Imagine a picturesque college campus, complete with stately sorority houses and a lush quad. One of these sororities is home to Jules (Eliza Bennett), a timid blonde with a penchant for pearls. Ophelia (Taylor Dearden) is a green-haired, computer-hacking anarchist who works at a record store and sells pot. These girls exist in opposite realms of their university’s social strata, yet bond over a furtive mission.
Unlikely duos, college shenanigans, and secrets: All elements of a classic, coming-of-age dramedy. But MTV’s latest series Sweet/Vicious defies labels or tropes. Ophelia may be an anarchist drug dealer, but she’s also the campus tutor. Jules exudes school spirit and good behavior, yet moonlights as a vigilante. Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles keep New York City safe from Shredder and his evil cronies, Ophelia and Jules band together to keep their fellow students safe from villains—specifically campus rapists.
This is where Sweet/Vicious deviates most from the archetypical teen series: It’s a comedy about rape.
How can a comedy revolve around such a brutal, sensitive subject?
“There’s nothing funny about it,” said Robinson, referring to sexual assault. “But the world is funny, just like it is dark, just like it is sad, just like it is heart-breaking…Why not have a show that includes all of those things together?”
MTV picked up the series in April. It was around this time when a sexual assault case at Stanford University prompted a national discussion on rape culture.
Rape culture is a social media buzzword lately, but the term originated in the 70s. Author Emilie Buchwald describes it in her book, Transforming a Rape Culture.
“It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent,” writes Buchwald. “In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable.”
No means no: Watch Jules assert herself.
Sweet/Vicious is the latest show to give survivors of sexual assault a voice. The characters are flawed, inexperienced, and make reckless decisions. But that in itself is the essence of Sweet/Vicious: Survivors should not have to be saints to be protected from violence.
MTV’s show asks the tough questions. If a woman is wearing a so-called provocative outfit, or drinks too much, does she deserve to be raped? Why are we not scrutinizing their attackers to the same degree?
In Sweet/Vicious, Ophelia and Jules make this their mission.
— Sweet/Vicious (@SweetVicious) December 7, 2016
“There is stuff happening out there and no one is doing anything about it,” said Jules in the first episode. “People are just getting away with awful things. I’m trying to make some of that right.”
Jules speaks from experience. She was raped by a fellow student, her sorority sister’s boyfriend.
— Look Different (@LookDifferent) December 2, 2016
To cope with her own loss of safety, dignity, and autonomy, Jules plots revenge—tracking accused sexual predators on campus, and showing them what it’s like to be powerless.
Jules is in the process of viciously attacking an alleged campus rapist in the pilot episode. The man pleads for her to stop. “Please, no,” he whimpers.
“I’m sorry, I thought ‘no’ meant ‘yes,” said Jules, as she continues to kick ass.
It’s a brutal scene. But perhaps fictional, hyperbolic vengeance is necessary to convey the reality that many sexual assault survivors have endured.
Robinson is adamant about the show’s message. It’s not implying victims should resort to the vigilante antics of Jules and Ophelia. It’s about fixing the broken system.
Viacom is ready to further this discussion. In October, the company and Viacom Velocity partnered with the Joyful Heart Foundation, creating a jarring PSA campaign called “Enough.”
Watch as Joyful Heart founder Mariska Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order Special Victims Unit), her fellow cast members, and other prominent actors star into the camera and recite the legions of excuses society offers men who commit sexual assault.
Campaigns like this, as well as MTV’s partnership with RAINN to raise money to support survivors of sexual assault are steps in the right direction to shifting the paradigm of rape culture. And with a 100 percent critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and TV critics calling it, “A must-see show for young adults everywhere, especially those in college,” it’s apparent that Sweet/Vicious is making an impact.
“We’re doing this for different reasons,” said Ophelia, “But it doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there that need our help. The school needs its Batman.”
Or, in this case, Batwomen.
Watch Sweet/Vicious Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on MTV and catch up on old episodes on MTV.com.