Taylor Dearden and Eliza Bennett in Sweet/Vicious.
The first time we meet Jules (played by Eliza Bennett), one of the protagonists of new MTV show Sweet/Vicious, she’s sneaking into a frat boy’s bedroom. She’s decked in all black, and her plan is sinister.
“Do I have consent?” she asks the guy, her voice distorted by a device in her mask, while she holds a knife up against his crotch. “No, please no,” he pleads, “I’ll do anything.” She punches him in the face, hard, anyway. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I thought ‘no’ meant ‘yes.’ My bad. You didn’t stop when she said no, did you?”
Once she’s done her damage, she stealthily slides out the guy’s window. “Kids” by Sleigh Bells plays as she scales the fence back to her sorority and removes her disguise, revealing a ruffly floral sweater and long blond hair, smashing expectations of what this masked vigilante must look like. The song—simultaneously shiny, feminine, rough, and industrial—provides an excellent introduction to the show and to this sweet yet hard-edged character.
Jules is a seemingly perfect, high-achieving sorority girl. Delivering her own form of violent justice to boys who were never punished for raping girls on campus is her secret hobby. She meets her eventual sidekick, Ophelia (Taylor Dearden), an emerald-haired slacker who sells weed from the record store where she works, by chance. When campus security catches Ophelia smoking a joint in the quad, she runs off in an attempt to escape punishment; she’s just one more infraction away from expulsion. Ophelia stumbles upon Jules, disguised, beating the shit out of a frat boy in an alleyway. Her love of comic book style retribution has her wanting to help this mysterious girl with a hot pink backpack. Once Ophelia finally identifies Jules, she follows her on another mission, saving Jules’s life but accidentally killing the guy in the process. What happens next is part “Goodbye Earl” and part Breaking Bad, the show even nodding to the latter when Jules insists, again and again, that they’re not going to dissolve the guy’s corpse in a bathtub.
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, the show’s creator and head writer, told Jezebel that one of her goals with Sweet/Vicious was to show more complicated versions of female superheroes:
“I was a nerd growing up, cinema nerd and comic book nerd, and I love that world, but I was never represented in it. Even when there were female characters, they were just big boobs and a latex suit, and that’s not how I felt. When I sat down to write this, I thought, ‘Why can’t someone like me be a superhero?’…The masculinity and the gender norms of superheroes, I wanted to flip that on its head. The show is not about the violence, it’s about the survivor.”
Sweet/Vicious does depict lots of violence, though, and it isn’t afraid to get gruesome. But while it gleefully shows Jules and Ophelia severing fingertips and stabbing accused rapists, it does show restraint in its depictions of sexual assault. Jules takes revenge on campus scumbags as a way to deal with her own rape, committed by her best friend’s boyfriend. While the show flashes back quickly to her rape a few times, the image is always brief and somewhat subdued. Usually, when rape and sexual assault are depicted on television, the scenes are gratuitous and grossly voyeuristic. We don’t need to see graphic depictions of rape to know how awful it is, so it’s a relief that the camera doesn’t dwell on Jules’s rape. All we see, really, is the horror on her face, a horror that is mirrored in the present when she’s near her rapist. And she’s often forced to be near him—Jules hasn’t told her best friend about her boyfriend’s rapist tendencies, and as Jules says, the college “did literally nothing” for her because, as the show implies through references to his importance, he’s the star of the football team.
College administrators brushing sexual assault under the rug is a daring topic for mainstream television, but it’s rooted in realities of college life—particularly college sports life—that are all-too-often dismissed. In her book Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, journalist Jessica Luther writes, “When it comes to the legal aspect, we hear a lot of speculation about what the case will mean for the player, his team, his school, his league.” Colleges and the media are quick to “move on” from rape allegations, especially when charges end up being dismissed. As a result, survivors’ experiences and pain are completely ignored. And this lax treatment isn’t just saved for athletes. Even when alleged rapists on college campuses aren’t carrying the football team to victory, they’re still usually let off easy. As the Washington Post reported in 2014, “students found responsible for sexual assault are as likely to be ordered to have counseling or given a reprimand as they are to be kicked out. They are much more likely to be suspended and then allowed to finish their studies.”
That rapists and their “promising futures” are given more sympathy and care than sexual assault survivors is a symptom of rape culture, of the broader patriarchal systems in place, of society’s general preference for men’s lives and futures. Sweet/Vicious depicts this reality most potently in a powerful scene at a support group for rape survivors. One woman says her rapist gets to go to and from class like nothing happened, on top of the world as always. Meanwhile, she’s so traumatized that she’s failing her classes and will likely have to move back home.
The attention to the fact that college administrations and local police often fail to do what’s right for assault survivors isn’t the only remarkable thing about this show, though. The support and friendship that develops between these two very different women is a joy to watch and brings much-needed levity. Plus, despite its heavy subject matter and the suspense pushing the plot forward, the show still manages to be profoundly funny thanks to Ophelia’s wise-cracking and situations that are all too real in college life, like a boy trying to impress Jules by talking about Infinite Jest.
When Jules and Ophelia finish delivering their violent messages to these unpunished rapists, leaving them bleeding, they make their intentions clear: “If you even look at a girl without consent, we’ll be back to finish the job.” If the world won’t stand with women who have survived sexual assault—and clearly, with a serial groper moving into the White House, it won’t—at least imperfect heroes Jules and Ophelia will.