The rise of superhero live-action media and comic book adaptations in Hollywood has allowed filmmakers and television showrunners to tell all kinds of stories through the lens of superpowered individuals and the villains they fight. The second season of Supergirl has tackled the topic of refugee rights wherein aliens are refugees on Earth and are at times rejected by humans who fear what they don’t understand. Jessica Jones followed the titular character, a survivor of sexual assault whose abuser used powers to manipulate her against her will. The premise of Legion follows David Haller, an extremely powerful mutant with schizophrenia.
While all of these series are based on characters established in the pages of Marvel and DC comics, other television shows and movies are introducing their own superheroes and/or vigilantes. Take for example, MTV’s original series Sweet/Vicious. The show follows two college students, Jules Thomas (Eliza Bennett) and Ophelia Mayer (Taylor Dearden), who secretly don vigilante gear – complete with voice modifiers – in an effort to bring rapists and perpetrators of sexual assault to justice. But, at the heart of the series is Jules’ story as a rape survivor.
Sweet/Vicious season 1 introduced Jules in full vigilante gear, confronting one accused rapist in his bedroom and stabbing him in the leg with the threat that if he ever touched another woman without her consent, Jules would be back. As the season unfolds, Jules and Ophelia team up – with the former lending her fighting skills while the latter acts as the tech-savvy partner – as they seek justice for their own personal reasons. However, their lives are made all the more complicated when Jules starts dating Tyler (Nick Fink), the brother of an accused rapist Ophelia accidentally murdered in the pilot, and Ophelia’s best friend Harris (Brandon Mychal Smith) discovers the presence of a vigilante on campus and becomes determined to unmask them.
In addition to featuring all the action expected of a vigilante-focused superhero series, Sweet/Vicious also includes a poignant statement about how prevalent rape and abuse is on college campuses – as well as how poorly it’s handled on the whole by administrations and local law enforcement. But, on a more individual level, Sweet/Vicious tells Jules’ story in a manner that is realistic without being exploitative. Season 1 has told Jules’ complete story, including the night her best friend’s boyfriend Nate Griffin (Dylan McTee) raped her, the aftermath and being discouraged from officially reporting what happened to her, and that Jules has failed to truly deal with her trauma – instead relying on violence as a coping mechanism. As such, Sweet/Vicious tells an important superhero story – and we need to see more like it on television.
On the surface, Sweet/Vicious features a fairly typical superhero origin story: The main character experiences a traumatic event and in an effort to deal with their trauma they turn to violence, but rather than seeking to hurt others for violence’s sake, the hero hopes to do some good. However, the fact that Jules’ traumatic experience is rape – specifically that Nate was both her best friend Kennedy’s (Aisha Dee) boyfriend as well as Jules’ friend – Sweet/Vicious is telling a superhero story unlike any other on television.
Certainly, there are comparisons to be made between Sweet/Vicious and Jessica Jones. Both shows include thoughtful depictions of how the main character has coped with the trauma from their respective assaults. Both shows feature the main character’s abuser as the villain of the first season. Both shows include a superhero/vigilante aspect in which the main character shoulders the well-being of those around her. Plus, the main character of both shows has a best friend/sidekick who believes her story of assault and offers support.
That said, Sweet/Vicious has a much more obvious and focused thematic message, whereas Jessica Jones‘ is arguably more subtle (and, perhaps, more universal). Because of its setting on a college campus, Sweet/Vicious is specifically speaking to the experiences of women aged 18-24 – though rape and sexual assault are particularly prominent among this age group. Statistics about rape and sexual assault are notoriously difficult to calculate due to lack of knowledge about consent (leading many to not understand they experienced rape or sexual assault), and because many women choose not to officially report.
However according to statistics released by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), women ages 18-24 in college are three times more likely to be raped – with the risk elevated to four times as likely for women ages 18-24 not in college. The RAINN report on campus sexual assault additionally states, “About 1 in 6 college-aged female survivors received assistance from a victim services agency,” while only 20 percent of female student victims aged 18-24 report to the police. Still, despite the prevalence of rape and sexual assault on college campuses, they’re rarely the subject of TV series – let alone the focus of a superhero show.
In the past few years, television’s portrayal of rape and sexual assault has become the topic of much discussion, with HBO’s Game of Thrones being at the forefront of many of these discussions. The series has been criticized for altering scenes from George R. R. Martin’s books in which consent was clearly given to be less clear, and shifting the focus of a female character’s assault to a male character’s reaction to it. The responses by those involved in the show – whether actors, directors, or members of the creative team – have also been criticized for their apparent lack of awareness about the tropes of rape and sexual violence in media. But, the perpetuation of these tropes isn’t a problem exclusive to Game of Thrones.
Still, other series are making headway in the realistic and non-exploitative portrayal of rape, sexual assault, and abuse, especially in how victims deal with their trauma in the aftermath. Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg spoke about how important it was to her to not depict the titular character’s rape scene, but focus instead on “the impact of rape on a person and about healing, survival, trauma and facing demons.” Certainly, as Rosenberg points out, there have been plenty of scenes depicting rape or sexual assault – some less exploitative than others.
In episode 7 of Sweet/Vicious’s debut season, ‘Heartbreaker’, the show portrayed the entirety of Jules’ backstory that led to her becoming a vigilante – from her friendship with Kennedy and Nate and the circumstances of her rape to her visit to the student health center and her later meeting at the Title IX office where she tried to report her rape (but was discouraged by a faculty member). Following the episode’s airing, creator and showrunner Jennifer Kaytin Robinson – who additionally penned the episode – wrote for MTV about what she wanted to achieve through Jules’ story:
So often rape is portrayed as a singular moment in time, but rape and sexual assault do not end after the act is over. Rape and sexual assault live with the survivor every single day, every single minute, from the time that it happens. This rape, this scene, this is the origin story of our “hero.” I put hero in quotes not because I don’t believe Jules is a superhero, but because no person should have to step into that position because she or he was assaulted. She wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider or turned into a science project during World War II like the superheroes we love from the pages of a Marvel comic. Jules was sleeping in a bed, and someone she knew and trusted changed her life. Forever. The world of Jules and Ophelia is very much fiction – but the origin story, the “inciting incident” (which feels like a crude thing to call it when you’re talking about rape) is not.
Robinson went on to state that her intention with the scene was to put a personal story on the statistics of rape and sexual assault on college campuses – even if the story is technically fiction. While Jules’ story isn’t necessarily indicative of every rape, it is arguably one of the most realistic scenes depicting rape on television. Considering the statistics concerning women who have been raped or sexually assaulted, juxtaposed with the lack of realistic/non-exploitative scenes depicting rape and sexual assault, Sweet/Vicious’s portrayal of Jules’ story is important.
Of course, rape and sexual assault affects many more people than women aged 18-24; it’s a problem facing people of all genders, sexualities, races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Sweet/Vicious focuses specifically on one survivor – one survivor whose story likely speaks to many other survivors – following Jules’ experiences before her rape up to her ongoing struggle in dealing with what happened to her. Furthermore, Sweet/Vicious subverts many of the tropes of rape and sexual assault that other television series have perpetuated.
But, perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Sweet/Vicious is its framing as a superhero story. Superhero stories are the kind of narrative that are both incredibly prevalent at this moment in pop culture and typically place their focus on men – whether male characters are positioned as the main protagonists or men are predominantly the creators behind the scenes. Sweet/Vicious is a superhero show following mostly female characters that was created by a woman and features a number of women in writing and directing roles (eight of the first season’s 10 episodes feature a woman as the writer or co-writer, and four were directed by women, including ‘Heartbreaker’). As such, Sweet/Vicious is an important indicator of what superhero stories can achieve when there is more gender diversity both in front of and behind the camera.
Even beyond Sweet/Vicious‘ important portrayal of college rape and sexual assault, its gender diversity, as well as the series’ point that violence isn’t necessarily the best coping method in dealing with trauma, it’s an entertaining show. At the end of the day, superhero stories – and generally all kinds of stories – are meant to entertain their audiences. Sweet/Vicious does just that, bringing levity to an incredibly realistic and dramatic storyline, and offering all the fun and entertainment of many other superhero shows and films. Sweet/Vicious employs a balance between important storytelling and entertaining superhero action that needs to become more prevalent in TV and film.
Sweet/Vicious season 1 concluded with the two-part finale, ‘An Innocent Man’ and ‘Pure Heroine’. Screen Rant will keep you updated on Sweet/Vicious season 2 as more information becomes available.
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