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.

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


The New Academic Year: Live for the Now AND Live for the Future*

What class or extracurricular activity should I not miss out on?  -Anna, 10th Grade

There are a few ways to answer this, but I’ll tell you that my first answer is to not miss the class or activity you absolutely don’t want to miss. I know everyone spends a lot of time crafting schedules and signing up for extracurriculars which look the best on your transcript…and that’s not unimportant. But make room for the class you’re dying to take. Sign up for the after-school club that excites you. Dedicating all your time to the requirements and the subjects or activities you feel are necessary for your high school record without an added indulgence in passion or discovery just makes school stale. College admissions officers are looking for balance. They want the general education basics AND they want to know you’re a real-life individual who will not only succeed at their university, but will bring your own individuality to their community. You’ll never see a college admissions officer toss a competitive application out because you were in the fly fishing club. It shows you have passion as well as academic ability and maybe it helps you mitigate the stress you feel from a difficult class about which you’re less passionate. There’s a lot about school that is not fun. Take the chances to enjoy learning anytime you can.

What are some high school freshman must haves in terms of supplies? – Connor, 9th Grade

Required supplies will vary school to school. Some schools are really specific about needed items, down to the color folder you use for each subject, so check your school’s supply list. Protractors, giant calculators, art pencils with specific softness…these will all be requested subject by subject. For other supplies, make sure you have a good stockpile of backup supplies at home. You don’t want a lack of batteries or pencils at home to be any kind of excuse to not complete homework.

What I would recommend for every student is a filing system at home. There is NO WAY to carry every note, quiz, handout, test, paper in your binder in your backpack all year. So set up a system of file folders or binders at home so you can keep track of papers you don’t need immediately (or until midterms or finals) and keep the daily binder(s) clean and organized. The other necessity is a planner. Most schools now provide specific planners, but – if yours doesn’t – get one. Do not underestimate the power of organizing with a schedule. Commit to creating a good habit with your planner and it will serve you way past school. I promise.

I want to be more organized with my backpack. How can I be more organized with my backpack? – Raquel, 5th Grade

Gosh, it seems like an easy task, doesn’t it? You head back to school with all your new binders and paper and pencils and new, yummy smelling erasers (Go ahead and take a minute right now to sniff those new erasers. So good.). Everything’s in its place in your new backpack. But within a week: chaos. And, guess what? It has a real effect on performance, that messy backpack. So let’s strategize.

Have a schedule for cleaning. Whether everyday or every Friday, choose a day to pull everything out and reorganize. Toss gum wrappers, those yucky paper remnants from spiral notebooks, pens that are out of ink. Take graded papers and notes and put them – by subject – into your at-home filing system. This not only keeps your backpack and binders organized, but it also keeps you from having to replace a dozen giant binders every school year because of overstuffing.

Have containers or “markers” for essential items. I was notorious for leaving my TI-82 in my locker, so I decorated it with purple painter’s tape. At the end of every day, I could make a quick visual confirmation of the calculator…if I didn’t see purple, I needed to hit my locker before heading home. Refill your supplies when you see you’re low. If you know you like 2 mechanical pencils, 4 ballpoint pens and 1 highlighter in your pencil pouch, check the supply regularly and replace when you can.

Have a checklist. You know that feeling when you get home and you pull out all your books to study for tomorrow’s history test and you’ve forgotten your book? Have a mental or literal checklist for the supplies you need each afternoon to make sure all those items go into your backpack at the end of school and they all go back the next morning. I work with a student who reads through his planner at the end of every school day and he literally touches the corresponding books/notebooks/supplies before he zips up his bag and heads home. It may feel like an annoying waste of time, but you know it doesn’t hurt like not having what you need for that big test the next day.

I’m going to a private school and my core group of friends is going to [the local public school]. I have a neighbor going to my school. I like him a lot so that will be nice. But, you hear all these horror stories about seniors pulling pranks on freshman and apparently that happens at my school so it’s a little scary. How do I make first impressions (like, first day of school clothes, first classes, high school – in general) less nerve-wracking? – Ela, 9th Grade

Ooh, Miss Ela. That’s a lot of pressure for a first day, huh? Firstly, most always the rumors about the seniors v. freshmen are spread by the upperclassmen themselves and they’re likely to make themselves out to be scarier than they are because once they fell for the same hype too. Also – if you’re hearing tell of pranks, so are teachers and administrators at the school, so I’m hoping you – at least – feel like there are adults who will be looking out for your general safety. (If you don’t…or if you are physically endangered or bullied, I would tell a school counselor immediately. You can do so confidentially so you don’t have to worry about THIS being your first impression to your fellow schoolmates.)

As for other first impressions: BE YOU. And try to avoid being “she who you think everyone else will like best”. You can certainly make friends with the band kids by acting or dressing the stereotype, but eventually you gotta face the awkward admission that you can’t whistle or march in-time, much less play any instrument…and definitely not in formation. So, better to lead with Ela so you know you’re accepted as Ela from day one. And first day outfit is a great opportunity to put in the effort to appear as and celebrate your best self (which doesn’t have to be dressy…my best self almost never involves a hair dryer). Then grab your neighbor-friend and get to meeting new folks.

Also! First Impression Disclaimer! You may very well find a good gaggle of girlfriends the very first day or week, but first impressions aren’t everything. Don’t be alarmed if/when your initial group bends and stretches and changes. Once you get past first impressions, you have to build friendships on much deeper criteria. Not everyone with a good initial impression makes the cut for lifelong friend…and someone whom you overlooked at first glance may be a bridesmaid at your wedding. The only guarantee is that the more open and honest you are about you, the more you’ll attract the lifelong friends you want.

My eldest is entering his freshman year of high school and I want to give him some (useful) advice. What are three things he should know before embarking on these next years? – Kendra, mother of a high school freshman

  1. The SATs do not decide your ENTIRE life. Oh, lord the SATs (and ACTs). Look, I’ve taught test prep for 10 years. The current reality is that our American education system has one singular method of testing academic ability for college admissions. Take a minute to close your eyes and think of all the people you know. Now think of all the types of minds and personalities and talents of those people. Even people you might not consider “brilliant” may have a wildly impressive talent or job, right? Now picture all those little bubbles you fill in on a standardized test and try reducing all the cool, successful, talented people you know to a scantron sheet. It seems silly, yes? K. Now don’t take the SAT personally. Study for it (some of those sections are just as much strategy as knowledge), take it and let it go. Those final numbers are a benchmark so colleges have a basic idea of your general ability (ie – you won’t fail out…colleges don’t like if you fail out so they just want to know you can do their work). You get admitted to college for who you are in addition to that number. Your time is better spent worrying about more awesome parts of yourself.
  2.  What you’re doing today is just as important as what you’re doing today for tomorrow. You know how you start freshman year today and everyone just starts repeating over and over what you do today will go on your transcript and you have to get into a good college tomorrow? Well, today is important too. And high school is tough. Not just because school is tough. Life is tough during high school. You have a lot to figure out about who you are and what you like and whom you like and you have parents and teachers and friends and girlfriends and boyfriends and every single one of them has his or her own journey and they conflict sometimes and it’s drama. And there are expectations from your folks and your school and you’re expected to master physics and adolescence concurrently. And at the end of all of it, instead of getting a medal for surviving, you get the S.A.T.s. So be kind to yourself. Try. Fail. Get up. Smile. Cry. Challenge yourself to say yes. Learn how to say no. Do your best. Try not to compare yourself to others. Be true to you. Enjoy you. It’s really the best way to ensure that tomorrow is everything you dream it will be.
  3. There is no “right way”. There is no universal map for the perfect high school experience or the path to the perfect college or job. There just isn’t. So make one that’s perfect for you.

What do high school frosh find to be the most challenging thing about high school these days? – Kendra

What do freshman find the most challenging? The pressure. So, Mom, try to keep your expectations in check. You can support without suffocating. You can challenge without chiding. Today’s reality is that college admissions are more competitive than we can really comprehend. Our children’s life paths are not going to look like ours. Not only because they are different people than we are, but because the academic world and the workforce are changing rapidly. Nontraditional education is more available and accredited than ever. Be adaptive. Champion your child as an individual and keep an open mind. Let him find himself. You can still be there to give him a hand when he needs you. And teach him to ask for your help. Show him you are accountable to him and you trust him. Be an example for good decision-making rather than telling him what is expected of him. Teach him. Help to form his values. And love him unconditionally and relentlessly.

I hope it was helpful to see other people’s questions and the responses. Please feel free to comment below and be sure to check in to let us know how your new school year is going!

All my love,

Miss Matters

*“Did you know that for pretty much the entire history of the human species, the average life span was less than thirty years? You could count on ten years or so of real adulthood, right? There was no planning for retirement, There was no planning for a career. There was no planning. No time for plannning. No time for a future. But then the life spans started getting longer, and people started having more and more future. And now life has become the future. Every moment of your life is lived for the future–you go to high school so you can go to college so you can get a good job so you can get a nice house so you can afford to send your kids to college so they can get a good job so they can get a nice house so they can afford to send their kids to college.”
John Green, Paper Towns