Sorority-girl vigilantes break 'good girl/bad guy' taboos

Story highlights

  • Andi Zeisler: After Brock Turner, Bill Cosby, and Donald Trump, "Sweet/Vicious" strikes a chord
  • Questioning male entitlement is still a taboo, but more women are doing it, she says

Andi Zeisler is a co-founder and creative/editorial director of Bitch Media. She is also the author of Feminism and Pop Culture and We Were Feminists Once. The views expressed here are hers.

(CNN)In the cold opening to "Sweet/Vicious," MTV's new series about two young women meting out vigilante justice to predators, a masked, ninjalike figure shimmies up a trellis, slips into a fraternity-house room, and strikes.

"Say her name," demands an artifically disguised voice, as the intruder shoves a cell-phone photo of a young woman toward a young man's face.
    As he quakes, the voice asks, "Are you scared, Will? You feel powerless? Do I have consent, Will?" A few strategic blows to the face induce the frat boy to admit his crime, and the figure stands to leave — but not quite yet.
    "If you ever do to anyone else what you did to Beth...I will be back," the figure says, punctuating the warning by burying a knife in the rapist's leg and slipping back out the window. In a few minutes' time, the black mask is gone and we meet Jules, sorority girl-turned-campus avenger.
    Andi Zeisler
    The series, created by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and set at the fictional Darlington University, premiered a week after the 2016 election, and comes along at a great time. After all, we've somehow just elected a president who has spent most of his life in the public eye, demonstrating how little he values women's humanity, and who all but corroborated sexual-assault allegations against him by bragging that, as a rich and famous man, he could "grab [women] by the pussy," with zero consequences.
    Amid the instant flood of accounts of hate speech, swastika grafitti, and assaults on Muslim and black citizens, reports are coming in from women around the country who have been sexually harassed and groped by men who tell them with glee and menace that they live in Trump's America now. Did I say it's a good time for this show? Correction: It's the perfect time.
    Election Day notwithstanding, the past several years have brought some progress in how we as a culture discuss the issues of sexual consent and violence. Long-rumored abuses perpetrated by famous men — among them Bill Cosby and Canadian broadcast personality Jian Ghomeshi — were pushed out into the open. The case of Brock Turner, the Stanford student given a laughably brief sentence for a clear-cut case of rape, as well as that of the high-school athletes in Steubenville, Ohio, went scorchingly viral. The Obama administation launched It's On Us, a nationwide awareness program dedicated to addressing and combating sexual violence on college campuses. California, New York, and Michigan adopted affirmative-consent — also known as "yes means yes"— laws that mandate teaching that nothing short of a vocal "yes" counts as consent. In interviews, CNN's Anderson Cooper used and placed emphasis on the phrase "sexual assault" — as in, it's not just "locker-room talk" — to name the behavior Donald Trump boasted about on a hot mic.
    However, the fact that more than a few people are angry that this dialogue has evolved — say, the people who scoff at affirmative-consent laws as "sex policing" — is perhaps more telling than the evolution itself. Entitlement to female attention and bodies, is, as Trump so crassly noted, one of the long-guaranteed spoils of success, whether in college athletics or Hollywood or high-flying global real estate. Questioning that — or, worse, fighting against it — is still a taboo. Women continue to live and work alongside their attackers because telling the truth often means opening up a world of further torment.
    It's this reality that "Sweet/Vicious" takes aim at. Jules can't yet avenge her own rape — the perpetrator is her best friend's boyfriend — but she and Ophelia, the trust-fund hacker who cracks her secret identity and joins the cause, can act on behalf of women who aren't taken seriously by police, whose cases have been dismissed by the college, who have learned that the system that should protect them won't.
    People will probably be angry at "Sweet/Vicious," too. When it comes to female vigilantes, audiences — when they like them at all — like them ravished as graphically as possible before they get their revenge, if precursors like "I Spit on Your Grave," "Ms. 45," and "Irreversible" are any indication. (Though the show's wry humor also recalls the movie "Thelma and Louise," as well as the quieter '90s indie "Girls Town.") What Jules and Ophelia offer is a more literal version of the terrible sisterhood so often forged among campus victims, who furtively scrawl their attackers' names on bathroom walls as a warning to other women, but who may never meet or talk to those women.
    The two are the quirky-white-girl version of an odd couple: Scholarship student Jules scrambles to fit class and sorority events into her ass-kicking schedule while Ophelia deals weed from her record-store job and sleeps until 3pm. Their first moment of solidarity is slapstick — they belt out Wicked's "Defying Gravity" while a dead rapist decomposes in the trunk of Ophelia's car — but pointed: These are not superheroines, they're flawed young women navigating a brutal, entrenched system of expectations and assumptions perpetuated by men and women alike.
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    As vigilante fantasy, "Sweet/Vicious" can be deeply satisfying, and with subplots that tackle racial profiling and Greek-system hazing, the show stands to complicate the straightforward good girl/evil guy binary. But if viewers are unsettled or disturbed by the prospect of young women forcing sexual predators to reckon with the often casual, unthinking privilege with which they approach their victims (it's notable that in the opening scene, Jules's frat-boy prey blurts out that he "didn't meant to hurt anybody"), perhaps they should be.
    Pop culture, media, and real life have for decades told too many women that the harm perpetrated on them doesn't "count," doesn't matter. After eight years with a President who addressed sexual violence straight-on, American women are now faced with a President who brags about "getting away" with it. In a time when threats to rights, liberties, and bodily autonomy have quickly escalated, don't be surprised when women don't sit quietly and hope for the best.