Exploring Sexism in American Horror Story
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
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
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
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.
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