The times they are a-changin'—slowly, but surely. Eight years ago we had Taken, the paternal revenge fantasy movie that gives us every dad's ideal alter ego defending the honor of his virginal college-aged daughter when she is kidnapped by European human traffickers and sold into sex slavery. But as the nation conversation about sexual assault has begun to shift from "she's someone's daughter" to "she is someone," so has the media approach. MTV's new show Sweet/Vicious, premiering tonight at 10pm, is a revenge fantasy narrative by and for women.
The show, created by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, places a superhero duo into an environment very like reality. The show's protagonists are Jules (Eliza Bennett), a Sandra Dee-type sorority girl, and Ophelia (Taylor Dearden), an offbeat rich girl with a distaste for authority, who come together to form a crime-fighting team with a specific focus on sticking it to on-campus rapists who the university has failed to prosecute.
Jules has made a ritual of sneaking out at night dressed in a full mask and bodysuit, to injure male students who have sexually assaulted women on campus, and she makes her purpose known to them. One night while Jules is attacking a known date rapist, Ophelia, on the run from campus police for being caught with a joint in hand, runs into the scene and immediately develops a fascination with Jules' mission, eventually tracking her down and coming to her rescue when the next vendetta doesn't go according to plan. The two team up, half by circumstance and half by choice, just as both are hitting personal lows—and one brand new collective low, stuffed into the trunk of a car. The stakes are high by the end of the pilot, but we can only suspect they'll flourish together. And we're excited to see it happen.
The premise may be out-of-this-world, but the problem is not: given the rising national attention to the longstanding problem that is campus rape culture, our heroes—and Robinson—are tackling a problem far more common than threats such as kidnap by anonymous Albanians. One in five college women are sexually assaulted before graduation, and given campus reporting policies that often discourage survivors from reporting to police, and local police forces that fail to act or even shame survivors for coming forward, rapists often get away with their crimes. And those who do face jail time sometimes face far less than those put away for possession of marijuana, given certain markers of social status, like whiteness, wealth, and in the case of college rapists, athletic status.
Being a college-aged woman today means knowing all of the above, sometimes all too well. It means always being on guard, often afraid, and sometimes angry that this is the reality. So to set a revenge story in which the college women themselves, a sorority girl and a brainiac slacker (at least one of whom we can all identify with), is nothing short of empowering.
The premise is awesome, but the show is also just fun to watch. It starts off feeling a bit like you might expect an MTV show to feel, with dialogue that strains a little to reach a young audience and some cartoonish stereotypes for characters (primarily Jules' sorority sisters). But by the time warrior Jules and hacker Ophelia—a collegiate Galinda and Elphaba—begin singing "Defying Gravity" in the car to calm their nerves after a mission gone bad, the ball is rolling. The quirky details, like Opehlia's actual 6' tall bong and Jules' inability to swear despite literal ninja skills, become funnier and funnier. Nearly everything in the show is exaggerated, but they know what they're doing—small touches like putting Jules' best friend in a "The Future is Female" sweater, for instance, don't go unnoticed. And yet when things get real, they get real. When it wants to, the show will make you deeply uncomfortable, for the right reasons. Actual representation of sexual assault and its lasting trauma is handled carefully, not played up for shock or drama value, but the awfulness of it isn't sugar-coated. The writing treats survivors of assault as true subjects, not plot devices.
Sweet/Vicious is exactly what it's meant to be, which is supremely entertaining with a feminist kick. Jules and Ophelia set out to prove that in the face of an unjust system, women don't need saving. Survivor Jules and ally Ophelia can kick ass on their own—and we can't wait to see the havoc these two are going to wreak on the predatory frat boys and sports stars of Darlington.