In 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned of the danger of a single story. In the years since, we’ve witnessed an explosion of stories.
We’re in the midst of a television storytelling renaissance – enough quality television programming for the industry to wring their hands about “Peak TV” and anticipate the bursting of TV’s bubble. But while we may have more stories than ever playing across our screens (and waiting patiently in our Netflix queues), few manage to find new ways to tell those familiar stories. As Adichie cautioned, when we tell a single story, it risks becoming the only story.
Both anthology series find a new way to tell familiar stories, grappling with the perverse pleasures and pressures in retelling singular stories. Both series reveal the failures of the stories we tell and our misplaced faith in their explanatory powers.
Of the two series, the second season of John Ridley’s superb “American Crime” tells the quieter, more intimate story of violence. The season explores how an accusation of rape disrupts the fragile ecosystem of a Midwestern community, revealing the fault lines of race, gender, class, and sexuality that fracture the community’s belief in singular narratives.
Ridley offers a series of twists (though “twist” seems too superficial a term for the gravity of the story) that expose both how easy it is to dismiss the banality of these stories of rape, sports culture, and American masculinity and the complexity we miss in that dismissal.
“American Crime” takes a familiar story of rape – the Steubenville High School case is a clear parallel – and flips the gender.
The season opens with Taylor, a young male student at an elite private school in suburban Indianapolis, discovering that photos of him partially dressed, wasted (and likely drugged) at a party are circulating around the school. The photos land him in trouble with the administration (headed by cruelly calculating headmaster Leslie, played by Felicity Huffman) for violating the school’s code of conduct.
In a series of tense, emotional confrontations between Taylor and his mother, Anne (Lili Taylor), and the headmaster, we discover that “[s]omeone did something to [him].” Language itself fails Taylor and his mother. Anne explains, “It’s what he didn’t say . . . things he couldn’t talk about,” even though it’s the word “rape” that places Taylor and those around him in a recognizable narrative.
“You need to be very careful with that word.”
Leslie’s admonishment reveals the chilly administrative savvy she displays spinning the “issue.” But the show is as attentive to how a rape story is spun, and to how Leslie and others manipulate it.
“American Crime” unravels how the narrative of Taylor’s rape is framed by Taylor, his mother, the rapist, the police, school, and broader community. When Terri (played by Reginia King), the mother of one of the basketball players named in Taylor’s lawsuit, discovers what happened, she voices the disbelief Taylor meets at every turn: “Boys don’t get raped. Boys don’t do that to other boys.” Her incomprehension reveals the ways that deep layers of homophobia, toxic masculinity, and misogyny shape narrative of rape, making it “impossible” for men to be recognized as victims.
This frustrating failure to recognize male rape as a crime – one echoed by the school and the police – brings out in heartbreaking detail the way that rape victims of any gender are silenced and dismissed by the pressures of a singular cultural narrative of what constitutes rape.
“American Crime” explores the pressures a single story exerts, and the stories it erases. Ten episodes give a narrative (too often shortchanged by media packages and popular crime procedurals) room to breathe. We see how economic privilege affords opportunities for influence and control over stories of sexual assault and how race shapes fear, anxiety and fierce defensiveness in the recognition of deep-seated inequality–even amid upper class black families. We see how a singular narrative of masculinity and a narrow definition of male success disadvantages young women but also deeply limits young men.
As Matt Zoller Seitz suggests in his review, the show “is not escapism, it’s confrontation.” “American Crime” pushes its story in multiple directions to confront the palpable undercurrents of racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism that shape sexual violence into a single story.
But if “American Crime” reveals the dangers of a single story in refusing to tell one, it also does so in how it chooses to tell those stories. The superior directing throughout the series displaces our identification with the characters, dislocating the stories being told from the speaker telling the story. A nurse narrates the procedure for the rape kit taken from Taylor but the camera stays tight on his face. The nurse’s voice fades in and out as Taylor reels from the trauma of the rape and the invasive medical procedure. Late in the series, Eric, the accused rapist who himself is a victim of an assault and internalized homophobia (not that it excuses the rape), wonders who “gets to be the victim. . . Somebody screams rape and nobody cares what really happened. How does he get to own the night? How does he get to own me?” Again, the camera follows Taylor as Eric’s voice plays over the scene, fracturing both our attention and our sympathy.
The direction emphasizes the distance between what is being said and its effects on the lives it shapes, culminating in a fascinating eighth episode that frames the fictional school shooting with interviews with the real victims and survivors of school violence, bullying, homophobia, and transphobia. The interviews are jarring. In clumsier hands, they would be melodramatic, but in Ridley’s the testimonies only underline the violence of a single story.
What “American Crime” explores in the contained intimacy of a Midwestern community, its louder, campier counterpart is Ryan Murphy’s new anthology series “American Crime Story.” Here we explore the sprawling expanse of a burgeoning national 24-hour media cycle.
“American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson” opens with the schism between real events (the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the gruesome murders of two people) and the story built in the surrounding media circus.
“American Crime Story” feels disturbingly contemporary and the writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, draw clear parallels between the way racism, feminism, and celebrity shaped the trial and continue to shape our cultural landscape. Robert Kardashian (played by David Schwimmer) emerges at key moments to embody the moral conscience of the defense but also to remind us that we have the trial to thank for Kim Kardashian and her family’s reality TV empire.
Racism, feminism, and celebrity shaped the trial and continue to shape our cultural landscape
“American Crime Story” works in large part because OJ Simpson fades from the center of the story. The series instead focuses on the lawyers and the narrative construction of the crime inside and outside the courtroom (and the blurred boundaries between the two). “American Crime Story” humanizes the lawyers by showing their own purism – their faith in a single story of the events of that night (or, in the case of the defense, a larger political narrative) and its self-evidence to the jurors and the public. As Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) explains to his team, “Jurors go with the narrative that makes sense. We’re here to tell a story. Our job is to tell that story better than the prosecution tells theirs.”
One story wins out over the other. “American Crime Story” exploits its juridical framing to show how that story gets built, what it exploits and what it misses. Hindsight allows us to find satisfaction and pleasure in judging which stories stick.
But what both stories of American crime – one famous, both infamous – illustrate is how easy it is to fall into comfortable narratives. Without thinking through their consequences for how they shape the world around us, these easy narratives function as confirmation bias. In unraveling the singularity of these all-too-familiar narratives of violence, both “American Crime” and “American Crime Story” bring a more complex form of storytelling to the surface.
Adichie explains that it “is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power . . . How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”
Power is the ability to make that single story the definitive story. Storytelling has the capacity to sustain or undo its own limits. In showing us the strings, “American Crime” and “American Crime Story” show us our own limits and transcend theirs.
Katie Dyson is a PhD candidate in English at Loyola University Chicago. When she’s not teaching or working on her dissertation, she reads the internet.