MTV's "Sweet/Vicious" Series, From Creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, Is Attacking Sexual Assault Head On
The story of MTV's new dark comedy "Sweet/Vicious," which chronicles two female college students/vigilantes who beat up men accused of sexual assault, is almost as compelling and interesting as that of its creator, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson — a 28-year-old who learned to write scripts from watching movies and almost played Miley Cyrus's best friend on Hannah Montana.
How did Robinson — who is becoming one of the most sought after new talents in Hollywood — achieve so much at such a young age? It's a story that's probably equally deserving of its own show one day. "I didn't go to college," says the Miami native. "I left high school when I was a junior and finished up online. The school I went to was a college preparatory school, but it wasn’t my thing. I realized that I was going down a path that my mom didn't love — that I didn't love — and it was girly, clique-y, bitchy.
An opportunity presented itself to put myself on tape for Hannah Montana and I ended up testing and almost booking this part. That crazy experience kind of brought me out to L.A." (Oh, and by the way, all this happened when Robinson was the ripe old age of 16.) Even with her mom by her side, it wasn't an easy road. "I had an acting coach tell me when I was 16 that I have a very harsh look because my eyes are dark and my hair is black," remembers Robinson. "She said, 'I feel like [you have] a child serial killer look, so you have to hope that that comes along, or soften yourself.' I mean, what? Why would a grown woman say that to a child? Everyone’s like, 'You gotta get thick skin in this industry,' but I also don't believe in tearing people down."
Perhaps Robinson didn't know it at the time, but her high school experience—as well as that ridiculous feedback—were laying the groundwork for a new career: scriptwriter. "I learned how to write [scripts from] reading '500 Days of Summer,' 'The Dark Night,' 'The Social Network' … scripts that were inventive and different. I [learned] that there’s no right way to write a script. Making it unique is the most interesting way to write something." And that's where Sweet/Vicious comes in. If it was up to Robinson, the show would have been on the air years ago, but, she says, "we took it out [to networks] the week that Lena Dunham sold 'Girls,' and it was very similar.
It was before the boom of 20-something, female-driven shows, and everyone was like, 'No, we don't know what this is yet, and HBO has already bought [this].' From there, my project got bumped around, so I was in a revolving door of development for three years." Instead of giving up, Robinson went at the process with more determination and re-wrote it as a 30-minute pilot. "That was my master class," she says. "It was then that I thought, 'What do I want to see on TV? What is missing?'" The answer? "Sweet/Vicious." But the show, which premiered on Tuesday night, is just beginning. Read on, and get ready to start hearing a lot more about Jennifer Kaytin Robinson.
Glamour: The show could not be more timely. When did the idea come to you?
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson: I wrote the show in 2014. I thought it was timely then. I'm so glad people know about [these issues], and glad it’s becoming a national conversation. It was so important to do our homework and tell this story correctly. It’s not the "Law & Order" movie-of-the-week version of this story. We really tried to make it authentic and true to what’s happening out there. Hopefully the social consciousness and the show can collide, and it can help explain things and add a little more perspective to the stories.
Also, the women behind the stories of assault — they are strong women who have full lives, and they are so much more than their assault. That’s something that is really important to us. This country has such a "protect our boys" mentality, and it’s happening with Trump. If you're man is accused of something he 100 percent did not do, yes, stand by your man. But when your man is Donald Trump and he's on tape saying, "grab them by the p*ssy," I want to be as far away from that man, and also put on a chastity belt. [Laughs.] Like, no!
Glamour: Where did the inspiration for Sweet/Vicious come from?
JKR: I just wanted to see female characters who are broken in ways that I relate to, and I’ve never seen on TV, but they aren’t defined by that and they are still superheroes. I also really wanted to see a story about female friendship. They’re an odd couple and they bicker, but they love each other. All the women on this show love each other. There are really good guys on this show and they are wonderful. The biggest, most important thing to me about this show was that it feels inclusive. The element of kick-ass female driven shows are so important to me. I wanted characters that felt weird and different, and I didn’t want them to be side characters. I didn’t want them to have a very special episode where someone gets put on Celexa. I wanted it to be engrained in the show in the DNA.
Glamour: What about the sexual assault aspect? Was there a personal story attached to it for you?
JKR: It wasn’t just the sexual assault. It was avenging women. I really wanted it to be about women who fought for women and [against] sexual assault. I've had instances with it — and it wasn’t until very recently where I sat down and took inventory — and realized, "Oh, that wasn’t just a weird thing that happened when a person grabbed my ass at a party and I didn’t know them or want them to do that. That's sexual assault." There’s so much gray in sexual assault. Even someone as educated as I am on the matter still didn’t realize that it had touched my life, and that I had dealt with it, until very recently when I read all the Kelly Oxford tweets. I’ve always said to people, "No, I’ve never had any experience with it," but it’s not true, because the small [stuff] is still assault.
Glamour: What kind of research did you do?
JKR: I watched every documentary I could. I found podcasts where women shared their stories. I found everything I could on NPR. I don’t want any woman to watch this show and think I stole her story. I read a lot and did a lot of research, but nothing I put into this show comes from just one story. A lot of the stories feel similar because, unfortunately, a lot of the stories are handled similarly. I did a lot of research. We really tried to make this about the college experience, but not the college experience you see. It’s more the college experience that actually is out there and existing.
Glamour: In the pilot episode, not only does Jules go and intimidate these guys and break into their rooms, but she actually physically assaults them. Did you struggle with that decision?
JKR: Jules stabs a guy in the leg, yes. And you learn from a very young age that two wrongs don't make a right. There’s a heightened element to this, 100 percent. It’s wish-fulfillment. It’s that Gotham/Batman world that we live in at Darlington University on the show. Dear God, please don't stab anyone in the leg because you watch this show! [Laughs.] But I think a lot of it is — if it were men, would you get the same question? Because there are a lot of superhero shows. I mean, Daredevil beats the shit out of people that are doing bad stuff! It’s not disparaging, your question, but I don’t know that it would be an issue. But because it’s a young, beautiful girl stabbing a guy, it becomes controversial.
So you know, they don't just go after dudes. We do have an episode where there’s a sorority that is hazing the shit out of their pledges, and it is assault and they take them down. This isn’t the man-hater show. There are so many wonderful guys on this show. But I do think that it has to live in a place where it’s heightened and it’s wish fulfillment. It’s suspended reality, because no, in the real world, I don't think that two wrongs make a right, and I don't think this is the way to get anything done. But I also think, God, it’s fun to watch!
Glamour: What do you hope women take away from the show when they watch it?
JKR: For survivors, I really hope that they feel that found something that they can watch that makes them feel less alone. I hope it makes them feel that we’re bringing an awareness to what they went through in a way that feels authentic without exploiting [it]. That is not something that we are trying to do. That’s not what this show is about. For young women in middle school and high school that watch it, I hope they feel empowered to stand up for themselves as they go through their life, and as they start to get into sexual situations and are with boys. I hope that when a guy grabs their ass at a high school party, they say that’s not OK. And they have the courage to say that’s not OK. Because so often — and I'm guilty of this — you just let it happen because you don’t want to be that girl that’s difficult. And "difficult" is a bullshit word. You’re not difficult, you’re strong. Being difficult is a whole other thing.
We really tried to build a show that’s inclusive and [features] girls helping girls. It's not man-[hating]. It’s not like, fuck the guys. It’s about, "Oh, your best friend has a new friend? I want to meet that person, because we should all be friends," and not, "Your best friend has a new friend? Oh, fuck that girl." I think we need more of that. Especially in this climate where you have the Republican [president-elect] calling women "4s" and calling people losers and saying this person is disgusting. That’s not cool. There’s so much out there that is supposed to be cool, and it seeps into the consciousness. I grew up on '90s movies. I grew up in the world where the prettiest girls and the popular girls were really mean to the artsy girl. I didn’t want to be the artsy girl because I didn’t want to get made fun of. Subconsciously, it bleeds in. We [need] more programming where the message that bleeds in is everyone is beautiful, everyone is different, diversity is awesome, let’s all be friends. I hope that’s what people take away from the show.
Glamour: Did you deal with any sexism with getting this show made, especially in the beginning?
JKR: I've had nothing but positive feedback. If anything, I had people calling saying thank you for writing this, it happened to me. This script is really special. That is everything to me. It’s so important to me that survivors feel a part of this show and women feel a part of this show, and men feel they can watch it and enjoy it and learn. If one dude in high school watches this show and is like, "Whoa, that’s not OK!" That’s amazing.
Glamour: Uber-producer Stacey Sher (Erin Brockovich, Django Unchained) is executive-producing Sweet/Vicious. What's the best piece of advice she's given you?
JKR: Little things, like breathe and take some time to yourself. She knows so much and she came up at a time in the industry when it was really a man’s game. It was a tough time, and I think that it’s melting away a little bit. We're still facing a lot of adversity, and it’s not equal in any way, but it’s getting better. Stacey came up at a time where she had to be a fighter and that has made her so strong, and she's passed down that strength.
Glamour: Did you ever feel that your age — you were 26 at the time you sold the script — was an obstacle?
JKR: I did and I didn’t. I think luckily being 26, 27, 28, I'm the demographic [for my show]. When people give me notes, I’m able to spin it in a way that they appreciate. MTV never treated me like I was less than because of my age. They always treated me like an equal and as the creator of the show. I’m the same age as some of the people on the cast, and never did I feel like they looked at me like she doesn’t know what she’s doing. I would say most of it came from myself, like, "Oh God." I had never even been on staff before I sold this. I had never been in a writers' room. I’ve been on set, but I’ve never run a set!
A lot of the anxiety and putting myself down was through me because I was so nervous about it. But everyone else was so nurturing. I have an amazing partner in Amanda Lasher, who worked on Gossip Girl and then Togetherness, and really understands, and Emily Levitan, who is our producer. It’s a little bit of a "fake it till you make it" situation, but I learned quickly. Personally, I think a little bit of inexperience is a good thing when you’re coming into something like this because your ideas are out of the box, and there’s no stigma attached to what you’re suggesting. It was a lot of me saying, "Well, what if we try it this way?" and then hearing, "Well, we’ve never done it [that way] before, but is it possible?" And then "OK, we’ll try it!" Combining experience with fresh ideas really made for an amazing experience.
"Sweet/Vicious" premiered on MTV on Tuesday, November 15 at 10pm.
More From Glamour:
• Amanda Nguyen Is Working to Protect the Legal Rights of Sexual Assault Survivors Everywhere
• Stanford Sexual Assault Case Survivor Emily Doe Speaks Out at Glamour's Women of the Year Awards
• Donald Trump’s Win Proves Our System for Handling Sexual Assault Is Broken
• Justice For Stanford Sexual Assault Case Survivor Emily Doe: How You Can Help
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