Jules: I know how to do things most people don't. There is stuff happening out there and no one is doing anything about it. People are just getting away with awful things. I'm trying to make some of that right.
Everything fails. There is no system in place to protect you. An accusation goes nowhere because the accused is of importance to the University. The only cop who cares is a rent-a-cop with no actual power. A counsellor suggests it was your own fault, for trusting a friend, for thinking he was on your side, for not for a moment considering he might be a predator, waiting for the opportunity to ruin your life. And it’s not just your own story – but around you, so many other women who haven’t found justice, because the system cares more about the future of promising young men than the lives of the women they’ve assaulted. Someone openly bragging about assaulting women can still be elected President.
Sweet/Vicious never hesitates to paint that bleak picture of a (in this case, specifically) university culture where rapists get away easily due to institutional carelessness and systematic misogyny. A very small amount of rapes are even reported, perhaps because an even smaller one goes to court, or leads to a conviction. The result of all of this – a system that does not care about women – is that students who have been raped are forced to constantly be around their rapists, unless they decide to drop out.
It is this setting, this set of circumstances, that leads to the first scene of the show. A person dressed in black, concealing her face, breaks into a dorm room and beats up a student, asking him about the woman that he assaulted, taking away the safety that he takes for granted because he dared to do the same to someone else, and got away with it. It is revenge for both parts of the incredible systematic unfairness at play: The fact that he got away, and that he can still lead his normal life while the woman he raped is suffering the consequences. Jules (Eliza Bennett), the woman under the mask, is filling the blank that is left because everything else is failing the victims of rape. She breaks the structures that assure the safety of predators, and does so heroically. It is also a perfect twist on the toxic way gender roles in this setting are usually constructed. Jules takes away that physical safety that a predator operating there would take for granted.
Like any superhero, she has a tragic backstory that is intimately connected to her agenda. She was raped by her best friend’s boyfriend, an act that has completely overturned her life. He has taken away the safe space of her friendships, the belief that she is safe with people that she thought her friends. He physically infects her space, because he is always around her home, her circle of friends. He is impossible to avoid, and bears none of the burden. She cannot tell her best friend because she hasn’t told anyone. Sweet/Vicious portrays her horror, her intense physical reactions to his presents, the way that being confronted with him again and again is inescapable for her. She cannot confront him – but she can take revenge on other men who have done the same.
Taylor Dearden’s Ophelia is the other side of the coin. She accidentally stumbles across Jules’ mid-action, and becomes obsessed with unmasking her, applying her significant technology and detective skills to chase her down. When she finally does, she incidentally kills someone – one of the men that Jules has tracked down, who is about to overpower her. The two women find themselves confronted with a dead body, and the very precarious first attempts at trust and friendship, which over the next few episodes bloom into something truly beautiful. It’s Ophelia who convinces Jules to continue to pursue her mission, when she realises just how prevalent the systemic failings to pursue rapists are, and how the only thing that will protect women is vigilantisms. They team up – Ophelia contributes her ability to hack phones and social media, and Jules teaches her how to fight back.
This show is at its best when it portrays both the insidious ways in which rapists infiltrate the lives of their victims and the glorious ways in which the women fighting back find true friendship, connection, empathy and strength in each other. Jules loses her best friend, Kennedy (Aisha Dee), because Nate, the rapist, twists and turns the story and continues to eat away at her life and the person that she used to be, but at the same time, Ophelia steps up to become a strong support system for her. Jules tries to pursue a relationship with someone, but finds it difficult to manoeuvre her severe trauma, her inability to be intimate with someone (and the additional complication is that Tyler happens to be the stepbrother of the guy Ophelia killed). Ophelia’s friendship with law student and record store manager / her boss Harris (Brandon Mychal Smith) sours because she cannot be honest about how she is spending her nights, and his attempts to put together a convincing case that the crimes on campus are connected means that he is, even if he doesn’t realise it, pursuing her and Jules. At the same time, Ophelia doesn’t pay enough attention to his issues and concerns, as he tries to become a writer for a law journal who isn’t pigeonholed as a black writer writing about black issues (and I hope the show starts to explore the intersections of sexism and racism in a system that was originally solely built for young white men).
In that way, Sweet/Vicious portrays how the prevalence of on campus rape infiltrates every single relationship, how the sexist system undermines connection – for example, when Jules and Ophelia try to expose the horrible hazing rituals of a different sorority (expanding their mission to anyone who deliberately injures women and isn’t persecuted for it) and Ophelia discovers that her own mother was instrumental in creating that very system that is now degrading and hurting pledges. The entire system seems skewed against them – in the best episode of the season, a flashback reveals the obstacles Jules came across after the rape, in trying to battle her trauma and find a support system, only to be confronted with careless counsellors, victim-blaming, the information that she shouldn’t press charges (when she names her rapist) because he is so highly regarded.
Sweet/Vicious is an amazing, necessary show – a superhero show about two girls fighting back, but also a deep exploration of friendship and trauma, carried by the outstanding performances by the cast. In a central scene in the sixth episode, Jules finally confronts Nate, who has created a version of events in which they had consensual sex, and are sharing a secret – she calls him out as a rapist, and tells him that what she wants the most is take away his feeling of safety, to make him as afraid as she has been all these weeks. Knowing that the system that he operates in protects him, he slouches off, and takes even more away from Jules when he poisons Kennedy against her. In the world of Sweet/Vicious – and the world it is based on – rapists are free to continue poisoning the lives of the women they have assaulted. And in this world – maybe the only recourse available is to put on a mask and fight back.
2016, created by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, starring Eliza Bennett, Taylor Dearden, Brandon Mycal Smith, Aisha Dee, Lindsay Chambers, Nick Fink, Skyler Day, Victoria Park, Matt Angel, Dylan McTee.