On this creepy, crawly, full-mooned, Friday the 13th, a photo of American Horror Story star Sarah Paulson’s new character for highly anticipated season 4 was leaked. In the upcoming season, entitled Freak Show, Paulson will be playing two-headed conjoined twins, Bette and Dot alongside a cast of other actors returning from the previous seasons.
When I first heard about American Horror Story, I was dubious about its representations of sexism, racism, and disability. Like many other critics have expressed, I was uncertain about my position as a feminist spectator because, at first glance, I was hooked. My first thought was, “hey, this is a female heavy cast, hell yeah.” Not to mention, most of the female characters, including the victims of the shows gruesome violence, are complex and developed. On the other hand, I could not help but notice how each season managed to walk a fine line between empowerment and exploitation. Can we consider this show feminist or, just another TV show using violence against women to drive the plot?
My answer is, it is “feminist-in-training,” and I will give you a couple reasons why.
1.) Dismantling White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy with Horror
I will begin by saying that, I feel as though the second season is the most successful season in terms of its subversiveness. One reason why I believe this spooky-ass show to be feminist, is because it explores real-life tropes, social issues, and historical moments while exploding them with absurdism. For example, season 2, Asylum, explores subjects like mental illness, abortion, homosexuality, white supremacy, religion, interracial relationships, and aliens (debatable theme). In the third season, Coven, we get racism, sexism, slavery, superstition, sexual assault, and so much more. These are very real aspects of life and history that are explored on other television shows, but not in the same horrifying, cultish way AHS executes it. This makes me think of John Waters’ films, which often explore themes like sexism and racism with the intention of revealing the absurdity of its existence, using nothing but the absurdity of its content to do so. Meaning, when we see sexism portrayed in a campy absurdist manner, it is simultaneously unveiling how absolutely idiotic and pointless this kind of behavior is. Using the genre of horror, American Horror Story attacks such issues in a similar manner, to expose the horrors bigotry, the brutality of patriarchy, and the eviiiiils of inequality.
2.) Females Take the Wheel
Along with the fact that the cast of AHS is predominantly all-women, the plot-lines cater to the wants, needs, and schemes of the female characters. Also, these female-driven plots are being driven, by strong women. For example, Lana from season 3, a lesbian investigative journalist goes under cover for the sake of her career. Not only is it quite rare that we see the narratives of horror films and television shows led by its female characters, but we also hardly see male characters led to their deserved demise by female characters. I don’t know about you, but I got pretty sick of watching underdeveloped female characters die off in every other show.
3.) Martyrdom Not Victimhood
There is no way you can watch AHS without questioning the constant violence against, well, everyone. Also, it is important to note that there is a fine line between depicting exploitation and objectification (which I feel the racial feud may in the third season) and using violence to emphasize the absurdity of violence itself. However, the female leads in every season never succumb to the kind of victimhood we all hate watching. When these characters are not fighting back, they are immediately planning their revenge. Death may loom in every corner or these horrifying realities, but the soul of relentless inner strength always prevails.
In no way is AHS perfect, and it has been rightfully critiqued for its flaws, but it is on the right track, for horror genre lovers, that is. Happy Friday the 13th!
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