Young women carrying out harsh vigilante justice have cropped up in pop culture only a handful of times in recent memory — see Ellen Page’s calculated killer in Hard Candy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander, or the vengeful girls of The Craft. But they have limits. They’re painted either with petty concerns and narrow targets or the physical inability to carry out their vendettas long-term.
MTV’s Sweet / Vicious is different. In the very first episode, sorority girl-cum-vigilante Jules (Eliza Bennett) beats up a serial date rapist with a bat while Charli XCX squeaks out a love song in the background. When green-haired stoner Ophelia (Taylor Dearden) tries to back her up, she accidentally kills the guy with a wrench and then pukes hot pink bile all over him. Minutes later, Ophelia and Jules belt Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” together in the car — both to calm their nerves and to present a thesis statement for the series. You can think of them more or less as witches: powerful girls hovering above the human plane and deploying violence in a way that can be judged harshly or empathetically but isn’t really under anyone’s dominion. It’s weird as hell, and a brilliant start for a pulpy revenge saga — created by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and a mostly female creative team.
By building up young vigilantes who are both smart and physically powerful enough not to get caught (yet), Sweet / Vicious unfurls a thrilling fantasy of a world in which girls have a major say in both defining justice and executing it.
As Jules explains to Ophelia post-manslaughter (accidental!), what she does is pretty simple: she hunts down campus sex criminals who have been unjustly ignored by the school administration or by law enforcement and beats the shit out of them. When she spits out her mission statement, which has a lot of buzzwords about “justice” and innocents getting hurt by bad people, Ophelia nods slowly before offering, “That’s the plot of Batman.” Jules rolls her eyes at the semi-obvious quips, but she is modeled after Batman in more ways than the someone’s-gotta-do-justice ethos. Vigilantism is a reaction to structural inequality of power. Batman was a logical response to his time, an era in which men needed a fantastical rich dude who fought for justice on crime-ridden streets. Similarly, Sweet / Vicious’ duo is a logical response to the reality of being a young woman in the world right now.
The girls on Sweet / Vicious aren’t upper-crust plutocrats like the Caped Crusader. They’re just visibly upper-middle class but, like Batman, the key to their self-modeling as superheroes is Jules’ physical discipline and Ophelia’s hard-won status as a Mr. Robot-inspired hacker queen. Once they team up, they outsmart their targets with extensive illicit research and they out-fight them only because they prepare — with intense training, slick black suits, and gravelly voice changers that make them sound just like Christian Bale’s weird, muppet-y interpretation of the famous bat. Their friendship, while obvious and warm, is very much secondary. They’re putting themselves in harm’s way for a cause they believe in.
All this is fitting in a cultural moment that exalts superheroes, but the show’s range of reference is expansive and often unexpected. The duo’s getaway car is a vintage Murder Man car straight from a ‘70s slasher flick, not too terribly far off visually from the 1970 Dodge Challenger driven by Tracie Thoms in 2007’s Death Proof. It may not be subtle but melding a grindhouse reference and a rom-com carpool karaoke bit together is one of the ways that Sweet / Vicious makes good on its totally unsubtle title. Most importantly: the fact of America’s relentless campus sexual assault epidemic is as much in the air as hip-hop and Love Actually references. This show assumes an audience that’s versed in Title IX and rolls its eyes at the hand-holding Law & Order: SVU has to do for adults who still don’t comprehend slut-shaming or date rape. It’s brutal to think of this as our popular culture, needing only a whisper of a reference to call it to mind — but, well, it’s true.
Despite the sort of rude hat-tips, Sweet / Vicious actually takes its structure from SVU — each episode presents a new and unique type of villain to chase. One week it’s a mean sorority that makes pledges strip down and films them without consent. The next week it’s an Uber driver who roofies his passengers. The “big bad” in all of this is the guy who assaulted Jules: the main spectres the story chases are her anger and how her vigilantism does or doesn’t serve her healing and health. Ultimately that question is the one Robinson is most interested in, and the answer to it seems to be coming in tonight’s two-hour finale.
Of course, there are also serious moral issues with what Jules and Ophelia do, and they eventually grapple with that near the end of this first season. They don’t inflict permanent physical damage on their targets (except that one guy and it was self-defense!), but they also don’t damage their future prospects or give the men’s victims any closure or peace of mind. What they do is something — maybe just sowing discord in a power structure and robbing their targets of some self-possession and security. A very poetic justice, though it’s not particularly useful in the big picture. But there’s also something fascinating about the fact that Robinson lets viewers indulge in this violent fantasy for as long as she does.
This fantasy is one women are rarely permitted on their own terms, in every artistic medium. After all, young women as vigilantes are not a trope, where the tortured vigilante guy certainly is. Rape-and-revenge is a film genre with just as stupid a gender imbalance as every other. In her 2010 feminist treatise King Kong Theory, filmmaker Virginie Despentes talks about the hostile reaction the French film world had to her autobiographical rape-revenge movie Baise-moi — a reaction which seemed to imply that only men are permitted to dole out justice or dream of violence. She writes of the suppression of female imagination (sexual and otherwise), “We want to be respectable women. We suppress any fantasies that seem dirty, disturbing, or contemptible… We are programmed to avoid contact with our own wildness.” Painted in bright colors, Sweet / Vicious is an unapologetic indulgence of these daydreams.
Initially the show’s insistence that a lone girl vigilante was too unrealistic to exist even in fiction rubbed me the wrong way. But what Sweet / Vicious ends up presenting instead is a fascinating idea of the female solidarity origin story — one we’ve seen far fewer times than Bruce Wayne’s. Jules and Ophelia come together not over their very on-the-nose Shakespeare namesakes or any particular shared experience, but over a base-level simmering anger.
It’s merely a fantasy to think that punching the most hideous personifiers of that anger in the nose will make it go away, but it’s a beautiful one.
Sweet / Vicious airs Tuesdays at 10PM ET on MTV. The two-hour season finale airs tonight.