MTV’s newest show Sweet/Vicious is about two girls who team up as vigilantes against rapists around their college campus, and it’s good.
Like Marvel’s Jessica Jones, adapted by Netflix last year for a TV series, Sweet/Vicious similarly explores sexual assault and coercion under the guise of superhero themes.
“People are drawn to superhero culture because everyone's looking for a little more protection,” says executive producer Stacey Sher.
Unlike Marvel’s Jessica Jones, which had elements of science fiction and feminist revenge fantasy, Sher describes Sweet/Vicious primarily as “a survivor story,” she says. Its main character, Jules, played by Eliza Bennett, is also a rape survivor who doles out justice by beating down bad guys in the dark of night under the cover of a mask and while wearing all black.
The show takes place at fictional Darlington College, a typical campus with sororities, fraternities, and college parties—though in true TV fashion, you rarely see anyone in class. Darlington College is “our Gotham City,” Sher says, and the show itself is “a framework [to] give voice to the voiceless.”
Unlike Batman or Jessica Jones, though, the villains in Sweet/Vicious aren’t characters with supernatural powers, power-hungry agendas, or fictional gadgets, but rather ordinary people who commit sexual assault. In the show’s fourth episode, “Tragic Kingdom,” which aired Tuesday night, the perpetrators are a group of women: The girls of Kappa Kappa Theta haze a new pledge by undressing her and writing slurs on her body, and a video of the girl’s humiliation ends up online.
“This is sexual assault, no question. Stripping someone down and writing on their body? It’s awful,” Jules says after watching the video. It’s an example of just how clear-eyed the show can be about consent, sexual assault, and harassment, which it works constantly to define.
Jules’ owns backstory is revealed in flashbacks throughout the first few episodes. Like in most instances of rape reported by college women, she knows her attacker—it was her best friend’s boyfriend, which prevents Jules from confiding in her and reporting her own rape as well. So instead of confronting her own sexual assault, she threatens and intimidates other rapists who’ve gotten away scot-free, armed with some martial arts skills, as well as a knife.
Taking them on alone is what gets Jules in trouble in the pilot, when her target knocks her out and threatens to murder her. But that's when she's rescued by her sidekick-to-be Ophelia, who teams up with Jules because she's aimless and lonely and excited to be part of something bigger than herself.
When Ophelia, played by Taylor Dearden, asks Jules why she’s been going around campus beating up rapists, Jules says, “There is stuff happening out there, and no one is doing anything about it. People are just getting away with awful things. I’m trying to make some of that right.”
“That’s the plot of Batman,” Ophelia says.
Justice in Jules and Ophelia’s world can be rogue, like when they track down a survivor’s rapist who catfished her through a dating app and give him a proper beatdown. He ends up with some cracked ribs and a limp. Other times, justice can be institutional, like in last night’s episode, where Jules and Ophelia go undercover to find evidence linking the sorority to the untraceable video. Their detective work, which they hand over anonymously to the school, is enough to suspend the sorority.
Sher’s experiences working with Quentin Tarantino, most recently as a producer on The Hateful 8 and Django Unchained, have taught her how genre and realism can co-exist, especially on darker themes.
“Genre has always traditionally been a way in which people have explored very tough subjects” says Sher. “Quentin is brilliant at figuring out how to shine a light on very, very tough subject matter in an appealing-to-audiences formula.”
“We live in a really misogynistic world,” Sher says. “We live in a world where it's not safe for women to come forward quite often. What we want to do is shine a light on these issues and make it a safe place for survivors and for people to talk about stuff and step up.”
Sulagna Misra is a freelance writer who lives in the New York area and the small hovel http://sulagnamisra.com. You can find her on Twitter at @sulagnamisra.