Warning: This story contains spoilers for the first season of Sweet/Vicious! Read at your own risk.
In the wake of the election of President Donald Trump and again following his inauguration last week, it may have felt to some like the United States, a country built on freedom and justice for all, was quickly regressing. For those who've felt powerless or those whose basic rights are under threat from the Trump administration's backward-facing agenda — including but not limited to women, people of color, immigrants and those who identify as LGBTQIA — MTV's Sweet/Vicious was a serendipitous form of catharsis. However, the empowering series about survivors of rape is also more than that.
Created by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, the thought-provoking series, which aired its first season finale Tuesday, boldly gives voice and power to people that society has long ignored or tried to drown out. Although its specific focus is on female victims of sexual assault — an unfortunate but timely subject given the recording featuring Trump admitting to grabbing women "by the p---y" — the series is really a middle finger to the entire patriarchal society that has fostered misogyny, sexism and bigotry and allowed them to worm their way into the White House.
For the unaware, Sweet/Vicious follows two young women (Eliza Bennett and Taylor Dearden) who embark on a course of action to deliver vigilante justice to accused rapists on their college campus when the system fails victims of sexual violence. For Jules, a popular and outgoing sorority girl, her actions are personal; she was raped by Nate (Dylan McTee), the longtime boyfriend of her best friend (Aisha Dee) during a party. Vigilante justice is the only way she knows how to deal with her trauma and process her pain. For Ophelia, a rebellious and whip-smart but neglected trust-fund kid who makes extra cash selling marijuana, the duo's nighttime activities are about finally having a cause to believe in and finding a purpose.
Over the course of the show's freshman season, Robinson and the Sweet/Vicious writers have carefully woven together not just a sharp story about female friendship with the emotional complexity of a survivor's journey, but also highlighted systematic shortcomings of institutions that have procedures in place to protect victims but rarely do.
According to statistics provided by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one out of every six women has been the victim of sexual violence or attempted sexual violence, with younger women being more at risk. Female college students ages 18-24, women like Jules, are three times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence. And of the many female college students who are attacked, only 20 percent of victims report their attack to members of law enforcement.
Of the numerous reasons women don't report sexual assault — they blame themselves, fear reprisal, fear that no one will believe them — the most upsetting may actually be they don't believe it will result in any judicial action. In the case of Sweet/Vicious, the institutional failures started at the college level — where employees persuaded victims not to report attacks in order to keep alleged rapists off the radar of the vigilantes and thus preserve their safety. Prior to Jules and Ophelia taking action into their own hands, however, the school was still finding ways to convince students to keep quiet. For instance, Jules was initially persuaded — by a woman, no less — not to report her attack because Nate was the star of the football team. Eventually, it was revealed the problem went all the way up to the local district attorney's office, which had mishandled, dismissed or disregarded 26 cases of sexual assault just within the last year.
In Tuesday's two-hour finale, after a season of surviving but not dealing with her trauma, Jules finally found the courage to report her rape. Although Nate was found guilty, the male president of the university reversed the decision. Despite the unjust circumstances, Jules found she was liberated by being able to tell her truth, and because this is a show about vigilantes, it meant Nate would become their next victim. In the end, Jules and Ophelia — known around campus as the crime-fighting duo Sweet/Vicious by this point — took down Nate, who was revealed to be a serial rapist, by publicly releasing a video in which Nate admits to a friend and fraternity brother that most women are asking for it and that if he wants something, he takes it.
Sweet/Vicious' first season took its two heroines down a frequently dark and morally ambiguous path, but it did so while providing self-aware commentary on how what Jules and Ophelia were doing wasn't necessarily a realistic solution to what is a serious problem in the United States, or by pointing out it was not the thing that would magically allow Jules to deal with her trauma. At the end of the first season, the two launched an online message board that allowed fellow students to report attacks since the school seemed unwilling to protect its students or take action to fight injustice.
The way the series handled a very real, very ugly subject with the right balance of humor and sincerity — and did so in a way that didn't sensationalize it for dramatic effect or gloss over the grief that accompanied it — made it not just essential viewing, but also the perfect reprieve from the increasingly upsetting events of the real world. Even if what the series presents is a somewhat fantastical version of our world — a version in which people like the victim of Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer who served only three months of his six-month sentence for sexual assault, could actually receive some form of justice — it's important that the voices of people like Jules be heard and continue to be heard.
On Saturday, Jan. 21, it was estimated that more than 1 million people peacefully marched in the historic Women's March on Washington in support of women's rights and to campaign for justice. In light of these events and in light of the inauguration of President Trump, there has never been a more relevant time for Sweet/Vicious and the catharsis it provides. It may not always be the most realistic series, and the actions of Jules and Ophelia may not be considered morally acceptable behavior, but then again, neither is rape and neither is what's happening outside our windows. Living vicariously through these two women has been empowering and a pure joy to experience, but they've also given us hope and provided voice to people who are frequently voiceless. That importance is simply immeasurable.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) for assistance. If you're looking for more resources on sexual assault, please visit RAINN, Know Your IX, End Rape on Campus, or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.