Spotlight: Challenging Cultural Norms on Television with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson

At just 28 years old, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson is taking the television world by storm. As the Creator of MTV’s new Comedy/Drama, Sweet/Vicious, Jennifer is challenging rape culture by creating a story for survivors. Sweet/Vicious follows the story of two students/vigilantes, Jules, a campus sexual assault survivor, and her partner in crime, Ophelia, as they turn the tables on the men accused of sexual assault on their campus.

We had a chance to sit down with Jennifer at the White House after she served on the “Changing the Culture” panel at the It’s On Us Summit. If you missed it, check out the full live stream here.

TW: Sexual assault, rape, domestic abuse.

A lot of television shows have been incorporating sexual assault into their plotline. However, often times, sexual violence is used as a tactic to further the storylines of other characters, or portrays survivors in a negative light. What role do television shows have in creating cultural change and how can they do a better job of consciously counteracting problematic cultural norms?

Jennifer: I think our biggest hurdle to overcome is making television feel inclusive and making sure you’re telling the whole story. I think that if you’re going to incorporate sexual assault, rape, any kind of assault, any kind of domestic abuse, you can’t just have the singular action of the abuse or the assault. You have to have everything, because that is what people live with in real life. I think that there’s a lot of the singular action as kind of a tent pole-must watch device that people use. And to me, it almost marginalizes what people go through, because that’s not a tent pole thing, you can’t do that. You have to treat it with the gravity it deserves and it’s not something you can just gain ratings from. If you’re not going to tell the whole story, then don’t do it.

So, I think my biggest hope moving forward in the future is that if you’re going to choose to have that storyline, do the whole storyline. And on Sweet/Vicious, we do show Jules’ trauma, but we actually didn’t choose to show what happens until the episode that airs next Tuesday, because we wanted you to know Jules and we wanted you to know her before you saw what happened to her. The show is so much more than the assault; it’s everything after, and it’s who she was before, and it is about her as a woman. So, my hope for the future, is if people do want to tell these stories, that it’s not a side character, and it’s not a plotline, and it’s not a “very special episode of…” My hope is that you’re really going to dig in and do the research and tell the survivors story. No one is one dimensional.

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Sweet/Vicious is doing a fantastic job of taking important statistics and turning them into relatable content. For example, Jules was assaulted by her best friend’s boyfriend, whom she has to interact with frequently, highlighting the overwhelming fact that most survivors know their assailant. Statistics like these are thrown around so frequently that they are often ignored or lose their powerful impact. How did you navigate utilizing these important, but often normalized, statistics in a very human way? How do you think that will help visibility on the issue of sexual assault?

Jennifer: When we did our research and really sat down with all the writers to talk about what the series would look like, there was so much in the research that kept repeating itself and things we kept seeing. And those are that survivors knew their assailants, that they weren’t strangers, they weren’t someone on a dark street that came up behind them and raped them in a bush. That afterwards, they had to be around this person, that they were scared to come forward because they didn’t know how their friends would handle it because they didn’t want to be ostracized. There were so many different things and so many pieces of the puzzle, and while everyone’s story that we read was completely different, there were elements that were the same and there were elements that everyone was going through. So, when we built Jules’ arc, we used those things because we wanted to feel true to what these men and women were going through. And with building our characters, it was a lot of us making sure that it felt objective, but also making sure that it felt true to these people that we were making real and we were making nuanced.

In our most recent episode, Jules tells her best friend, Kennedy, that Kennedy’s boyfriend raped her, and Kennedy chooses, because the boyfriend got to her first and told her it was consensual sex, to believe her boyfriend. Now, she believes her boyfriend because she knows if she believes Jules, her whole world, everything she knows, is over. Everything is gone. And I think that there’s so much of that happening, where it’s not just the survivor, but it’s the ripple effect of how it affects everyone. We thought it was so important to tell that whole story, to make sure it wasn’t just Jules, but it was Kennedy, and Nate, showing the assailant and his story: is he a villain? Is he uneducated? Is he entitled? What is the ethos and pathos there? what does that look like? Because it was so important to us for this show to educate people beyond the statistics and to actually say sit down and watch what it looks like. You can look at the statistics all day, but it’s not going to sink in in the way that it will if you watch Jules, the incredible actress Eliza Bennett, shove her rapist up against the wall and put her hand over his mouth and say “listen to what you did to me.” I think a lot of women don’t have the chance to do that and don’t feel strong enough to do that and we wanted to do that for them in this show.

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With trailblazers like Shonda Rhimes and Mindy Kaling, the television industry has seen a shift towards a more inclusive environment, both onscreen and behind the scenes. However, the despite this progress, the entertainment industry is still largely dominated by men. What has been your experience as a female writer in this industry?

Jennifer: *laughs* I have to say, I do think that things are getting better. I work with two women who are older than me and have been in the industry way longer, that’s Amanda Lasher and Stacey Sher, our Executive Producers. Stacey, who has produced everything from Erin Brockovich, to Pulp Fiction, to Django Unchained, came up in a time where she had to be just as strong as every man in that room, probably stronger. I think that we’re thankfully moving away from women having to feel like they have to become the biggest, excuse my language, dick in the room to be heard. But there were absolutely times, and I’ve worked with many amazing people, men and women, but there were times as a 27- 28 year old woman, when I was making the show and I would request something, and there would be push back. In my head I’d be like, “If I were a 52 year old man, would you push back or would you just do what i asked you to do?” we can have this conversation, we can go back and forth, but at the end of the day, you are gonna do what I want to do. And I don’t ask in a rude way or try to be difficult, but it was my show and I was the boss, just like Amanda was the boss, and Stacey was the boss. But, it’s three women, so there’s an element of pushback and an element of people feeling like they can push back. I think there are people like Shonda, and people like Mindy, and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who are fostering this community of women that are teaching younger women that “difficult,” and “bitch,” and all those negative, nasty woman words…wear those like a badge of honor. Because that means you’re doing something right. And you do not have to be mean, you do not have to be a dick, to get what you want. But, if what you are doing is perceived as difficult because you were just asking for something and you were perceived as strong in your convictions, the problem is with the other person and not you. I hope that as we move into the next generation, young women are unapologetically empowered. I hope they feel like their voices matter and that it’s time to speak up.

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Sweet/Vicious airs Tuesdays on MTV at 10 PM ET/PT!

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, get help by calling 800.656.HOPE (4673), or visit RAINN.

For more resources, check out End Rape on Campus (EROC) and take the pledge with It’s On Us.