers comes from the ability of audiences to identify with Hargitay and her character as someone who is actively giving a voice to many who have, until now, been kept silent. She says, “I believe you.” “You matter.” Moreover, she works to help others find their own voices by standing behind them in their healing process, however indirectly. An Instagram user posting under the handle “spiritedsongstress” explained that she participates in the online spirit week “to honor Mariska Hargitay for the difference she has made in so many lives, including mine. Her positive attitude and joyful soul have helped me through some very dark times!” “I also participate,” she continues, “to help raise money for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which is an amazing organization that is very special to me, and has helped me tremendously.” Sentiments which are held in common with many, most whose only contact with Hargitay is through the show and social media, which, of course, is exactly the point! Her most recent hashtag/messages are #ENOUGH Hand #CHANGETHECULTURE , and she is paving the way to do just that! Through product partners like Me & Ro, Michael Stars, Natura Culina, Pura Vida, Fran’s Chocolates et al. (visit http://www.joyfulheartfoundation.org/heartshop for a full list of partners) it is possible to literally wear what Olivia wears and to absorb that strength and meaning, and display it proudly for themselves, and at the same time know that the proceeds are going to help others wo are, often times, survivors like themselves. It is just like wearing the blue “No More” pin, or hoodie…it’s a show of strength and solidarity, inspired by Hargitay. Another Instagram user, “britkneerose,” participates in this spirit week and participatory environment “to simply celebrate all that Mariska embodies. Her vibrant spirit blankets the world with love and kindness that we aspire to be like. She herself, and the Joyful Heart Foundation are beacons of light that have changed our culture and how people view domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault.”
“Deep cultural change does not happen overnight. It’s going to take time. It’s also going to take smart, engaged, committed, creative, determined people applying their best thinking to these issues. It’s going to take enough people in enough communities deciding that they’ve had enough.” ~Mariska Hargitay
This change has even stretched beyond the continental United states through the Hawaii Says No More organization, as well as internationally through the UK Says No More organization. There is a deep, lasting impact to be found here in Hargitay’s work beyond “SVU.” This is substantive, meaningful, and real. In Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault communities you don’t have to be up to date on the latest episode of “Special Victims Unit” to know and feel the effects of Mariska’s work. Just by being informed about the facts surrounding these issues goes a long way in the life of a victim. As Joyful Heart Foundation CEO Maile Zambuto put it: “If we are able to communicate only one thing about your role in a survivor’s journey, it is this; never, ever underestimate your power to affect its course.” Change is as simple as taking one second to tweet or post “No More,” or “Enough.” And it’s happening. Now. In the wake of Mariska Hargitay’s fearless, and joyful, revolution.