In one of countless poignant scenes in this season's American Crime, Anne Blaine (Lili Taylor) vented about the father of her child, Taylor, (Connor Jessup), who fled after the kid was born. "All I would have done different," she said, "is gotten with someone who was ready to be a man."
Taylor is the central figure in Season 2 - the victim of a sexual assault that shakes a community along lines of class, race and sexual orientation. As it did last season, American Crime expertly illuminates social issues we'd rather overlook. Fans and critics alike have (rightfully) lauded the show for giving male rape the attention it needs and rarely gets in our culture, but the reasons why it often goes ignored are another integral and powerful undercurrent of the season.
In every episode so far, we're seeing men navigate new roles (with varying degrees of success) or grasp for power where they have none at all.
There's Michael LaCroix (Andre Benjamin), clearly the more passive partner to his wife Terri (Regina King) who rules at work and home. High school teens Eric Tanner (Joey Pollari) and Kevin LaCroix (Trevor Jackson) toss around "bitch" like a ball on fire; used as a descriptor for both women and weak boys, the word allows them to define their manliness through other people.
Eric's father Curt (Brent Anderson) himself in a daze as he stumbles through a divorce, tries to coach his son on teenage fundamentals like using deodorant, which Eric isn't trying to hear. ("I'm not trying to be smelling like a bitch," Eric says to his dad.) Even Coach Dan (Timothy Hutton) meets resistance while trying to instill in his team's members essential values of respect and consideration for others; Kevin tries to woo girls with gifts, sweet talk and coercion as he too stumbles through the mating rites that define a boy's transition into adulthood.
Yes, Taylor's rape (as well as the subsequent discoveries that occur in its aftermath, which won't be spoiled here) begets a sorely needed conversation about male sexual assault. But the other, perhaps more urgent conversation American Crime is forcing is one about what manhood looks like in the 21st century, and how many men are unequipped to understand what it means, let alone act on it. At a time when women are earning more advanced degrees than men and making feminism part of pop culture, shifting societal roles also means, for some men, ambiguity about what codes they should keep, and it's fascinating to watch American Crime explore that through its male characters.
Andre Benjamin's character Michael, for example, is notably sensitive, offering to cook for his son and girlfriend in an episode (in contrast to his mother Terri who is visibly disapproving of the kids' getting too cozy.) In another, Michael calmly explains to Kevin that he made choices and sacrifices to keep his family in tact - that he'd not be the black man that would desert his wife and son.
"It's just so funny that this show is kind parallel to where I am right now in life," Andre Benjamin said at the Television Critics Association gathering in Pasadena earlier this month. When he grew up, he said, manhood was a one-note concept - with roughhousing and physical toughness as a measure of manliness. Now, Benjamin said, there's a distinct generational difference in what's expected, permissible and expressed in modern manhood, something he's well aware of as father to an 18-year-old son. "I think the world is opening up a little bit more. It's more than just, hey, talk tough and play baseball, play football."
"I have two boys," he said. "Back in the day, being a man meant one thing. King of the castle, not having to pitch in." Today, the example he wants to leave for his children is "being a man is not just being tough or always being right, but 'please' and 'thank you.' That' it's OK to cry, to show your emotions."
For sure, there's plenty of men showing emotion and crying this season as they untangle societal demands of who they should be or how they should act versus the reality of their true emotional vulnerability or real sexual orientation. Race too, plays a part as Kevin comes to the painful realization that, in addition to the ordinary demands of the teen-to-adult transition, his skin color means he'll have to contend with special challenges and assumptions about him that his parents' affluence can't insulate him from. When he cries to his girlfriend after being grilled by the family attorney in Episode 3 and says, "I'm scared," it's an honest moment that captures a rite of passage unique to African-American boys: a loss of innocence as they realize they may be viewed and treated unfairly.
"Speaking specifically to being black in America," King said at the TCA gathering, "when you look at our family, there's the way Terri and Andre were raised...and the things that they've seen and they were exposed to are much different than the things that our son was exposed to, so there's some generational differences that are taking place. And because we are privileged, there are things that he's not aware of, that Kevin is not aware of, and because he's not experiencing them, but they do still exist. But you see where those differences face each other and how we navigate that is going to be very interesting for you guys to watch."
American Crime airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.
Watch this clip, featuring American Crime creator John Ridley talk about what went into creating Taylor's post-assault medical examination scene.