By Francesca Lewis
To say that American Horror Story (AHS) is controversial is a laughable understatement. When I discovered the show – an early fan, I was on board from episode 1:1 – I thought to myself, “This will never be popular, never break the mainstream – too freaky/shocking/ambiguous.” I was pleasantly surprised to see the fan base grow in season two, but still, it was a show that weirdos (like me) were into. However, what I could not have predicted (though I certainly hoped for it) is the revival of feminism, which rushed back into the popular consciousness last year, its bright, beautiful rays of enlightenment lighting up almost every corner of the internet. When the showrunners announced that the third season of AHS would have an entirely female core cast, “a feminist theme throughout” and a focus on witchcraft, the feminist blogosphere – now more accurately called Pretty Much The Entire Internet – lit up with AHS: Coven hype.
However, the millions of viewers were not prepared for what they saw. While some took to Tumblr after the première to post gifs of Jessica Lange drunkenly dancing in a black lace negligée, many an outraged blog post was also written. Still, since the show passed the Bechdel test with flying colors and had the rare distinction of featuring Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates and Frances Conroy, the feminists kept on watching.
Anne Helen Petersen of L.A. Review of Books wrote in her essay “The Exquisite Repulsion of American Horror Story: An Essay on Abjection,” that “American Horror Story treads the knife-edge between feminism and misogyny.” Such is the curse of anything worth watching in the horror genre. You have to show oppression, brutality and misogyny if you want to comment upon it. It is how artfully, cleverly and respectfully one treads that knife-edge that matters. So without further ado, let us look at ways in which AHS: Coven conforms to misogynistic tropes and the ways it attempts to challenge them.
Just how well do they tread that knife-edge?
1. Vagina Dentata
This is the oldest one in the book, quite literally, if that book is the bible. For thousands of years, women’s sexuality has been demonized and controlled by The Patriarchy. The horror genre has put this issue front and center, mostly relying upon the tired “woman have sex, woman bad, woman die” trope. Another more specific and primal trope, however, made more fascinating by the abject horror it inspires, is vagina dentata. A folk myth that has endured into the modern day, it refers to toothed female genitalia, and shows up in Maori, Japanese, Norwegian, African and Native American mythology, not to mention a number of popular science fiction movies (I’m looking at you, sarlacc demon). Obviously the result of male castration anxiety, the trope has been invoked in recent years, most famously in the movie Teeth, as a feminist tool to punish evil men.
AHS: Coven conforms to this trope by giving the seemingly young and innocent Zoe a magical witchy cooch that will kill you to death. While she may not have teeth down there, something about penetrative sex with her makes boys go bye-bye. Having been revealed early in the first episode, this was one of the biggest bones of contention circling the internet after the première aired. If this was a feminist show, why was the seeming protagonist the very embodiment of one of the greatest myths of the monstrous feminine – the deadly, all-consuming vagina? And why was she using it to rape a rapist?
However, AHS: Coven challenges this trope by refusing to let Zoe’s killer vag’ define her. In fact, since the first episode, it has literally never been mentioned again. Zoe has gone from strength to strength, showing herself to be intelligent, resilient, nurturing and resourceful. She also has a range of new powers, including the ability to summon really powerful spells from nowhere. Hell, she may just be the next Supreme. This is certainly not what we expect from a character who has been set up to be an all-consuming man-eater. It’s almost as if they are making some kind of a point about the unfair demonization of female sexuality…
2. Vain Sorceress
You only have to look at any product or publication aimed at women to see that the idea that beauty is the cornerstone of femininity is all-pervading and poisonous. Every public figure who happens to be female is judged upon her apparent possession or lack of this most coveted quality, even if her fame is completely unrelated to her looks. One especially toxic part of the insanely strict and unfair beauty standard imposed upon women is the idea that youth equals beauty. Age is seen as the antithesis of attractiveness and if your age is showing, you are not beautiful. In countless fairytales, the vain sorceress character imprisons, poisons and otherwise messes with some unsuspecting youthful beauty in order to steal her priceless prettiness for herself.
AHS: Coven conforms to this trope with Fiona Goode’s vanity. She may be the Supreme of the coven and brimming with power and talent and sass and, y’know, insane hotness, but sadly, she is also aging, a fate worse than death as far as she is concerned. She will cheat and lie and kill, just to slow, stop or reverse the inevitable process. Many feminist viewers felt that Fiona’s impressive power was somewhat undermined by this tragic flaw, which seemed to pander to popular notions about beauty and age.
However, AHS: Coven challenges this trope by exploring many of the reasons behind Fiona’s seeming vanity. As a young woman, she was sexualized by men around her, including Spalding, who cut out his own tongue rather than betray her. She learned at an early age that men’s desire of her was a useful, helpful tool, one that could help her get what she wanted. We also see that Fiona’s fear of aging has much more to do with her waning powers than being afraid of a few wrinkles. She does not want to give up her crown and be replaced by the next generation of powerful witches. Ultimately, as Fiona begins to lose her fight against cancer, we find that what she fears most is dying alone.
3. Rape Culture & Slut Shaming
Rape culture – that is to say, the tendency to normalize, excuse, tolerate and condone rape – is everywhere, and has been for a very long time. One of the key successes of 2013’s resurgence in feminist thought was that it highlighted just how pervasive and harmful this attitude had become. It also linked rape culture to the idea of slut shaming – which can be defined broadly as making someone feel guilty for deviating from traditional gender roles by wearing provocative clothing or enjoying their sexuality.
AHS: Coven conforms to this trope by its arguably problematic depiction of rape. In perhaps the most shocking scene of the première, Madison, the resident Lohan-alike, is gang raped at a party. She is dressed in a silky, slinky dress and glitter high heels, she is displaying a rude sense of entitlement and she is drinking. The boys drug and rape her, filming it all in a very on-the-nose reference to the extremely recent Steubenville incident. Feminist viewers were outraged, calling the scene gratuitous and needlessly graphic, while also pointing to the slut shaming implications of having a sexy, aggressive and drunk woman be raped.
However, AHS: Coven challenges this trope by not glamorizing Madison’s rape. Alison Herman said, in her Flavorwire article “American Horror Story Finally Perfects Its Twisted Brand of Feminism in Coven” that “writing female characters into situations where they’re brutalized isn’t sexist in and of itself; it’s often an opportunity to comment on the systems that brutalize them.” This is not always easy to remember when confronted with a repulsive, sensory overload scene like this. It feels like they should have been more sensitive, should have shown less, made us feel less. Yet, if the scene were less graphic, wouldn’t it then feel voyeuristic and glamorizing?
4. Male Gaze
First discussed by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the concept of the male gaze suggests that, since films are created for and by the heterosexual male (remember, this was the ’70s) we tend to see them from a male perspective. Therefore, the female characters in a film are sexualized and objectified, in order to appeal to the audience. Unfortunately, despite the fact that almost forty years have passed since Mulvey wrote her essay, the media – movies, advertising, television – is still dominated by the male gaze.
AHS: Coven conforms to this trope with the very different ways that Madison and Queenie are portrayed. Madison, a former movie star, is blonde and thin and wears expensive, flattering outfits. Queenie, a former Chicken Shack manager, is black and fat and wears cheap, unflattering outfits. Of course, to anyone with a brain, being black or fat is not inherently unattractive and tight clothing on a fat body is not inherently unflattering, but by objectifying Madison and abjectifying (devaluing that which is not pleasing to the male gaze) Queenie, the show conforms to the misogynistic rulebook of the male gaze.
However, AHS: Coven challenges this trope lampshading it. When Spalding steals Madison’s corpse in order to add to his collection of dolls, the message is clear – women are not objects, no matter how much you may want them to be, and no matter how pure your intentions. As Madison’s body begins to rot and stink and be super, super gross, the point is further driven home – she is not a doll, you fool, she’s human, like you. When Queenie offers herself up to the minotaur, it is also being somewhat less subtly implied that seeing her as an unlovable monster is an unfair assumption, and while this is not entirely successful and in some ways problematic from a racial insensitivity stand point, it does appear to be a genuine attempt to address the issue. It is also worth pointing out that, while the show’s attention to style and fashion could be mistaken for the male gaze, horny dudes don’t care much for billowy black dresses and statement hats.
5. Mommy Issues
Feminism has a long-standing feud with Freud, particularly in regard to his concept of the Oedipus complex. The actual details of Oedipal desire are way more complex than can be adequately described here and, like many other complicated theories, have been reduced down and misinterpreted in the popular consciousness into something that barely resembles them. What we tend to think of now, when we think of Freud and his Oedipus complex, is sexual tension/conduct between mother and son – whether implied or actual. The idea of a mother-son Oedipal relationship has invaded popular culture – from myth, to literature, to modern-day television and it has certainly been present in every season of American Horror Story.
AHS: Coven conforms to this trope with its endless parade of bad, bad, horrible mothers. Zoe’s mother sends her away to witch school at the first sign of trouble, Cordelia’s mother is Fiona (need I say more?), Madame La Laurie mistreats her daughters terribly and the only two young males, Kyle and Luke, are both severely abused by their mothers. In fact, AHS has a bad track record when it comes to blaming mothers for their son’s actions – who can forget serial killer Bloody Face’s murderous son and his penchant for hooker’s breast milk. Since motherhood is so emblematic of femininity, especially in the collective patriarchal hive mind, American Horror Story‘s obsession with equating motherhood to horror has some real anti-woman implications.
However, AHS: Coven challenges this trope by not allowing characters to use their mommy issues to excuse bad behaviour. Unlike iconic pop culture figures such as Norman Bates, the two young men of AHS: Coven are kind, honest and self-sacrificing. Both Luke and Kyle could easily have been used as yet another example of “mommy made me do it” misogyny. The fact that they are both so nice cannot be overlooked because the Freudian Excuse trope is so ubiquitous in our culture that going against it has to be a deliberate and meaningful decision.
It is very easy to read AHS: Coven as a thoughtless, careless and disrespectful romp through the fevered imagination of the patriarchal male. However, to do so is to forget what the horror genre is all about. People watch scary things to be confronted with the shocking, grotesque and terrifying aspects of both society and themselves. A horror narrative that takes place in a politically correct utopia wouldn’t be very cathartic.
Whether AHS: Coven is feminist or not is hard to answer – but it is certainly intended to be and it is certainly raising feminist questions. In her fascinating post, “Exploring Bodily Autonomy on American Horror Story: Coven,” BitchFlicks guest blogger Gaayathri Nair stated that “a pro-woman intention has tangled with the male gaze to create a product that both supports and subverts misogyny and is as objectifying as it is empowering.” She may be right, since the show is definitely somewhat clouded by the male gaze and constrained by the tropes of its genre, but it does make some real attempts to subvert and critique the tropes it relies upon. Have the human experiences of the showrunners created a tension between intent and product? Maybe – and that is completely natural. Have the showrunners tried to address this in their pursuit of what they truly think is a feminist message? Yes, I believe they have.