Exploring Sexism in American Horror Story

A few of Season 3’s witchy women.

The horror genre has always functioned both as entertainment and social commentary. It often reflects not only our deep-seated fears, but our prejudices and misguided ideologies as well. This is especially true of the TV series American Horror Story, created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. AHS is full of over-the-top gore and suspense, and it manages to maintain an addictive quality throughout each season. Although the show is undoubtedly entertaining, it also promotes some troubling ideas. Many plotlines revolve around sexuality and the consequences of sexual misconduct, which is not inherently wrong. But combining this with the show’s problematic depictions of female characters results in misogynistic undertones throughout the entire series.

Season 1: Murder House

Murder House
The old Hollywood mansion (nicknamed “Murder House”) where Season 1 takes place/

Season 1 begins with a typical horror film set-up: Ben and Vivien Harmon and their daughter, Violet, move into an old Hollywood mansion. The Harmons moved from Boston to Los Angeles after Vivien gave birth to a stillborn baby and Ben proceeded to have an affair with one of his students, Hayden McClaine. The mansion was sold for an oddly low price, a circumstance that instantly raises any horror fan’s suspicions, and it is revealed that over 20 violent deaths have taken place within its walls, earning it the title of “Murder House.” Classic tropes of the genre play out, such as the gradual discovery of the house’s creepy and gruesome history. The family deals with the presence of many vengeful ghosts, like the gay couple who had lived there previously and died in a murder suicide, and Tate Langdon, who masquerades as a human and begins a romantic relationship with Violet. Every character faces some form of troubling conflict, yet in AHS, these conflicts take on a gendered quality. Perhaps most striking is the first event that “marked” the mansion: abortion.

Dr. Charles Montgomery and wife, Nora, were the mansion’s original owners. Disappointed with her alcoholic husband’s dismal financial state, Nora desperately concocts a plan to make money: persuade Charles to perform illegal abortions for young, needy actresses. When one of the girls tells her boyfriend why she went to see Charles, he becomes enraged and goes on to kidnap and murder the Montgomery’s infant son, Thaddeus, as an act of revenge. Dr. Montgomery attempts to bring Thaddeus back to life, and in the process, creates some sort of evil, inhuman being, the first of many to haunt the house.

Unwanted pregnancy plagues the modern-day characters as well. After Ben Harmon moves to California and thinks that he’s left Hayden behind forever, she contacts him to let him know that she’s pregnant with his baby. She initially decides to get an abortion, acting rationally and handling the situation the way she best sees fit. But she changes her mind, opting instead to go through with the pregnancy. After this shift, she begins acting like a hysterical, stereotypical “crazy ex-girlfriend” who Ben cannot shake. She becomes obsessed with Ben, trying fruitlessly to persuade him to leave Vivien and be with her instead, and eventually threatens to reveal her pregnancy to Vivien. She is subsequently murdered by Larry, a former resident who lurks around the house. She then haunts the Harmons, and upon realizing that Vivien is pregnant with twins, Hayden and the other female ghosts attempt to drive Vivien insane so that they can have her babies.

This narrative seems to suggest that abortion is the ultimate sin, and that people who choose an abortion are careless and heartless, committing an inherently evil act. The awful portrayal of Hayden implies that women who consider abortion are misguided and perhaps unbalanced. Hayden’s character also paints women as “baby crazy,” a stereotype that comes across as cringe-worthy in AHS as the various female ghosts fight for control of Vivien’s unborn children. The negative depiction of women struggling with unwanted pregnancy in general supports the idea that women stuck in this position deserve the hardships that they face, or that they should be punished in some way. Abortion and pregnancy itself are very personal and emotional matters for many women, yet AHS grossly mishandles these subjects.

Season 2: Asylum

Lana Winters
Lana Winters begins her investigation of Briarcliff.

Season 2 starts with another familiar scene to horror fans: this time, it’s an asylum run by nuns, Briarcliff Mental Institution. Set in Massachusetts in 1962, this season is centered on protagonist Lana Winters, a journalist whose troubles nearly all seem to be linked to the fact that she’s a lesbian and a career woman. Lana is introduced as an ambitious professional who is attempting to expose Briarcliff’s mistreatments of its patients. This angers Sister Jude, a stern nun who oversees Briarcliff. She blackmails Lana’s girlfriend into having her committed to Briarcliff as an act of revenge, where they “treat” her homosexuality with aversion therapy.

Other female characters appear complex at first, but a closer look reveals that they are all written to embody sexist stereotypes. For example, Sister Mary Eunice is an innocent, prudish nun who can only become sexually liberated after being possessed by the devil, and Shelley, a patient who openly discusses sex, is diagnosed as a nymphomaniac and suffers abuse directly connected to her expression of female sexuality. However, the most troubling aspect of the season lies in the gratuitous amounts of rape that occur, not all of which are remotely necessary to move the plot along.

The level of brutal violence directly aimed at women becomes quite unsettling as the season progresses. The list of such instances would be a long, difficult read, but two in particular stick out. Dr. Oliver Thredson, a psychiatrist at Briarcliff who turns out to be the serial killer “Bloodyface,” pretends to help Lana when she first arrives at Briarcliff, presenting her with an opportunity to escape. But upon arriving at his home, his true intentions are revealed: he plans to hold her hostage as the mother figure he never had. He eventually rapes Lana and also reveals that he raped the corpse of her girlfriend, Wendy, after murdering her. This information is extremely unsettling and graphic. In a flash-forward to present-day events, Dr. Thredson’s son Johnny, the product of that rape, murders a sex worker after paying her to spend an evening with him. This event plays on the age-old idea that sex workers deserve to face harsh consequences for engaging in their line of work, and that they are worth less because of their profession.

The rapists portrayed in Season 2 imply that only the obviously mentally-ill are the ones instigating rape. This stigmatizes the mentally-ill and excuses those who appear stable. But in reality, the perpetrators are often those who seem to be trustworthy individuals. By promoting the idea that only those who are mentally-ill cause rape, AHS ignores the true accounts of many instances of rape where the rapist was someone the victim was close to and who lived an otherwise normal life. The rape scenes in AHS do not acknowledge the truth that rape is often caused by people who are sane, but believe they are entitled to another’s body and thus commit a violent crime. Once again, AHS misrepresented a traumatizing event that affects many women.

Season 3: Coven

The students of Madame Robichaux’s Academy.

With a largely female cast and many characters that initially had strong potential, those running the show could have redeemed themselves in AHS’s third season. However, they still manage to come up short. The issue of sexism crops up many times throughout the season.

This season is set in New Orleans at Madam Robichaux’s Academy, a school for witchcraft. The women residing here are generally written to come across as superficial. Fiona Goode, who holds the title of Supreme Witch and has great influence over the girls at the school, is enraged because she is visibly aging. She feels her strength and beauty fading as the younger witches gain power. She is still the most powerful witch of her generation, yet it seems that her sole objective is to remain perpetually young and beautiful. Despite her extreme power and skill, she is still distraught by her wrinkles and is on a quest for eternal youth. She plans to achieve this by obtaining an immortality elixir. Fiona is portrayed as vain, and her conflict reinforces the idea that a woman’s worth declines with the loss of her youthful looks, and that no matter what, women are always preoccupied with their physical beauty. AHS puts forth the message that it does not matter how strong, intelligent, or powerful a woman is, because her physical beauty will always be more important than these qualities.

Female sexuality is also depicted in a problematic fashion. Zoe, the first witch that the audience is introduced to, possesses the odd power of giving every man she has sex with a brain aneurysm, regardless of whether the sex is consensual or not. This weaponizes female sexuality, marking it as dangerous. Sex is turned into something horrific and deadly, and the blame for that is placed on Zoe. When she makes the conscious decision to lose her virginity to her boyfriend, she is subsequently “punished” for taking control of her sexuality by accidentally murdering him with her previously undiscovered power. Zoe’s character seems to function as a way to promote the idea that women should suffer negative consequences for choosing to engage in sexual activity. The idea that female sexuality is inherently wrong and that women should not be sexual beings is outdated and sexist to the core.

Clearly, AHS has tackled many issues that women face, from abortion to body image. But whenever they have had the opportunity to tackle one of these themes in a realistic way that helps the viewer to understand the unique challenges that women struggle with, they revert to stereotypical, sexist story lines instead. Even as a fan of AHS, I can’t ignore that the show perpetuates misogynistic ideas. Now that the theme for Season 4: Freak Show, has been announced, I wonder what the writers will bring to the table this time. Despite the show’s sexist undertones, I do plan to keep watching, if only to see how issues such as rape, abortion, and female sexuality are handled in the upcoming season. Hopefully, Murphy and Falchuk have learned from much of the criticism surrounding their depictions of women, and viewers can be treated to realistic female characters in future episodes.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Kenneth Schreiber

    LOVED Season 1 because it was the beginning of the quirky style of horror AHS has (weird camera angels and editing), Asylum was trrrrrippy and for the most quite bleak, but good! (That old doctor dude was one of my fave character next to Pepper) and Coven was good at times and significantly more light-hearted than it’s predecessor, but ultimately fell apart and got too jumbled near the end for me. (my humble opinion).

  2. Mazie Huynh

    I tbh loved Coven and it’s my favourite season yet. I loved the set and the fashion was amazing. The cast is solid imo and I love all the characters. Some scenes just did not make any sense but I still enjoyed it. What i got is that every on e would have wanted it to be darker and more horror? I don’t mind that it wasn’t so horrifying as previous seasons and I liked the easiness of the whole season.

    • Chaffin

      I loved it. I thought it fell a little short of the premiere and what we were told we could expect. Kathy Bates playing LaLaurie in Bitchcraft was exactly what I prayed for and being under the impression that she would start as Lange’s best friend, only to become her worst enemy was a storyline fit for an amazing season; but it never came to fruition. Instead, Bates became a source of comic relief and that said, she was one of my (if not the) favourite parts of Coven, but she was not executed the way we were told she would be and that disappointed me.

      Frances Conroy was third billed, but was absent for episodes on end but she was still a bright spot. And Lily Rabe…where to start? ONE scene in the premiere and only appeared in about half the season. Once again, she made the most of her character and once again, became a favourite. I thought Misty’s demise was disgraceful and brilliant. There was no sympathy from the writers, no comfort for such a likeable character. She was killed off- 13 minutes into the episode. I hate that scene in terms of it being Misty’s last and her not getting to be a main part of the episode; but it’s also one of my favourite acting moments from Sarah Paulson. Which brings me to her…

      There was no way Lana Winters could be topped and they knew that- but they could have tried. We were promised that Cordelia’s acid attack would cause her to turn to the dark side. That never happened. She got first billing but I would say the finale was the only episode that showcased her as the lead actress (joint with Jessica).

      In terms of story, Coven fell short of what it set itself up to do and I wish it hadn’t. That said, it’s probably my favourite cast the show has had for a season and the acting was absolutely superb again. But it was a great season and had fantastic moments. The overall tone just felt manic and unsettled from episode to episode.

    • I enjoyed it but I felt robbed of screentime for Lily Rabe and Frances Conroy. They were streets above the rest of the cast, along with Danny Huston and the guy playing Papa.

    • Technically I enjoy Coven the problem is that the end is disappointing. Things that make no sense, some boring performances and characters that had potential but never reached that potential.
      Thank God for Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett and Gabourey Sidibe.

    • Dara Rouse

      I loved Coven as well but in a different way than I love Murder house & asylum. Just because it’s very different from those two doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s a totally different style. I loved the design of Coven the most, the sets, editing, camera work, lighting and direction was phenomenal

  3. If the fourth season will be anything like Coven then I fear for this show. I’m a hardcore AHS fan I’d say. This truly was my favorite show. I loved it. I tried to get all my friends to watch it so they could experience how great it is… That was until Coven. It almost made me ashamed to like say that the show was one of my favorites. Now when I reccomend it to friends I make sure to mention they should skip Coven. It was just truly bad. I never experienced this with the first 2 seasons and they weren’t perfect either. There was just something Coven lacked, besides good writing. Season 4 needs to bring back the old-school horror tropes of Murder House and the darkness of Asylum. Bring back my favorite show!

    • Jane Harkness

      True, even though the show had its problems in Seasons 1 and 2, I legitimately enjoyed both of them, but Coven was tough to get through. I’m really hoping that Season 4 brings something better to the table!

    • I agree with you. I felt ashamed of being AHS fan when I saw Coven. It was like watching a teenager show of MTV. I’m always telling my friends they’ve should skip Coven.

      But yeah, they need to bring back the horror of first 2 seasons. They were so great. If Freakshow has the tone of Coven, I’m affraid I will not watch AHS again…

    • Feeling Pei

      I will not be watching it. Coven was a waste of my time. Every episode I thought was going to be better & it wasn’t. What killed it for me from the beginning was the menotaur. When they send the head to Angela Basett & it was so small I couldn’t believe that the creator of this show made us think that it was the menotaur. How could they do that to us? Do they think we r stupid?

  4. I love this show so much!!!!

  5. Preston Micalizio

    I’m glad you wrote this article, and I found myself agreeing with pretty much everything you wrote about here while watching the show. I love the show for the type of stories it’s trying to tell, but definitely feel unsettled by its continued negative portrayal of female sexuality and other problematic issues.

  6. Jemarc Axinto

    I have not given AHS a chance and it never really interested me. After reading about the sexism, do you think it is a worthwhile show to watch?

    • Jane Harkness

      I’m a huge fan of the horror genre, so personally I still enjoyed the show despite some of the problematic aspects. As long as you’re not too turned off by gore, it’s a pretty entertaining series.

  7. Heide Foret

    The first 2 seasons were so great, but coven was so substandard. I really hope this 4th season is a return to form without all the cheesiness and undercutting of what should have been main plot points.

  8. CrabTree

    I enjoyed Coven the most of the 3 seasons. They just seemed to fully embrace what kind of a show they really are. Sure it had problems, but all the seasons have had problems, and the show still hasn’t quite hit its full potential in my eyes. American Horror Story has always been more about shock value than making sense, so I guess I kinda liked that Coven decided to just have fun.

    If anything, Freak Show sounds like it will follow that route, which I don’t mind. It fits AHS perfectly

  9. Season 1 is still the best!

  10. I think this article points out some important and often over-looked aspects to AHS, including what really made me stop watching after season 2 with the “gratuitous” rape scenes. I don’t know if these depictions necessarily mean that the writers, producers, and actors align with sexist and misogynistic notions or if they are meant to be picked at and critiqued by viewers. I just find the show unsatisfying in other ways as well; the characters tend to be a little under-developed in my opinion and the each episode’s plot hinges more on the viewer’s sensational thrill than anything else.

  11. I like AHS and will keep watching, but there are two things which keeps bothering me about the show: Except for Jessica Lange’s character, everybody gets a happy ending even if it is in the afterlife. And the other thing is that they always start with something creepy that eventually is of no consequence to the story or plays a short part: The minotaur, the alien abductions, and Anne Frank’s mini arc. And bring back the sexy redhead as a main character!

  12. Helen Parshall

    Thank you for nailing exactly what I hadn’t been able to put my finger on about what has been bothering me as I’ve tried to watch American Horror Story. Excellent piece!

  13. I disagree. While AHS is difficult to watch at times because of the rapes, the tortures, the racism, the violence and the horror, my roommate and I loved watching it for the empowerment it gave to women. Every strong character is a female, every female character is strong. This completely breaks the norms of our current movie, tv, and even book formula. Usually a woman character is defined by her relationship to the men in her life. Commonly she begins the movie without a boyfriend, gets a makeover or undergoes some type of transformation and scores the boyfriend and the movie ends with her happier. This is telling us that women need to cater themselves to men and that they can only be happy with a man at their side. AHS rebels against this. It develops complex women characters who are powerful in their evils and sins and simultaneously in their wit and compassion. Too often are women represented as one-dimensional easily consumable objects. In contrast AHS relies on a female driven cast and storyline.

    • Jane Harkness

      You definitely bring up some good points that I overlooked in my article. One of the refreshing aspects of AHS was the fact that many female character’s did not have story lines that revolved around “getting a guy,” which many other TV shows rely on. I also agree with you that they were definitely not “easily consumable” and had many flaws, and were often downright evil, which could challenge audience perceptions of femininity. They were also some notable women who possessed admirable inner strength and overcame huge obstacles, such as Lana in Asylum. Thanks for your feedback!

    • Raag.Be

      I agree with you but I still find the article fitting. Even though the show has numerous strong female characters, their potential of being truly strong and independent leads is never entirely fulfilled. I do not believe that the show should be criticized on the basis of having weak characters or being sexist as it does seem to have its intentions set on the right path. But as a show that tried to promote itself as a hub for tackling issues like race, sex and disabilities, it does end up with characters that can often be said to be superficially strong as they never gracefully rise above their issues and this is what this article does a good job of pointing out. Even in Coven, which is centered around these powerful witches ends up being reality show filled with petty issues like jealousy, outer beauty; instead of resolving those issues and rising up in times of peril, they end up killing everyone till only the relatively more “rational” characters remain. While the roles that the characters fill shout- ‘strong, independent women’, the story line and their actions do not end up justifying this assumption.

    • I would also have to disagree. The three seasons of this show so far have all tread on very shaky ground, delving into the deeper modern and past moral debates of the twentieth century. I think most of these stereotypes depicting women were necessary to tell the story, meaning that in each circumstance these women are historically acting as they would have in the time period the show is set (adding to the horrific effects, because we don’t see some of these examples too often anymore). In the first season, the abortion situation seemed to be backed by historical roots (Many struggling actresses were said to have done things like that). With the rape scenes throughout the series, I feel that, while it is sometimes hard to watch, the mentally-ill make prime antagonists for these acts to take place, because it is much more horrifying to see someone who is unstable overpower someone than a close friend.
      In short, I understand where your ideas are coming from, but I think that, because this is a horror show, and most of these depictions of women are used for horrific effect paired with historical perspectives for certain time periods, it isn’t really an enforcer of sexism, but more closely a survey of how ideals of the twentieth century have changed, and in the show’s case, the writers seem to have maximized past stereotypes to reinforce the show’s unsettling factors. From a more shallow perspective, without the roles of women as they are even, the show would lack multiple levels of complexity that allow it to be scary and unnerving.

  14. Amanda Dominguez-Chio

    I began watching American Horror Story after a classmate of mine recommended the show. For me, the first season of American Horror Story was well-done; however, season 2 felt convoluted with its storyline. The first episode of season 2 offered many interesting plotlines, but the narrative fell flat; lacking any central focus. The start of season 3 was promising, yet the story lacked focus. At one point, the character try to discover who is killing the witches, then the narrative focuses its attention on finding the next Supreme.

    Reading this article was fascinating. One of the problems I find with Ryan Murphy as a writer and show-runner is that he depends too much on stereotypes. Rather than portray characters with complex characteristics, he relies too much on characters saying witty remarks and zingers that often come off as stand-offish. I agree with Jane Harkness’s argument about the rape that occurs in Season 2 that does not have anything to do with the plot. With Season 3 of American Horror Story, Harkness argues that Fiona’s vanity reveals that women are obsessed with youth. Ryan Murphy and Co.’s method of operation lacks in originality.

  15. A thought provoking take on AHS. I would agree that the characters- male and female- are generally underdeveloped. Fingers crossed for season 4!

  16. Death Zebra

    “In a flash-forward to present-day events, Dr. Thredson’s son Johnny, the product of that rape, murders a sex worker after paying her to spend an evening with him. This event plays on the age-old idea that sex workers deserve to face harsh consequences for engaging in their line of work and that they are worth less because of their profession.”

    How? What is it in that episode that implies that the sex worker deserved what happened to her?

    “But in reality, the perpetrators are often those who seem to be trustworthy individuals.”

    Like Dr. Thredson?

  17. Emily Deibler

    I loved Coven because of the many anti-heroines, but it definitely had its issues. Good work on exploring sexism in all the seasons. I’ve tried slogging through other AHS seasons, but find myself with less enthusiasm.

  18. I have to say, I disagree with all of your arguments here.
    In Murder House, I did not at all feel as though the show was implying that abortion was a sin. In terms of Charles Montgomery and his wife Nora, he was performing abortions at a time when they were illegal. That is how they were profiting from performing these abortions. That in no way connects to Hayden deciding not to get an abortion because its immoral. In order for her to become so obsessive, its because she was his mistress and became overly attached (she obviously has some mental issues) and decided not to get an abortion as a way to draw him back to her. She gained leverage by keeping her baby. The ghosts of the house want Vivien’s babies because several of them did not have the chance before and want to take advantage of this one; i.e. the gay couple, Nora, and so on. Also the fact that the baby was part Devil was an attraction for them.
    In terms of Asylum, Sister Eunice is not a stereotype, she is a nun, which means she is abstaining from sex, not simply being prudish, and she is married to God. Dr. Thedson raping Lana was a very important plot point in the season, as it resulted in Bloodyface. Bloodyface murdering a sex worker doesn’t mean that sex workers deserve rape, he kills her after drinking her breast milk because for him she is a symbol of his mother, who he is angry towards because he feels she abandoned him. Also, the season doesn’t imply that the mentally ill are the ones raping everyone and that it doesn’t happen outside of Briarcliff, the show is centered almost exclusively on the asylum, with brief moments of exterior shots in between. The show simply isn’t set outside the asylum so how could they randomly show someone being raped in a way that isn’t connected to mental illness.
    In Coven, In terms of Fiona’s obsession with age, she is shown in flashbacks to be just as vain as she is currently. She obsesses over her age because getting older means she’ll soon be replaced as the Supreme by one of the younger girls. Her power is literally linked to her aging. As far as Zoe goes, she is not the one who really suffers when she has sex, it’s the guy she’s with that ultimately dies. It doesn’t mean that she can’t be sexual, and in fact she uses it to kill someone she wants dead.

  19. I have to agree with all of the points you have made, I think that the author of this article has taken the themes presented in the text far too literally rather than looking below the surface to find out what they truly represent. This to me seems to be a very base level analysis and has had little thought put into it.

  20. I was uncomfortable when i watched AHS, but I haven’t know the reason. Now i realise that feeling. You make my head clear. Thank U.

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