College girls by day, vigilantes by night: On MTV’s new show, rape survivors get revenge

A revenge fantasy for survivors, with superhero style.

CREDIT: MTV
CREDIT: MTV

“When they go low, we go high” is an appealing, aspirational idea. But you know what else is an appealing, aspirational idea? That when they go low — if by “they” we mean “men on university campuses” and by “go low” mean “rape their female classmates”— we train until we’re in ninja-fighting-form, pull on a black mask, and beat the hell out of them.

This is the premise of Sweet/Vicious, MTV’s latest entry into the scripted series scene which premiered on November 15: Two college girls team up to take down rapists on their campus with some good old-fashioned ass kicking, meting out vigilante justice to fill the void where meaningful action by the school and police ought to be. Ophelia (Taylor Dearden) is a drug-dealing trust fund kid with a knack for hacking who is scrounging around her life for a sense of purpose when she stumbles into Jules (Eliza Bennett), a blonde sorority sister and sexual assault survivor who remade herself as an anonymous avenger after she was raped by her best friend’s boyfriend.

The show, brainchild of 28-year-old Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, is a little bit Buffy and a little bit Batman (Ophelia points out to Jules that her origin story and Bruce Wayne’s sure sound similar, then volunteers to be her less-lame version of Robin). Though no one takes sexual assault and the trauma it inflicts on its victims lightly, there’s a dark, Heathers-like humor running through the proceedings. Our heroines, well-intentioned though they may be, make rookie mistakes at every turn; they are often left scrambling to keep their secrets under wraps, to bury that body stashed in the trunk before its rotting odor gives them away. They think they know where the line is, then cross it, either by accident or impulse. Then they gear up to fight again.

CREDIT: MTV
CREDIT: MTV

Sweet/Vicious arrives just a year after the premieres of Jessica Jones and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix — the former, an acerbic drama centered around a snarky sexual assault survivor who happens to have some low-grade superhero strength (jumping really high, stopping a slow-moving car); the latter, an absurdist sitcom about a woman who spent all her formative years trapped in a bunker where she was, the series all but explicitly states, raped repeatedly by her kidnapper.

Sweet/Vicious takes those ideas a step further, honing in on an arena — the college campus — where rapes occur with disgusting regularity and survivors are all too often given the runaround when trying to report, abandoned or scorned by the very institutions that are supposed to protect them. When traditional means of justice so consistently fail; when a heightened awareness about “rape culture” does not yet seem to be translating into tangible support for survivors and appropriate punishments for offenders; when an alleged sexual predator is ascending to the Oval Office; is it any wonder that a revenge fantasy like the one Sweet/Vicious offers up is so enticing?

Creator and producer Robinson spoke with ThinkProgress by phone about what it is that makes her series “controversial,” portraying violence, rape and the aftermath of both on television, and what she hopes people take away from this fantasy of women avenging other women.

What was the original seed of this idea for you?

It was me wanting to write something for and about empowered women. In the original script I wrote, they were 25 or 26 years old and it flashed into their origin story in college. That was the pilot, and MTV read it and loved it before I even had a producer attached. And they had me in their offices and they said, “We love this, but we just want to do the college origin story.” When we started to conceive that, even more stuff came out and we were able to build and create the world that Sweet/Vicious is. So it was always about women who were avenging other women and trying to get justice, but once we set it in the college setting it really came to life.

In reviews of the show, I’ve seen a lot of writers return to the word “controversial.” I kind of hate that word — it always feels like a stand-in for another word that, for whatever reason, that person is uncomfortable using — but I’m curious what, if anything, you think is controversial about your show.

You know, I think the show is controversial in that no one has explored sexual assault on television this way before. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen sexual assault explored this way, especially as a young woman or a college student. So I understand why people are saying it’s controversial.

To me, I think one of the big problems is that this story still feels or maybe is taboo for a lot of people, and they’re still getting used to seeing things like this be told and used in entertainment. I hope we get to a place where this story isn’t controversial; it just needs to be told. Because I think it’s so important and you would hope that the word “controversy” is replaced with “important” or “must-watch” or “story that needs to be told.” Because, unfortunately, “controversial” makes it sound like we’re trying to do something edgy or dangerous, and I don’t know that this story is those things. And it’s those words and qualifiers that kind of lessen this cause and this issue a little bit to me.

My gut sense is, what is “controversial” about your show isn’t the depiction of rape but the depiction of women being violent, or just taking action at all, in the aftermath of rape. Because plenty of prestige dramas — Game of Thrones, Westworld, and the like — have female characters get raped all the time. And those rape scenes are far more graphic and explicit than what is shown (or, I assume, can be shown) on Sweet/Vicious.

Of course! I think the fact that it’s women is “controversial” for people. It’s two young women in college who are fighting back, and I think that people, especially now in this post-election America, see that as us making some kind of statement of what the world should be or look like, and we are not. Violence doesn’t solve violence. This is a heightened environment, and the story is supposed to be entertainment. It’s a television show.

“In our show, we’re telling the story but we dug really deep; we did a lot of research, and we wanted to be sure that we were telling the whole story. You can’t just have rape without what happens after.”

But the core of it is about fighting injustice, and it is two women doing it. We’re still at a place where that is going to make some people uncomfortable and make some people maybe feel squeamish. And the way that rape is used on other television programs — I love Game of Thrones, I really am enjoying Westworld, but yes, I do think that is, the word gratuitous is more appropriate than controversial. I wish that there was just a little bit more, that they dug a little bit deeper, if they are going to have a female character go through that. In our show, we’re telling the story but we dug really deep; we did a lot of research, and we wanted to be sure that we were telling the whole story. You can’t just have rape without what happens after.

Tell me about all the research you did, and how you let that research inform your writing. Because it seems pretty clear that you aren’t interested in a one-to-one, this headline becomes this plot point type project, in the vein of a Law and Order style show.

We made sure that it was not one-to-one. We made sure that we never told a story completely that we read in research, because those are not our stories to tell. Those headlines belong to survivors. I don’t believe you can take someone’s story like that and reappropriate it for television without permission from the survivor.

We read everything we could possibly read. I had two to three articles on my desk every morning about assault, for two years. We watched every documentary we could, we talked to survivors, we talked to Title IX officers. We were involved with RAINN and the women from End Rape On Campus. We really wanted to make sure that we were telling this story from all sides, correctly and thoughtfully.

Sweet/Vicious isn’t a straight comedy, but there is a lot of humor laced throughout the show. How do you determine what jokes you can and can’t tell, when you’re dealing with a subject matter like rape? And what is it you think comedy can accomplish here that a standard drama couldn’t?

I think, in terms of what kind of jokes you can and can’t tell, it’s a gut-check. At a certain point, you have to look into yourself and in the writers room and be like, can we do this? Does this work? And rely on each other that you’re not making light of something. When we are in the sexual assault story with Jules, that is serious. There is nothing funny about that. That’s not where the humor in the show lies. It lies in the absurdities of life, and life is funny and dark and heartbreaking and all at the same time.

There are shows that tell this story and they choose to really hone in on the drama, and it’s hard to watch. It’s a tough pill to swallow. And that’s just not the show that we wanted to make. I don’t knock those shows, but our show and the tone of our show — we wanted to walk that Tarantino line: grounded real stuff that’s also heightened and kind of absurd.

CREDIT: MTV
CREDIT: MTV

We talk about how it’s a little bit absurd, because at the end of the day, it’s two young women trying to be vigilantes, and if you really think what that would be like as a college student who doesn’t know what you’re doing, that’s inherently funny. There’s so much comedy in that and we didn’t want to shy away from that, because we think that’s just as important as the sexual assault stuff, we which take very seriously.

Talk me through the laws of the universe here. You are, in part, in this heightened reality, where an almost comic book superhero logic rules the day — like, these relatively small, young girls have extraordinary strength when they take on these much larger, male assailants, all from one summer of training! What’s the ceiling on how out-there you can be with that stuff?

Where can we suspend the reality? Where can we heighten things? And where do things need to be grounded? Within the fighting and the superhero adventures they go on, that’s where it gets heightened. That’s where it should feel larger than life. But when we’re in Jules’ life as a survivor and how she deals with her trauma, that’s very real and we don’t want anything suspended about that. But the violence and vigilante activities, that is her coping mechanism. That is how she is channeling her trauma and the energy and feelings she doesn’t know what to do with post-assault. So it goes hand in hand: The violence is heightened and should not mirror what a survivor should or would do in real life, but the idea of channeling your trauma into something a bit destructive because you’re not totally sure who you are or what to do with yourself, post-assault.

Jules’ rapist is her best friend’s boyfriend, and I was struck by how it seemed like you go out of your way to make him a really good guy. Outside of the assault that we know about, he appears to be a wonderful boyfriend to Jules’ friend. How do you feel about humanizing this character? Is that portrayal there to challenge people’s preconceived notions about “what kind of guy” commits sexual assault?

I think that it was really important to us to tell the story of Nate in a way that wasn’t just outright vilifying him from the beginning, because I think that one of the biggest problems this epidemic is the fact that no one is teaching consent. No one is teaching consent to young men, and that is a huge problem. If you are being told, “take what you want, be a man,” from a very young age, you’re going to do that when you’re older. So we have to start changing that conversation.

“To tell one story and make it really man-bashing and ‘every man is a rapist,’ that’s not real life.”

All the blame and responsibility falls on the woman: Why did you wear that? Why did you go to his room? And that’s crazy! Why do we only teach girls to protect themselves and not teach young men that forcing yourself on someone is not being a man, it’s being a rapist? I think there is confusion there for a lot of young men. There is a lack of education.

With Nate, there is a story of a young man, an entitled person with a very good life, and who is in all other aspects actually a pretty good guy, but he took what he wanted and he did something that was black-and-white assault but that he saw as gray. We are not saying that what he did is okay but we did want to tell the story of someone who maybe doesn’t understand or is coming to grips with understanding that what he did wasn’t okay.

What’s your writers room look like? How many men, how many women?

Our writers’ assistant is an African American woman. Another staff writer is a woman, [as is] our showrunner, and the other two writers are a gay man and a straight man, and they are both white.

It’s interesting to think about having these conversations in a coed space. I think a lot of women talk about rape and sexual violence among ourselves, but those conversations take on a very different tone — or just don’t happen at all — when men are around.

There was a lot of debate in the room. And not just from our straight male writer. But we all talked about it a lot, and we read things on the other side — and that’s not to say that some young men aren’t doing something malicious. I do think that is also happening. And that is a story that we tell in episode three. That boy did something malicious: He lured someone somewhere, and that was a malicious act. But I also think that there’s a lot of gray happening, and we wanted to explore both sides of that and both kinds of men, and all different kinds of young men, and how they are also dealing with and living in this environment. Because to tell one story and make it really man-bashing and “every man is a rapist,” that’s not real life.

CREDIT: MTV
CREDIT: MTV

What’s your backstory? How did you get into writing and television in the first place?

I came to L.A. when I was 16 to be an actress. I was at Disney, I did that for a while, they were trying to fit me into [a mold]. I auditioned for a bunch of their stuff. And I hated auditioning, I wasn’t very good at it, and I was getting close on projects but never getting them. And I was like, “I don’t like this. This isn’t what I want to do.” And I realized in my early 20s, acting isn’t really what I wanted. I wanted to be able to create something, to be a part of the conception of something.

So I started writing, and I wrote my first pilot and sent it to a friend, Allan Loeb, a screenwriter, and he thought it was good and attached himself to it. So I was 22, and I developed it for a little bit, and I took that out right after Lena Dunham sold Girls, another show about women in their 20s people weren’t sure if they could buy. That script kind of got changed and evolved several different times, and I did some screenwriting work for hire, but it was never anything big. I always had a day job during this time.

In the summer of 2014, I quit my day job and was like, “I have to focus on this, I have to throw all my energy into this, and get to a point where I’m so scared where either I sell something or don’t have money.” And this is the show that came out of me. I wrote it in the summer of 2014 and I sold it in February 2015.

What does it do to you, mentally and emotionally, to be thinking about rape kind of non-stop for years on end to write this show?

You know, it’s not easy. But I can tell you that it’s a hell of a lot easier than whatever any of these survivors are going through. And I think on days where I’m like, it’s really feeling like it’s bogging me down, I step back and I think, this isn’t about me and this is about bringing awareness to something, so the women who actually have to think about this 24/7 because this is something thrust upon them that they did not want or ever imagine could happen, maybe feel a little bit less alone. So yeah, there are days where it does get really hard and the stories feel endless, and I think, how can I make a difference with something that feels so big and scary and unchangeable? And then you think about, what about the girls that absolutely can’t stop thinking about this and will never stop thinking about this, and giving them a voice? I really hope people find and watch the show and we can bring some awareness to this cause.

You mentioned earlier that we’re living in this post-election landscape, where someone who has said incredibly violent and hateful things about women — and has been accused by several women of sexual assault — is now the president-elect. What do you think is the role of pop culture, of a show like yours, in a climate like this?

You know, I don’t know! Because I don’t know if people are still finding the show. It’s still living inside the MTV ecosystem, and I hope we can break beyond that and people can come to the show who wouldn’t necessarily normally watch MTV and just watch the show and be there for the show. Because I do think the show is bigger than the network in some ways, because it does reach beyond the millennial audience.

I hope more shows choose to tackle topics that were once, maybe, looked at as taboo or “controversial” but in a way that can move change forward, and enact change within our country, and are not just gratuitous for entertainment value. Because now more than ever, I think we need more shows that are also about inclusivity and being kind to one another and fighting for what you believe in.

Sweet/Vicious airs on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST. The first three episodes are available to stream now on MTV.com.