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.


Supporting Survivors: A Response.

Dear Sugars,

I asked writer Angela Gulner to contribute the essay “Taking Back Their Power” as a part of the outreach we are doing with the organization It’s On Us.

It’s On Us is a national organization striving to create awareness on college campuses about sexual assault. Angela’s essay specifically addresses how colleges – and, in turn, we as a society – could improve upon the reaction to sexual assaults and sexual assault allegations, not – actually – the veracity of Miss Wilson’s allegations against her accused attacker.

We received a comment on the blog that I am choosing to address very publicly because- while I disagree with some of its content and tone – I think this is the exact discourse that needs to be happening at this time.

I repost the comment here, in its entirety:

“Interesting that you assume that there was a sexual assault here. Even though the College–using the ridiculously low standard of proof required by the feds–found none? And even though the police have not taken action?

I have to say, this idea of “realizing” that one has been sexually assaulted only four-six months after the alleged occurrence is disturbing to me. The physical evidence is gone; people’s memories are dimmed, if not manufactured.
If you want people to take sexual assault on campus seriously, there are a few steps to take: one, avoid intoxication to the point of not “knowing” you are being raped (this, I know, is non-PC, but I say it as what I would say to my teenage daughter); two, report any form of assault immediately to police, who are the only ones competent to address the crime; three, stop silly demands like depriving alleged rapists of important rights, including remaining on campus unless and until convicted of a crime or violation of school policy, and the adorably ignorant demand for “a precisely stated requirement for affirmative verbal consent.” This young woman is clearly not headed to law school.”

Appropriately, we received this comment on the National Week of Action’s designated day for “Supporting Survivors”, so this response to Orcasite is particularly well-timed, crucial and encompasses both topics of policy and support.

Angela’s column absolutely does assume there was a sexual assault because we were told there was. She and I both share the belief that we should strongly support survivors of rape and sexual assault.

Though there are often assertions made that accusers lie about assaults, statistics actually show that only 2-7 percent of sexual assault reports are false. If the burden of proof – and shame – continues to lie with the victims, we cannot offer victims assurance that coming forward is the right thing to do and we cannot decrease the number of instances of assault and rape.

But Angela wasn’t tasked with defending Madeline. She was raising questions about the campus policy that – disappointingly – isn’t limited to St. Olaf.

I address the comment from Orcasite, not to contest his/her beliefs about Madeline’s story, but to point out that the comment itself has much in common with the policy issues found on most college campuses which this piece DOES take issue with and which the St. Olaf students protest.

I understand Orcasite’s issue with the timeline of reporting and I think this is completely indicative of greater societal concerns:

a) we don’t educate and converse properly about sex and boundaries, and

b) we don’t have protections in place with consistent policy which allows victims to feel safe coming forward.

Why do we assume that reporting an assault is easy for a victim? 

Angela wrote this piece not as a fellow survivor, but as a concerned alumna of her beloved college which she wishes could be as safe an environment for other women as it was for her.

I, though, respond here personally as a longtime advocate for sexual assault and violence victims, as a proponent for education as prevention, and a survivor myself.

[And, no, I was not intoxicated at the time.]

And I strongly urge others to use caution when criticizing accusers. If we are willing to blame one woman for drinking, we open the door to blame the next girl for her outfit and the next for just not knowing any better. We just continue to allow the victims to carry all the shame. The story needs to change.

I’ve known many other women and men who were assaulted. Many worse than I. Many braver than I who shared their stories and filed charges (though no one won a legal case). I’ve even supported a male friend through a case of an accusation against him* .

Reporting it doesn’t make it factual. Being sober doesn’t prevent it. Intoxication doesn’t excuse it. Maturity doesn’t it make it less likely or confusing.

What I can tell you from all my experience – despite the fact that I didn’t head to law school either – is that sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere. And it sure as hell isn’t easy to talk about. And not one of the cases is like the next. So we have to start addressing sex and permission and respect (for both self and others) in broader and more urgent terms.
Communities need to provide better education and support. University administrations and police departments need to have very specific systems in place to take swift action to protect and support victims.
As it stands, universities and police often have conflicting protocols for dealing with assault cases. I know for a fact that victims have appealed to one only to be told the other is the legal authority. I know for a fact, too, that many universities have impeded and actively covered up outside police investigations.
Publicly admitting you were in what feels like a shameful/demoralizing/harrowing situation is infinitely difficult and the lack of proper, consistent policy isn’t helpful in an already debilitating event.
The system needs fixing. Period.
So. Orcasite. Thank you for continuing the discussion. And I hope you do tell your teenage daughter all about the dangers of drinking too much and entering potentially sexual situations without asserting boundaries or considering dangers.
May she always be safe.
May all our daughters…and sons…be safe.
May they never know what it’s like to have strangers attack their truths and question their dignity.
May they always hold their heads high and fiercely protect others around them so fewer and fewer of our children find themselves in these distressing situations.
It’s on all of us to stop sexual assault. Take the pledge:
For more information on sexual assault or to get free, confidential help:
*and, yes, I do believe colleges should protect the accused as well, unless or until proven otherwise responsible. Justice should work appropriately and consistently across all sides of the issue.

Taking Their Power Back

I wasn’t sexually assaulted in college. I was one of the lucky ones. I went to a small, private, liberal arts college in Minnesota filled with wholesome, community-minded students and a faculty of passionate, dedicated, hard-working mentors.

But I’m not naive. I know the statistics. One out of five college women are raped during their time in school, and one out of sixteen men. The survivors were my friends and my classmates. And the attackers were, of course, their friends and classmates.

It is no secret that we are failing sexual assault survivors on virtually every level in this country (and around the world, but that is for a much bigger, more involved conversation). The epidemic was beautifully and heart-wrenchingly shown in 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground. News articles with headlines like “X University’s Rape Problem” and “The Problem with Title IX” pop up in my feed on a daily basis. So I wasn’t surprised to find my own beloved St. Olaf College in the news for failing to protect and defend its’ students.

But I was inspired. Not by the reports of severe case mismanagement, fishy legal gymnastics, and utter disregard for the survivors’ emotional and physical well being. I was inspired by how these brave survivors have responded to St. Olaf’s failings.

Madeline Wilson (and a group of other kick ass survivors) brought these issues to local and national attention this week by wearing ASK ME HOW MY COLLEGE IS PROTECTING MY RAPIST shirts around campus. They’ve also launched a website outlining their grievances with the institution and offering a safe space for other survivors to come forward and enter the conversation. They’ve banded together to support one another emotionally, and hold St. Olaf accountable for its failings. Instead of allowing their experiences to silence them, they are taking their power back. And while my heart breaks for what they have experienced, they are the reason I am proud to be an Ole.

Unfortunately, I think it is going to be a very long time before sexual assault survivors are treated with the care, attention, and compassion they deserve. And I think it is going to be an even longer time before sexual assaulters are treated with the severity and consequences they deserve. But in the meantime, Wilson and co. are setting an incredible example of how to work around a flawed system and to inspire change from a grassroots level. It’s inspiring, brave, and revolutionary.

Thank you, Madeline, for channeling your power, your brain, and your voice. I am so grateful for how you are drawing attention to this horribly pervasive problem.

Check out their work here:

Angela Gulner, St. Olaf Class of 2009

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