This Program is Rated TVMASLV: How the Scariest Thing About 'American Horror Story' Is Its Reinforcement of Harmful Representations of Race, Gender, and Sexuality

Originally written in 2014.

The world of horror is a complex place. Full of grotesque violence, complicated depictions of female characters, and an almost archaic stance on sexual activity (if you even have sex, by horror movie logic, that typically means you deserve to be murdered), it’s a place rife with opportunities for politically problematic situations. And American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s FX anthology series, is no exception. It is in fact a prime example of how horror can lend itself to problematic politics. A show that almost seems to revel in bringing in stereotypes and potentially offensive representations of race, gender, and sexuality, it is often so overt in these stereotypes and depictions that it seems the showrunners have to be trying to make some kind of subversive, ironic statement. However, in my opinion, any potential subversiveness does not work. American Horror Story plays with stereotypes in such a heavy-handed manner–and with such a mocking tone–that all it truly ends up doing is reinforcing negative representations of gender (namely, women), race (in particular, African-Americans), and sexuality (across the spectrum). 

Before I delve into explaining just how American Horror Story is so problematic in terms of representation, I should note the importance of intersectionality. Intersectionality, loosely defined, is essentially the idea that no aspect of a person’s identity is any more important than another and that each informs the other. So, someone’s race is not more important than their class, nor does it operate separately from their class, and so on. Michael J. Lee and Leigh Moscowitz discuss this concept at length in their piece, in relation to the women of The Real Housewives of New York City–in particular, how the behavior of those women often goes against the conventional norms of their upper-classness and how their class and gender intersect in sometimes contradictory ways (Lee). It is a framing I intend to use to discuss the problematic characters and narratives across the four seasons ofAmerican Horror Story.

Problem Women

The first of the three identity categories that American Horror Story addresses in problematic ways is gender and, more specifically, being female.

In all of the first three seasons of American Horror Story, the female characters, almost across the board, had something “wrong” about them in terms of their “womanhood.” In the first season, Murder House, there was Vivian, who was isolated and frigid. These traits were brought on by her experience of a stillborn birth, something that quite literally called into question her very “womanness,” and the subsequent affair of her husband with one of his students. There was also Moira, who, when viewed by women appeared as a shriveled old maid, but when viewed by men, took the shape of a hypersexualized young woman in a maid’s uniform. In season two, Asylum, each of the main woman institutionalized in Briarcliff Manor was deemed “deviant” in some way: Grace was a murderer (of her sexual abuser, we learned midway through the season); Shelley, a nymphomaniac; and Lana, a lesbian. Finally, several of the women in American Horror Story’s season three,Coven, were nothing short of flat-out stereotypes: Zoe’s main magical power was literally a killer vagina, while Madison was the epitome of a young, blonde, impossibly rude socialite.

These problematic depictions also demonstrate the concept of intersectionality, in that each of these women is white. In Madison’s case in particular, this is important to how her character is constructed: rare is it that we see a character of her same vapidity and conceit who is anything other than a young white girl. However, the problematic intersection of gender, race, and class–as well as the added factor of age–is never more evident in this series than in the characters portrayed by Jessica Lange each season. 

In Murder House, Lange played Constance Langdon, a Southern belle–who in her very first scene smugly proclaims she is, “Proud Virginian, the old dominion, born and bred” (“Pilot”)–and failed actress. In Asylum, she was Sister Jude, a former boozy lounge singer and promiscuous woman, who joined the church several days after a hit-and-run, where she presumably killed a young girl. Her Coven character was Fiona Goode, the coven Supreme (high witch), who was dying from cancer, losing her powers, and desperately seeking the secret to eternal youth. And now, inAmerican Horror Story’s fourth season, Freak Show, she plays Elsa Mars, a fame-obsessed German woman running one of the last freak shows in America, who is secretly physically disabled herself. 

Each of these Lange characters have several things in common, in terms of intersectionality. They are all older white women, who have either never been as high-class as they would like to be (Sister Jude, Elsa) or have lost or are in the process of losing their former status (Constance, Fiona) because they are growing older. They are also collectively extremely horrible people: Constance and Fiona are murderers, Sister Jude is a criminal and downright sadistic in her treatment of Briarcliff’s patients, and Elsa is a complete hypocrite. 

It’s that last similarity that makes these characters especially problematic. With each of them, race and sexuality are less of an issue than other characters within the show’s seasons. But, by making all of Lange’s characters truly insufferable human beings, the showrunners are exaggerating a cliched portrayal of women: specifically, the politically incorrect, rude old woman. Every season, the writers do try to humanize Lange’s characters in some way, but because none of them are ever sincerely repentant for the terrible things they have done, they never truly break out of the stereotype.

So, now I will move on to the second identity category which American Horror Storyconsistently handles problematically: race.

Fried Chicken, Voodoo, and Racism

In my opinion, race is an identity category that American Horror Story handles even more problematically than gender. Almost every season of the show has in some way dealt with complicated racial stereotypes or else handled characters of color–in particular, African-American characters–and race relations in harmful ways. 

Least of the evils in terms of seasons are Murder House and Freak Show, which are superior to Asylum and Coven only because, rather than dealing with race problematically, these seasons basically do not deal with race at all–a problem all on its own. Both seasons feature only one recurring character who is not white. Even then, however, the show still manages to veer into unfortunate stereotyping. Luke, of Murder House, serves entirely to complicate Ben and Vivian’s marriage, as he and Vivian develop a mutual attraction to one another. This could, in my opinion, also be read dangerously close to one intersectional aspect (in terms of race and gender) of the historic “black buck” stereotype: that of a black man being attracted to a white woman when he should not be. In this case, it is technically not race-based, but because Vivian is married–however, the similarity is still there. Likewise, in Freak Show, the African-American character, Desiree, is a three-breasted woman initially introduced as a hermaphrodite (“Monsters Among Us”). This characterization skates a bit too close to another historic and intersectional black representation: that of the black woman being in some way sexually “exotic.” Desiree is even partnered, in the beginning of the season, with a white man.

Asylum’s handling of race is even worse than Murder House’s or Freak Show’s. First, the season features only two Briarcliff residents of color. One is a brusque and vulgar Latino man named Spivey and the other is an elderly Hispanic woman referred to only as “The Mexican.” Outside of the hospital, there is Alma Walker, the African-American wife of Briarcliff inmate Kit Walker. When we are first introduced to Alma, there seem to be no real problems with her characterization: she is simply the happy housewife of Kit. They must keep their relationship a secret, as interracial pairings were looked down upon in the time of the show’s primary setting (1964), but they are a loving and passionate couple. They seem the type of characters who could both grow and who could provide a complex and compelling racial aspect to the show. However, just minutes after we are introduced to Alma, she is abducted by aliens (“Welcome to Briarcliff”). So, instead of demonstrating a functioning relationship, with a potentially three-dimensional female of color character, the show almost immediately gets rid of her. Additionally, when Alma disappears, the local police do not believe Kit’s story and instead arrest him for her murder. As a result, not only do the writers ditch Alma early (she returns later, but does not grow as a character), they remove her in order to advance the character development of a male white character. 

And finally, there is Coven, the season which handles race most problematically. The season positions itself as if it is trying to be progressive in terms of race, but as Sady Doyle wrote in a critique of the season, “the fantasy on display is less about ‘race relations’ or feminism than it is about white guilt–about white people’s uncomfortable relationship with our own history” (Doyle). I agree with her interpretation. Much of what Coven tries to do harkens back to what I mentioned in my introduction: using problematic situations and characterizations to be subversive. But, again, I do not think it works.

The first example of problematic racial depiction in Coven is one of the overarching storylines of the season: that of white, Salem-descended witch Fiona Goode vs. African-American voodoo queen Marie Laveau. To make one of the main premises of the season essentially white vs. black is problematic all on its own. It is not something that can be handled lightly. In addition, it is something of an intersectional conflict because it is pitting two women of different races against each other. And finally, the fact that Marie Laveau was a real person–and so, Coven is using a black historical figure to convey their politics–only makes the matter more complicated.

Stemming from that, the season’s characterization of Laveau is extremely troublesome. She is two-dimensional, essentially only serving as a foil to Fiona and a reminder of the harshness that African-Americans have been faced with (Laveau is immortal, so she has seen it all). She is not given the multiple layers of humanization that Fiona is and so she comes across as almost inconsequential to the season as a whole. In addition, despite being an extremely powerful witch and immortal being, Laveau runs a hair salon in the ninth ward of New Orleans. This demonstrates a problematic representation of the intersectionality of race and class. As Sesali Bowen writes, “The fact that Laveau still can’t seem to shake her socioeconomic status…reinforces the mainstream media’s insistence on linking and expressing blackness through poverty” (Bowen).

Aside from issues involving Laveau and/or her battle with Fiona, there are the problems in relation to Queenie, the only person of color in Fiona’s coven. First, before traveling to join the coven in New Orleans, Queenie worked at a fried chicken restaurant, playing into one of several existing stereotypes about African-American diets. Second, she is often caught between Laveau and Fiona, essentially expected to choose between the witches’ groups, and therefore, the races. And finally, there is a scene in the episode “The Replacements,” in which Queenie attempts to seduce a minotaur–an act that leaves her physically wounded. This strange interaction, which seems to be almost equating black sexuality and beastiality, is horrifyingly problematic on that basis alone. However, Bowen adds to this, saying the scene was “hypersexualized black girl with a cherry on top. Not to mention the fact that the interaction turned violent; so not only was she labeled as a sexual deviant, she was punished for it” (Bowen).

The final example of problematic racial representation on Coven is the character of Madame Marie Delphine LaLaurie, another real life person. LaLaurie was a horribly sadistic socialite of the 1830s, who brutally tortured and murdered many of her African-American slaves. We see much of this depicted in Coven. Additionally, within the show, LaLaurie is an immortal being (cursed by Laveau) and so she shows up in the show’s present day setting as well. It is with LaLaurie that Coven’s failed attempt at progressive racial content is most evident. Scenes such as in “Head,” when Queenie forces LaLaurie’s disembodied head to watch episodes ofRoots, serve as Coven’s attempt to punish LaLaurie for her transgressions against African-Americans. However, many times, the audience gets a sense that they should feel sorry for LaLaurie (often via her interactions with Queenie), which is something they should never feel because she is a horrible mass-murderer. 

Now that I have discussed the many examples of American Horror Story problematically dealing with race, I will move to the final identity category which the show handles in an unfortunate manner: sexuality.

Sexual Assault As a Plot Device

Finally, we have reached the identity category of sexuality, yet another that American Horror Story handles in troublesome ways. Exactly two intimate relationships across the show’s four seasons are ones I would consider “healthy,” and both of those are hidden from society and ended almost immediately after being introduced. Add to that Murder House’s insanely stereotypical gay couple–Chad, who is fashionable and snarky, and Patrick, who is sex-obsessed and cheating on Chad with a man he met online via a BDSM chatroom–and there is more than enough problematic material to write an entire paper on American Horror Story’s handling of sexuality alone. However, my main issue with the show’s mishandling of this aspect of identity is its use of sexual assault on females–an issue of the intersectionality of gender and sexuality–as a plot device.

In the pilot episode of Murder House, the first episode of the series, married couple Ben and Vivian Harmon have (consensual) sex for the first time in months, following a fight. Later that same episode, Vivian is approached in the bedroom by a man in a rubber BDSM suit, who she believes to be Ben. She proceeds to have sex with the person as well, though she is clearly in a lot of pain, both physically and emotionally. Furthering the problem, the audience (and eventually Vivian) learns later in the season that the man in the rubber suit was not Ben. Therefore, not only was Vivian sexually assaulted, but she was sexually assaulted by a stranger. This assault is also not an isolated incident, but is used as an explicit plot device to set up the season’s overall story arc: Vivian becomes pregnant with twins, but the babies have different fathers. One is Ben’s, the other is Rubber Man’s.

In Asylum, we again see sexual assault on a female character, this time with Lana Winters. First, in “I Am Anne Frank,” she is subjected to an uncomfortable and humiliating session of aversion therapy, in which Dr. Thredson attempts to force her to look at and touch a naked male in order to try to “cure” her of her homosexuality. Later in the season, when she is being held captive by the serial killer Bloodyface, she is sexually assaulted by him. Like with Vivian Harmon, Lana’s assault is not a one-off situation: she too becomes impregnated by her assaulter, which works into one of the overarching storylines of Asylum.

Finally, in the first episode of Coven, “Bitchcraft,” Madison Montgomery is drugged and gang-raped by a group of college-aged guys. This assault, like the two mentioned above, plays as a plot device for the episode: after the incident, Madison uses her powers to flip over a bus the guys are riding in, killing almost all of them. 

While I understand that sexual assault and strange or unfortunate sexual situations, in relation to women in particular, are often used to spur plot in horror movies, there is no reason why the showrunners of American Horror Story need to use it in the show, and certainly not almost every season. It is simply a harmful depiction of sexuality to do so.

That’s a Wrap

In conclusion, American Horror Story is a show in which the representations of various identity categories are consistently problematic and often downright negative. The show handles matters of gender in terms of making all of its female characters either two-dimensional, stereotypical, or in some way a “problem.” It consistently deals with race in troublesome ways, both in terms of representation and race relations. And it makes a game of demonstrating unhealthy relationships, stereotypical representations of homosexuality, and instances of sexual assault.

In my opinion, American Horror Story is a unique show with a fresh and promising premise that falls victim to trying too hard to be edgy and subversive in its handling of identity. It usually ends up missing the mark completely and just comes across as consistently offensive. 

Works Cited

1. Bowen, Sesali. “American Horror Story: Coven is getting race all wrong.”Feministing. 4 Dec. 2013. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.

2. Doyle, Sady. “Double, Double, Race and Gender Trouble.” In These Times. 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.

3. “Head.” American Horror Story: Coven. FX, Austin. 11 Dec. 2013. Television.

4. “I Am Anne Frank, Part I.” American Horror Story: Asylum. FX, Austin. 7 Nov. 2012. Television.

5. Lee, Michael J. and Leigh Moscowitz. “The ‘Rich Bitch’: Class and Gender on The Real Housewives of New York City.” Feminist Media Studies 13, no. 1 (2013), 64-82.

6. “Monsters Among Us.” American Horror Story: Freak Show. FX, Austin. 8 Oct. 2014. Television.

7. “Pilot.” American Horror Story. FX, Austin. 5 Oct. 2011. Television.

8. “The Replacements.” American Horror Story: Coven. FX, Austin. 23 Oct. 2013. Television.

9. “Welcome to Briarcliff.” American Horror Story: Asylum. FX, Austin. 17 Oct. 2012. Television.