Music Television Becomes Activism: MTV’s Sweet/Vicious Voice on Assault

The smartest show on TV…is on MTV.

Yeah, that MTV. The channel that long ago ceased playing their namesake music videos and instead became the primary purveyor of belittling content chronicling the spoilt, reckless or sadly self-promotional new American teenager (SEE: Jersey Shore, My Super Sweet 16, Jackass).

I wouldn’t expect MTV to shy away from risk. It has always been provocative.

But, advocative? You wouldn’t anticipate that the folks who brought 16 and Pregnant to the masses (and by “masses”, I clearly mean “impressionable, vulnerable teenagers”) would end up making the most activist-minded female content on cable.

But, in fact, they have. MTV took the delicious camp of its previous unscripted content, added legitimate talent and took a stand against the societal issues that for so many recent years have been the exploitational bread and butter of its brand.

The premise is simple: two masked vigilante co-eds take abusers’ justice into their own hands.

Sweet/Vicious, from creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, would certainly have been a dynamite pitch. But it’s clear that having veteran producer/writer and showrunner Amanda Lasher (Gossip Girl) at the helm lends a legitimacy and deftness never before seen on the cable channel.

The show has all of the humor, levity and pop-y design (SEE: Taylor Dearden’s graphic-novel-green hair) of a Gossip Girl or a Scream Queens, but there is a dedicated commitment to the commentary central to its concept that is wickedly intelligent, refreshing and necessary. What could easily be witless or exploitational, is – instead – a wisely-crafted, candy-coated ass-kicking of campus rape culture.

Sweet/Vicious is both entertaining to watch and inspiring as a new model for revolutionary, inciting content.  

Damaged-but-determined and adorably-dimpled Jules (Eliza Bennett) and punky-sarcastic-but-honorable Ophelia (Taylor Dearden) are a classically delightful and relatable teenage TV duo, upgraded for the 21st century as tech-savvy, enviably badassed crusaders. They are the millennial Buffy and Faith, armed with feminism, fighting the patriarchy rather than the undead. Or…perhaps [since in all my MTV programming references have been antagonistic], they are live-action Daria and Jane: less snarky and misanthropic, but similarly well-balanced and steadfast and aided by taut martial arts choreography.

The show never forgets its ultimate calling and treats the moments where we drop into the victims’ private experiences with respect and a deserved dignity. The writing staff does a phenomenal job, too, of thoroughly exploring all potential injustices of their setting by not stopping at male-on-female sexual abuse. The commentary on campus culture – institutions’ refusal to ensure the rights provided by Title IX, bullying, girl-on-girl assault, race issues, social media – is comprehensive and scathing.

Sweet/Vicious is a show that makes me proud to be a girl. The leads are written and performed with realism. Even the secondary female characters are given dynamic storylines that allow for positive and accurate female representation over stereotypes. The negative portrayals have intention and purpose. And though the presentation of the show’s campus parallels our real world in which women or minorities or the disenfranchised often walk in fear for their literal safety, the message Sweet/Vicious emphatically voices is that we are not alone and we have a voice.

So, thank you, MTV, for content with a voice.

Thank you for programming that is willing to stand up and say what needs to be said, no matter how disquieting it may be.

Sweet/Vicious is a much-needed respite from material that pities or perverts and a brave call-to-action that I, for one, am proud to put on my figurative mask and join.

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Sweet/Vicious airs on MTV on Tuesdays, 10/9c. Episodes also available via iTunes.

 

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