By 'Sweet/Vicious' creator and executive producer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson
It’s mid-summer in Los Angeles; I’m sitting in front of my laptop with a blinking cursor staring back at me. I knew I wanted to include this episode -- this very special glimpse into the backstory of Jules -- since the inception of Sweet/Vicious. This was a non-negotiable episode for me from day one, and it was something every person was on board with when I pitched it to them. The concept of two girls beating up people who were getting away with sexual assault was always going to be surrounded by a certain amount of heat. Was I condoning violence? Was this show saying the answer to the sexual assault epidemic is to take matters into your own (bloody) hands? This backstory would be the entire pathos of Jules’ mission. I knew that her origin -- the death of the Jules that was and birth of the Jules we introduce in the cold open of the pilot -- must be told.
The cursor blink, blink, blink, blinks. I could feel the episode. I could feel the emotional arc of each character ricocheting around my brain. I knew the beats, but now I had to put it into words, into action, into dialogue. I felt the weight of what I wanted to show, of what I wanted to convey in this 41-page/41-minute episode of television. That goddamn cursor just kept blinking in my face. How do I write this without it feeling exploitative? Blink. Blink. Blink. Is this going to be something survivors want? Will they hate this? Blink. Blink. Will they feel like I’ve stolen a story that wasn’t mine to tell? Blink. Then I stopped, cleared my mind, and began to write.
INT. OMEGA THETA – NATE’S ROOM – IMMEDIATE PICK UP (FLASHBACK)
Nate creeps into the dark bedroom. A lamp from the street shines through his window, blanketing Jules in soft light. We can see in his face that he thinks she’s beautiful, he always has. Nate creeps into bed next to her. At first, he just puts his arm around her, lying next to her. Nate begins to kiss her neck. This would be very sweet if she wasn’t completely passed out and he wasn’t her best friend’s boyfriend. He runs his hand up her calf, past her thigh his hand then resting near her breast as he moves her onto her back. He moves in close…
NATE (whispered): Jules. Hey, Jules…
He kisses her softly, moving his hands down toward her skirt, slipping his hand in her underwear. Jules stirs awake. She’s drunk and confused, how did she get here? When did she fall asleep? When did Nate get in here? She’s trying to get her bearings as she comes to.
So often rape is portrayed as a singular moment in time, but rape and sexual assault do not end after the act is over. Rape and sexual assault live with the survivor every single day, every single minute, from the time that it happens. This rape, this scene, this is the origin story of our “hero.” I put hero in quotes not because I don’t believe Jules is a superhero, but because no person should have to step into that position because she or he was assaulted. She wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider or turned into a science project during World War II like the superheroes we love from the pages of a Marvel comic. Jules was sleeping in a bed, and someone she knew and trusted changed her life. Forever. The world of Jules and Ophelia is very much fiction -- but the origin story, the "inciting incident" (which feels like a crude thing to call it when you’re talking about rape) is not.
“It wasn’t what I thought it would be like,” said a male executive that is no longer at MTV. I turned, surprised by this response to the assault scene between Nate and Jules.
“What do you mean?” I responded, worried about what would follow out of this older, straight, white man’s mouth.
“You know, it was so fast. It wasn’t violent. It happened and it was over. It made me feel kind of sick,” he said.
And that’s when I knew we had done it right. Rape is so often depicted as a violent/arms thrashing/stranger-danger situation. A girl walks home alone at night only to get attacked. It’s loud and scary, there’s a thumping score amping up the danger, the violence, but that’s not real. I didn’t want to show the network procedural version of this heinous crime; I wanted to show (a version of) reality. Rape, especially what is happening on college campuses, is not a happening by a sneering bad guy walking behind you late at night. It’s the guy or girl who sits next to you in English Lit, the frat guy at the party who offered to get you another drink, the friend, the friend of a friend and so on. It is not usually loud (most women and men talk about how they feel paralyzed, unable to move or speak, as it is happening). It is not drawn out for dramatic effect as we have seen time and time again for those extra ratings. It is fast, it is gutting and it changes you.
Reading a statistic is easy, it’s impersonal -- 1 in 5 young women and 1 in 16 young men will be sexually assault at college. You feel compassion when you see that statistic, but there’s nothing emotional to which to attach yourself. I wanted to attach a story, a face, a cinematic experience to this statistic so that hopefully more people can understand how real and how heartbreaking this epidemic truly is. I wanted to make sure that not only would people watch what the assault looks like, but they would see everything that follows for so many on campuses across America.
I know this episode will be unspeakably hard to watch for many who have been through this, but it was very important to me to put this reality on screen. I tell this story not only for the survivors who have lived it to let them know they are not alone but also for the people who don’t understand it. The people who deny that it’s happening, who hide their heads in the sand and let this epidemic grow.
This episode could not have been possible without our cast. Eliza Bennett is a warrior. She felt every minute of every page. She lived this story as Jules for every woman and man out there who has been in that bed, been in that nurse’s office, been in that title IX office, and been in that support group. She handled everything with grace and poise and with every scene she finished I was more and more blown away not only by how talented she is but by how incredibly dedicated she was to telling this story and getting it right. Dylan McTee had very hard shoes to fill playing Nate Griffin. He couldn’t be a more generous, loving, kind-spirited person, but on that day we filmed the assault he had to come into work, and he had to do something he himself felt was unthinkable to do to another person. Dylan wrestled with this role; he was caught between wanting to live inside the world of Nate and knowing that this character’s world is so wrong, so entitled, so ugly. When creating the character of Nate, it was important that he feel nuanced. We wanted to examine what it is that drives young people to commit these crimes. Is it a lack of education on consent early on in a young person’s development? Is it the entitlement that young men feel, especially young men who have grown up with some kind of notoriety because they’re part of an athletic program? We wanted to start a conversation about where this epidemic is starting, because it’s not college. It’s happening there, but it’s starting so much earlier.
Maybe some of you reading this are thinking, “What makes this girl an expert?” Nothing. I’m not an expert. I have not been raped, but I have had my own experiences with sexual assault and harassment. I have trouble considering what I went through to be in any way the same thing as so many of the heartbreaking survivor stories I have heard and read, but I think breaking down sexual assault into levels of heartbreak is a disservice to the cause as a whole. Every woman I know is a survivor in one way or another. I am so proud to stand alongside the brave women and men who continue to wake up every day and say, "I will survive." Enough is enough. No more. I am not an expert, but I am an advocate. To every survivor out there who has connected in some way with this show, thank you for your enduring bravery and your support of Sweet/Vicious. It is my hope that the spirit of Jules and Ophelia can live within all of us. This is not a survivor issue. This is not a women’s issue. This is not a men’s issue. This is an everyone, everywhere issue. Channel your inner Jules and Ophelia and join me in fighting for this cause.