How 'Sweet/Vicious' Created the 21st Century Superhero
Jennifer Robinson talks to Inverse about how her new age superheroes dole out justice to unconvicted rapists on college campuses.
It turns out accidental homicide can mark the beginning of a beautiful partnership. When Ophelia Mayer bludgeons a man to death with a wrench in an attempt to save a local vigilante, Jules Thomas, from being raped by her target, they’re tied together indefinitely, for better or worse. What follows is MTV’s Sweet/Vicious, a superhero story for the 21st century.
The Season 1 finale of Sweet/Vicious, a two-parter on January 24, will see Jules and Ophelia navigating complicated systems working against them and other rape survivors while rebuilding personal relationships they’ve damaged with their vigilante activity. Jules has begun the healing process and seems ready to face her demons with the help of the correct channels. Harris, Ophelia’s best friend and the one who’s been tracking the vigilante mystery on campus all season, has discovered Ophelia and Jules’s secret. And as the girls gain allies they never thought they’d have and make a move on the final abuser of the season, they’ll learn that the best revenge doesn’t always come from violence. But a good punch in the face is still pretty effective.
Sweet/Vicious Creator and Executive Producer Jennifer Robinson fully grasped the importance of crafting a realistic story about rape culture on college campuses in the United States. Infusing that story with the ever-popular vigilante narrative and featuring a remarkable Odd Couple pairing just made sense. Inverse spoke with Robinson about the inspiration behind creating a show that is both an entertaining superhero story and a voice and point of catharsis for victims of rape.
Would you classify Jules and Ophelia as superheroes?
150% I would classify them as superheroes. I don’t think you need powers and a cape to be a superhero. And it’s not, honestly, I don’t think it’s just Jules and Ophelia who are superheroes. Every survivor on that campus is a superhero in my eyes, so we wanted to make a show that could be relatable and that people could watch and ultimately feel like being a superhero means more than flying. It means surviving and it means persevering and that’s really the meat and potatoes of Sweet/Vicious.
What inspired you to combine a story of vigilantism with a story of survival?
You know, it felt like a no-brainer to me when I was writing the original pilot and I sat down and thought about: What did I want it to be? And how can I tell a story that can be both informing, but also lso wicked and entertaining? So it was really about doing something empowering, and I grew up on comics and Batman. I think what I really wanted to find is a way to kind of combine all those things that I love and tell a story that could mean something, but would also be super fun to watch and a really good, cool, interesting ride.
It kind of poured out of me. I wanted to write something for and about empowered women. I loved the idea of this odd couple of girls who met in college and take on this quest to right wrongs on their campus. I wrote this scene between Jules and Ophelia that is actually not in anything that you’ve seen on Sweet/Vicious. It was the first thing I wrote for the show and it was violent, it was funny, it was heartbreaking, it felt raw, it felt fresh. And that was kind of the origin, and from there I really rolled with it and built out the world and the characters.
Did you have any inspiration in terms of writing Sweet/Vicious? You mentioned Batman, and by the end of Season 1 there’s very much a “this city needs me” kind of mantra going on.
There were a ton of things that inspired me. I mean, Tarantino was a huge inspiration for me. [So is] Stacey Sher, the executive producer of the show. [She] has mentored me through this process, and she’s one of the producers. So it’s been amazing. I also watched Stacey’s movie, Reality Bites, which was a ‘90s movie, but it’s about young people and it’s irreverent and it’s awesome and it feels fresh. That tone, mixed with Tarantino, was really what I was kind of chasing when I was writing the original pilot. Nothing on the show is directly from any one story that I read or anything that I heard about or was on TV. We really wanted to make sure that the world felt heightened and had this otherness to it so that no one felt like their story was being ripped away from them and pulled [onto] this TV show without their consent. Because when it comes down to it the whole show is about consent.
Yes. That really comes across.
And what would we be doing if we took someone’s story and repurposed it for entertainment value? I definitely think that there’s a lot of things that we read that are baked in, like the way that the school treats survivors and how survivors react post-assault. But that’s more of us seeing the same things over and over again in our research and reading things and connecting with things. Then there’s figuring out how can we then put this into the show in a way that is unique to the show, in the voice of the show, without directly taking anyone’s story and just throwing it in there.
Did you ever find yourself shifting course as feedback from survivors rolled in? Particularly on social media?
I can tell you that after the Stanford letter broke, everyone was really re-energized and inspired to tell this story correctly. We didn’t take her story. There’s nothing similar in what she said and what’s on the show, other than the message of “your voice matters” and the empowerment that she made all of us feel after reading her gorgeous, brave, strong, incredible letter. Since the show’s been airing, I have seen a ton of things on Twitter and Instagram. Messages of “we’d love to see this” and “could you avenge this?” The fans have been really vocal and engaged in telling us what they want to see and what would make them feel less alone and what would make them feel heard. So if we do get a second season, I can tell you we absolutely will take from the pool of amazing tweets and Facebook messages and Instagram and Tumblr posts that we’ve seen about what the fans want to see on the show.
It took a while for Jules to redefine herself outside of what happened to her, and Ophelia obviously had a lot to do with that. What is it about Ophelia that made her the perfect person to help Jules with her realization?
I think Ophelia has her own set of issues. Jules and Ophelia came together at a time where they both just needed to be seen and loved for who they were. And I think that it’s that bond and that really beautiful friendship that they formed. Granted it kind of came out of murder, but we can’t all meet at a Starbucks.
I think that’s really the basis of what they have together, which is unconditional and without judgment. They really see each other for who they are — and not only do they see each other, but they love each other.
And, going off of that, how do we be good allies to those who need help, but won’t ask?
Well, the first thing you can do is if you see something, say something. If you see something that’s not good and it’s not kosher and you don’t feel right about it, say something. Do something about it. Don’t be a bad character. And then if someone comes to you and decides that they want to tell you their story, you just support them. It’s really easy. It’s not a big, long thing. Just support them and be there for them and listen to them and believe them and comfort them. If we had more kindness and more compassion in the world: What a beautiful thing that would be.
How do you think you translated that into the show with the various characters’s reactions?
We wanted to make sure the story felt right for every character. So every character is on a different journey, every character has a different arc. The way that Ophelia responds to Jules’s trauma and Jules’s story is going to be different than Kennedy. It’s also Kennedy’s boyfriend. So Kennedy is feeling a different kind of trauma, and she had to take time to let herself get to a place where she could accept what she always knew to be true in her heart.
It was important to us to tell this story objectively and to tell this story in a way that mirrored the research that we had done. And for us to tell a story where everyone just believes Jules and it’s a really fun time, that would be a disservice to what’s happening. That’s not how these men and women and these survivors are being treated. Sometimes it is, but, more often than not, they have said what happened post-assault was sometimes worse than the assault itself. Because they have to keep reliving it and no one believes them or wants to help them. It’s just them kind of screaming into the void.
We wanted to shed a light on that so that more people could see this is happening to people. There are people behind these statistics. We wanted to put a face on the statistics of one in five [women are sexually assaulted in college] and one and sixteen [men are sexually assaulted in college]. We wanted to put a story to that so that people would be able to come to a place where instead of saying, “I don’t believe her” or “Oh, this isn’t happening in my school” or “Oh, I’ve never heard of that before,” they’re saying, “Oh, how can I help? How can I be an ally?”
You’ve mentioned that you did a lot of research for Sweet/Vicious. Who did you speak to and how did you go about doing the research so that you could get all of this across?
Yeah. It was a ton of stuff. Every morning I had one to ten articles on my desk through the entire process. Yes, I think that right now it’s all coming to a head and we, unfortunately, have a president who vocally said he thinks it’s okay to grab women by their … pussy.
You don’t know if you can say it, but you’re just repeating what our president said.
So, I think that [conversation about sexual assault] feels like it’s part of the social consciousness in a way that it never has [been]. But I was getting articles on my desk — one, five, six, ten articles a day — for the past two and half years. I think there’s always been information out there because this is something that’s been happening for a really long time. We watched documentaries, we talked to survivors, talked to Title IX officers. We talked to RAINN, [the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization], we spoke with people that run support groups, who are both professionals and survivors who have decided to go into treatment and are now helping other survivors.
It was so many different things and we were constantly searching for more and learning. Even now, our showrunner, Amanda Lasher, on [January] 26, is going to visit a rape crisis center in Los Angeles and she’s going to tour it and talk with the staff. We don’t even know if we have a Season 2 pick up, but it’s really important to us to continue our education so that we can continue to further educate everyone else who has now looked to us and to the show to kind of shed a light on this. We never wanted it to feel like medicine. Which is why I think it’s resonating and connecting with people.
Where do you define the line between justice and revenge? How do victims and others find that line in real life?
I don’t think anyone should be looking [revenge] for it in real life. I think that you need to look into yourself in real life and you need to know yourself. I think that justice and revenge are ways to channel the fact that you are not dealing with your trauma enough, [and] you should fix that. For vigilante activity, like in Episode 8, [Jules] takes it too far because this whole time she’s been barreling towards something that is dark, and it’s not healing her. It’s not her saying, “This happened to me and I still love myself and I still matter.” It’s because she’s trying to shove that out. She doesn’t want to deal with that and she doesn’t want to go there, [so] she’s been doing all the vigilante activity.
In real life I think that time is best spent trying to get to a place where you feel comfortable with yourself, [where] you know that you matter and that you know you are loved. You should feel love and [know] that you deserve love and [you should know] that what happened does not define you.
Now, in our fictional world, let us kick the ass, let us be the ones that kick ass so that you can come and stay for an hour every week and you can watch Jules and Ophelia beat the ever-loving shit out of some bad guys. Let [Sweet/Vicious] be the place where you feel that; whether it’s revenge or justice or whatever word you want to call it, let us kind of be that for survivors. But we never lost sight of the fact that violence does not solve violence. And our biggest takedown yet, in Episode 10, it starts violent, but the way that they truly take down Nate had nothing to do with violence at all. We did want to open the world up to a place where we could show the audience that it’s not just about, as Ophelia says: “Punch him in the face and deliver a monologue.” It’s about more than that and we hope in Season 2 to really open up the world and get really creative with the ways that we can enact justice on the show.
Where are you guys going with the second season? What do you hope to accomplish?
Tell more stories. We want to broaden the scope of the show. We want to get edgier, we want to get gorier, we want to really get in the shit. We really want to tell stories that we weren’t able to tell in Season 1 because we really wanted to focus on Jules. And we wanted to make sure that there was a satisfactory ending to that Season 1 arc and the Season 1 story we were telling. The ecosystem of college really mirrors the world in a way because it’s like this tiny, little space where everyone is living together and the possibilities of the stories we can explore are so endless, especially today with this administration.
This past weekend [with the Women’s March on Washington], I never felt more energized to get back to work and to tell these stories than I did standing in a sea of 750,000 people, all fighting for equality and justice, of all different races and religions and orientations and genders and sexualities. And it was so beautiful and I can’t wait to kind of get in the writers’ room and talk about LGBTQ issues and talk about race issues and talk about bullying and teasing. It’s not that we’re moving away from sexual assault because that will always be the core of our show. And the sexual assault survivors, we will always have an allegiance to them, we will always tell their stories, but we really do want to open the world up to so many more stories.
Jules’s therapy groups always had a least one male student in them, which is a factor that’s rarely discussed in television: that men are also victims of sexual assault. There are so many complications surrounding rape culture, and there are so many intersectional factors to take into consideration: sexuality, gender, race, etc. And, obviously, it sounds like that’s something you would really like to get into in Season 2.
Absolutely. We absolutely want to tell the story of a male survivor. We think that that’s so important. It’s something that we actually really wanted to do in Season 1, but when we got into breaking the story, we just realized that so much time would have to go to Jules and Ophelia that we couldn’t build the story out. And we didn’t want to make this story, which is an important one that’s very rarely been shown on television, a C-story. Because that’s what it would have had to be in Season 1 with Jules and Ophelia and all their stuff. That story wouldn’t have had the screen time that it deserved.
It’s purposeful to have those men in every support group scene we’ve had. Because it’s an everyone issue, it’s not just women. And we never wanted it to feel like we were saying: A, all the bad guys are men (because, in Episode 4, our bad guys are women), or B, that this is only happening to women because that’s just not true.
Yes, there’s a lot of women that watch it, but I see a lot of love from the dudes. I think that the story of injustice and the story of fighting for what you believe in and empowerment, it’s gender blind. I don’t think you need to be a woman. I don’t think it matters what you identify as. Whether you’re a cisgender woman, cisgender man, trans, whatever it is you identify as, this cause and fighting for something that you believe in is always going to be something that’s in your heart and always going to be something that you can identify with and relate to. I think that the show really has legs to reach a really broad demographic. I see a lot of people on Twitter that tell me they watch the show with their parents, which is the coolest thing of all time. That’s so cool. I mean my grandparents watch it. They ask a lot of questions, but they watch it. The core DNA of the show, which is “your voice matters and fight for what you believe in,” they get that, they understand that, they fundamentally can get behind that, they love it.
The 2-hour Season 1 finale of Sweet/Vicious premieres at 10 p.m. ET, Tuesday, January 24 on MTV.