It’s nearly impossible to watch an episode of this second season of American Crime without taking significant time and energy to mentally prepare.
As with last season, Academy Award winning creator John Ridley proves he’s unafraid to use the show to take on some of society’s most difficult questions and force the audience to grapple with them at, perhaps, their most uncomfortable levels.
But Season Two is different. The plot revolves around a community struggling to deal with the sexual assault of a high school boy at a party thrown by the school’s basketball team. Though the questions of whether he was actually assaulted (and by whom) arise, the real question is how the community—and by extension, the viewers—deal with the situation. Of course, we do not always like asking those questions.
Sexual violence is no stranger to the small screen, nor to our homes, schools, and communities. Many shows have been rightfully accused of using it as a cheap plot device, reflecting our society’s uncaring attitudes towards women. In crime procedurals like Law & Order SVU, sexual violence has regularly been the primary device for keeping the plot moving along. However, SVU also regularly presents episodes inspired by true life events, blatantly reengaging the audience in social conversations they may not have spent time exploring. But there’s also little room to explore the depth of it all, when there is, typically, a different main plot from episode to episode.
The popularity of these types of shows inspires questions about our appetite for this type of under-explored violence. And as society’s attitude changes, so are TV’s depictions of sexual violence. In shows like House of Cards, The Americans, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Game of Thrones, and The Leftovers, for example, a more modernized set of questions about this type of violence is being thrust upon us.
In the ultra-violent Game of Thrones, these questions are asked repeatedly (and, arguably, offensively). In a particularly inflammatory episode two seasons ago, Jaime Lannister forces himself onto his lover (and sister) Cersei in front of their dead son’s body. The director argued that the act was consensual, just as it was portrayed in the books, but in the episode Cersei is only shown resisting her brother.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that the definition of consent was increasingly the subject of heated public debate at the same time. Emma Sulkowicz was fighting her rape case at Columbia University and would soon start a protest (in which she carried the mattress upon which she was assaulted around campus) that would garner national attention. What, exactly, constitutes consent? What does it mean to “want it”? Who gets to decide? These were just a few of the questions many of us began to ask aloud, as art and real-life unfolded around us.
Eliana Dockterman wrote about how rape was dealt with in shows like House of Cards, Scandal, Top of the Lake, and The Americans, arguing that the prevalence in these shows of newly exposed wounds from past sexual violence reflected “our society’s effort to unearth assaults old and new, to deal with the fact that for so long rape was something swept under the rug.” She goes on to write, “The small screen is mimicking what is happening to our society on a larger scale. As a culture, we are confronting the long-buried problem of rape in new ways.”
And good television—like any good art—not only embraces being that reflection, but demands you reflect back. American Crime is good television.
Beyond the powerful plot, the show’s very editing style speaks to its willingness not just to ask questions, but to force you to reckon with them. The camera loves uncomfortable close-ups and unwavering long takes. Sound design draws you to background information that is still important, like a woman walking out (ostensibly in disgust) when Eric, the accused, talks in graphic detail about gay sex acts to detectives in a public place. The screen flashes to black and audio cuts briefly, in place of a character’s curse words—rather than writing profanity-free dialogue. If I ask you these questions, you must answer, the show seems to demand.
And following in the footsteps of the similarly reflexive HBO’s The Leftovers, Crime adds a very important gendered dynamic to the question of sexual violence. When she learns her son is a potential suspect in the assault, Terri (played by Regina King, who stars in The Leftovers as well) speaks for many when she shoots back with the following: “First of all, boys don’t do that to other boys, and even if he could, the boys fight back.”
But men and boys do get raped, despite our lack of acknowledgement. American Crime not only forces the audience to accept this truth, it probes how such crimes (and the responses) are affected by both race and class, and why we allow it to go so unexplored. Kevin, a Black student who is one of the hosts of the party where the incident occurred becomes the first target of the media when the story breaks. “Black, drugs, rape—what do you think they are saying?!” his mother shouts at her lawyer. The history of criminalizing Black men as hypersexual and violent cannot be ignored.
Meanwhile, Taylor, the survivor, is from a lower class background and attends school on a scholarship. He is shown to not have fit in well even before the assault, in a school known for its rich, privileged students. All of this naturally comes into play when the administration dismissively responds to his assault.
And all of those issues are tangled up within the question of sexual violence against men and boys. “[Women] have rights groups supporting them. They have lesbians out hating men. But a guy?” the survivor, Taylor, questions.
It’s rhetorical, like all the questions television indirectly asks of us, but I feel compelled to find an answer. I feel compelled and I don’t know if I’ve consented.
It’s difficult for me to watch this season because I am a survivor. I have been sexually assaulted. I’m not female. Though many factors made our situations different, including race, I feel a lot of the things Taylor is shown to feel, sometimes paralleled to an excruciating degree. I finished episode three, from which the previous quote was pulled, very much shaken.
But not just because I too am a survivor—but because I too am a harm-doer.
Men get raped, true—but men also do most of the raping, even of other men. Historically, those of us who were raised to be men were also raised with ideas in mind around consent—ideas that allow this violence to persist. I am not immune, and this show dares me to confront all of the times I have groped someone without their consent, touched partners before a clear affirmation, and grabbed others who seemed to be “asking for it.” I have crossed lines. I have violated people without knowing—or acknowledging, rather. And I am scared to admit this.
I saw myself in Taylor, but I also saw myself in Eric. When I felt heartbroken, I felt it for them both. And I hated it. So I cannot watch an episode of this season of American Crime without taking significant time and energy to mentally prepare. It should come with a trigger warning, but maybe if it did you should still ignore it.
It’s hard to watch a television screen become a mirror, and then see a monster, but who else will tame it? Maybe that’s the best question art can ask.
Hari Ziyad is a Brooklyn-based storyteller. He is the Editor-in-Chief of RaceBaitR, and his work has been featured on Gawker, Out, Ebony, Mic, Colorlines, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire and The Each Other Project. He is also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose and a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism. Sometimes, he goes by “they.”