American Horror Story, empowered feminism, and the sins of the South.
The latest iteration of Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk’s shocking, disturbing, yet wildly entertaining American Horror Story has arrived. The third self-contained season, premiering the other week with the subtitle Coven, focuses on a sisterhood of persecuted witches, their bloody feud with a Voodoo priestess, and the long-buried sins of New Orleans, Louisiana — a sweaty melting pot of racism, debauchery, and despair. What’s immediately striking about this installment is its clear focus on feminine identity, power, and agency.
Murphy and Falchuk touched upon gender identity in both AHS ‘ original entry and last year’s follow-up Asylum, but with Coven, it has blatantly been placed front and centre. Questions of gender and sexuality are prevalent throughout the horror genre, which has largely been used as a vehicle to explore and exploit social anxiety. Coming to the fore as a reaction against the feminist movement and sexual revolution of the 1960s, horror films present visual manifestations of women being subjugated in all kinds of grotesque ways. Ever since, the genre has been obsessed with objectifying women. The male gaze of countless “slashers” (not to mention the voyeuristic audience) watches and devours the female form from a safe, unchallenged darkness. Those same, predominantly male, killers eventually penetrate their female prey without consent — stealing their lives, their voices, and punishing them for their awakened sexuality by stabbing them with sharp phallic objects in a kind of perverse sexual conquest. Invariably, the heroine who survives is the virgin, the woman who has stifled her sexuality and refused the phallic marking of man.
Coven inverts this power dynamic and plays upon an increasing expectation of female equality, if not female dominance. Masculinity has been subject to much debate the past decades, with some arguing that it has been effectively neutered by a levelling of gender roles. Whether due to the growing number of women emerging as primary bread-winners, or the increasingly urbanized, metrosexual (de-)evolution of traditional masculinity — the modern man is undergoing an identity crisis. On the contrary, with a post-feminist mindset, women are now comfortably asserting themselves in a public sphere where feminine qualities are proudly and emphatically celebrated. How is this being translated by Coven into an updated vision of horror? Here, it is the men who are punished — voiceless and victimized, by either their own uncontrollable lust or the whims of their female superiors. We’re introduced to men shackled in basements, mutilated to become the literal manifestations of their inwardly beastly nature. Men who do penetrate the female form are punished with death — either by the very act of sex itself, as is the case with Zoe’s (Taissa Farmiga) unintentional and later intentional victims, or by the vengeance of their own discarded victim, as with Emma Roberts’ Madison crashing a busload of frat-boy rapists. The two men who are allowed to exist within this female world are both mute — Denis O’Hare’s Spalding, having lost his tongue (another phallus with which men traditionally assert their agency), and Evan Peters’ Kyle, trapped within a foreign corpse — the former living in complete servitude of women, the latter entirely dependent upon them for aid. In the world of Coven, men are presented as slaves: voiceless, objectified, stripped of power, identity, or agency.
Of course, slavery itself is raised here as well. After a disgustingly heinous introduction, Kathy Bates’ Madame LaLaurie reappears in present day after being freed from immortal imprisonment, only to be made low and subservient to African-American witch Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe). As America’s original sin of slavery will not die and remain buried in the country’s past, similarly neither will Madame LaLaurie. As authority figure Fiona (Jessica Lange) attempts to hide LaLaurie and her grave history in plain sight at Miss Robideaux’s Academy, LaLaurie’s pungent stench and foreboding presence is always and unmistakably felt.
Meanwhile, Angela Bassett’s powerful Voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau, is revealed to be a descendant of Tituba — the slave girl of Salem and surrogate mother figure who spiritually birthed the race of irreverent, white, North American witches back in 1600s Massachusetts. Laveau, shown to maintain ancient practices, actually draws her power from slicing open snakes and consuming the venomous life-blood of the phallic reptiles. While there’s a clear, hateful division between the two races borne out of a long, pained history, both covens share an aversion to and exercise dominance over male society. It will be interesting to see where Murphy and Falchuk take the characters over the chaotic course of the season and whether their shared sisterhood of gender will unite them against a common enemy of man in order to keep their feminine power from being extinguished.
While each of the American Horror Story miniseries are doubtless enjoyed for their shocking thrills, sassy camp, and famously over-the-top performances, Murphy and Falchuk are knowingly mining the genre for all its worth and producing profound social commentary for the masses to consume — whether they do so consciously or not.