TV

‘Sweet/Vicious’ Is Changing The Way Sexual Assault Is Portrayed On Television

A new show that focuses on survivors and refuses to sensationalise.

The post discusses sexual assault.

While I was watching the first episode of Sweet/Vicious — a new MTV series about two young women who become vigilantes to take out college rapists — I was struck with a thought: this show really gets sexual assault.

As a survivor of rape myself, this is a big deal. There have been few portrayals of sexual assault on television I can actually relate to. Pop culture, in particular TV shows, has been criticised a lot in recent years for its failure to portray and deal with sexual assault in a way that isn’t sensationalised, lazy, or worse, dismissive.

Game Of Thrones, for example, has been justifiably criticised of its portrayal of sexual assault. From scenes where extras are being raped in the background, to Ramsay Bolton’s sadistic treatment of Sansa, to the scene where Cersei is raped by her twin brother and lover Jamie (issues of consent in regards to that scene in particular were debated by fans and the showrunners at length) — the show has a horrible track record. Yet it’s also one of the most popular on television and has won numerous awards.

In fact, many ‘acclaimed’ shows on prestige channels like HBO and ABC, are criticised for getting it so wrong when it comes to sexual assault, while ‘youth’ broadcasters like MTV and Netflix (whose show Jessica Jones was also lauded for its portrayal of abuse) seem to be getting it right.

Like Jessica Jones last year, Sweet/Vicious has been applauded for its nuanced treatment of abuse and PTSD, for refusing to sensationalise, and for showing how strong survivors are. The one thing both these shows have in common? They were created and written by women.

Points Of View and Plot Points

Just as rape victims are far more likely to be women, it seems that women writers are more likely to understand the survivor’s point of view. According to one anonymous female television writer, in her experience men were often the ones responsible for badly thought-out plot lines about assault.

“For male showrunners, sexual assault is always the go-to when looking for ‘traumatic backstory’ for a female character,” she told Variety. “You can use it as a reason for anything she might do. She’s ‘damaged goods,’ physically, emotionally and mentally, and I think that is a bad, bad message to send to women who have been sexually assaulted.”

If it’s not being used in backstory, rape is used as plot point, to either make the watcher feel sympathy for a woman who is deemed unlikeable (like Mellie Grant in Scandal), to create tension between an established romantic couple (like Anna Bates in Downton Abbey), or to show how rape impacts male characters who witness it, instead of the victims themselves (like in Game Of Thrones). But Sweet/Vicious — a show specifically about sexual assault — dares to break out of this and have a real discussion about rape and young women. It’s completely different.

Firstly, the show is rooted, from the beginning, in the experience of a survivor. One of the main characters, Jules, starts her quest to take down rapists at her college after she is assaulted and does not see justice.

The show not only deals with the short- and long-term impacts of sexual assault on victims, it does it in a genuine way that shows how the process of recovery is different for everyone. Jules’ journey is the focus, but throughout the series, you also see how other women have dealt with their assaults in different ways.

It also explores with the way justice systems, both those on college campuses on off via the police, can fail to support survivors and prosecute rapists. In one scene, for example, Jules and her co-vigilante Ophelia discover a wall in the women’s bathroom on campus covered with the names of men who have been accused of rape. Upon investigation, they discover that many of the victims reported their assaults but no action was taken against their attackers.

A Story of Survivors

Despite the heavy subject matter and intense scenes, Sweet/Vicious also manages to incorporate comedy amidst the drama and genuine pathos. It’s something the show’s creator, Jenn Kaytin Robinson, wanted to emphasise from the start. It was important to get a sense of the survivor as a full, rounded person.

“I wanted to tell a story for and about empowered women,” she tells Junkee. “I wanted to make something that I wish I could have had when I was younger that would have made me feel less alone in the world.”

Robinson believes that, if the survivor isn’t front of mind when considering a plot line about sexual assault, you shouldn’t even be considering it as part of your show. “Rape and sexual assault is something that stays with you forever, it becomes a part of your story for the rest of your life,” she says.

“To tell a story about rape and only talk about the act of rape is not telling a story from the survivor’s perspective. I feel that if you’re not telling the story from a survivor’s perspective, for survivors, you have no business telling the story in the first place.”

The evidence that Sweet/Vicious is for survivors is no more evident than in the moments before the start of the show, when a content warning is shown if there’s going to be a scene of sexual assault within the episode.

“I would never, ever, want a survivor to watch our show and not know what was coming,” Robinson says. “This experience was supposed to empower, to be a form of catharsis hopefully. We can’t be that if someone is triggered unexpectedly. We lose their trust.”

Ultimately, this is what sets Sweet/Vicious apart. By respecting survivors first and foremost, they’ve created a show that not only has complex characters and a moving storyline, but doesn’t betray those who need it the most.

Lauren is a journalist, feminist, and huge fan of gin. She’s passionate about gender, sex, relationships, pop culture and women. She overshares online at @laureningram