Warning: This post contains spoilers.
By now, you’ve probably heard that you should be watching American Crime (not to be confused with American Crime Story, the dramatized O.J. Simpson story that debuted Tuesday night). American Crime is four episodes in to its second season, but it’s already been praised for its portrayal of a male rape story — a narrative that’s rarely given screen time.
The show does a lot of work to explore the ways class, race, gender norms, and sexual identities clash and converge to enable rape culture. But what American Crime really deserves credit for is how the rape story is told.
Without giving too much away, the series follows several players on an elite private school’s basketball team. A male scholarship student, Taylor Blaine, is drugged and raped at a party thrown by the team’s co-captains. In the first episode, photos of Blaine — trashed and not wearing pants — are circulated around the school, turning him into a laughingstock and drawing the scorn of administrators. When he’s suspended for lewd behavior, Blaine admits that he was assaulted at the party, but can’t remember all of the details.
What follows is his mother’s search for justice, a school cover-up, and the repercussions the rape has for students, families, and the community at large. Players scramble to defend themselves, while bearing in mind their race and sexual identities. Wealthy parents hire top lawyers and try to use their social standing to deflect attention away from their sons. And poor parents scramble to find solutions because they can’t hire attorneys. Students at the school post the intrusive photos on social media, calling Blaine names and joking at his expense.
On its own, a male rape story on TV is groundbreaking. Almost all of the people assaulted on-screen are women, with notable exceptions being Jaime in Outlander and Tommy in the Leftovers. So American Crime is wading into relatively uncharted territory with its male victim.
But the way the series treats the violation itself — from how the encounter is portrayed to how it’s used as a vehicle to explore deeper themes — sets it apart from the other shows we’ve seen.
For better or worse, rape has become a ubiquitous plot device that’s popped up in some of TV’s biggest dramas: Game of Thrones, Scandal, Downton Abbey, Orange Is the New Black, and House of Cards, to name a few. We generally see it as it happens or in flashback form, with victims protesting, screaming, and submitting in pain. In that sense, rape has become a tool that showrunners use for shock value alone, without much social commentary exploring how the sexual assault affects victims. For example, Game of Thrones showrunners rewrote the book’s pages to make Cersei an unwilling participant in a sexual encounter on the show for no apparent plot reason. Her twin brother proceeded to rape her next to their dead son’s corpse. She forgave him a few episodes later.
American Crime approaches the sex crime in a completely different way.
While the rape drives the story, four episodes have gone by and we haven’t actually seen what happened at the party. The story begins a few days after the event takes place, so we don’t see the rape in real time. In fact we don’t see anything besides the photos that make their way around the school and on social media (hopefully this remains the case). We only learn details about what happened through conversations Blaine has with his mother. Then we watch school officials coordinate their response to minimize the scandal, players and their families scramble to hide what happened at the party, and Blaine try to forget what happened before and after the attack.
It’s rare for TV shows to talk about rape without actually showing it. House of Cards and Jessica Jones are two notable exceptions — but even in those cases, sexual assault is usually addressed from a singular point of view that hones in on how the victim is personally affected. Jessica Jones is haunted by her attacker and sets off on a mission to save a younger girl from suffering the same way. Claire’s trauma is triggered by a chance encounter, which leaves her depressed and bed-ridden… until she finds another one of her attacker’s victims and uses her for political gain.
American Crime, on the other hand, has given us a new way of portraying a very difficult subject. By simultaneously excluding the act of rape and zeroing in on all of the factors that play into a culture that contributes to sex crimes and lets them go unpunished, the show offers a broader look at how sexual assault unplays in our society. A coach refuses to believe his players are capable of such an abominable act, and is unwilling to press them when they say they had nothing to do with the incident. A headmaster tries to sweep the rape under the rug so she can continue fundraising for the school. Parents say things like “boys don’t get raped.”
We don’t need to see the actual crime in order to grasp how heinous and degrading rape is. In that sense, the series preserves as much of the victim’s dignity as possible, skirting the shock value that other TV series have relied on. And by redirecting our attention to everything that happens before and after the encounter takes place, American Crime demands that we think about sex crimes critically — without the distraction of watching it unfold.
It should also be noted that sexual assault is a major problem in athletics, including high school sports. High school football and basketball teams have been accused of hazing teammates by sodomizing them. Others have sexually assaulted peers at parties, while adults did everything in their power to protect the athletes from persecution. When players face punishment, students, teachers, and families take sides. Assaults turn into public — not personal — affairs.
As these real-life stories come to light, a show like American Crime can help us understand sex crimes in a multi-dimensional way. One incident can have a ripple effect throughout entire communities, and unearth some of the social tensions we work hard to ignore.