Subtlety isn’t just out of American Horror Story‘s wheelhouse; it’s anathema to the show, the literal antithesis of the shameless camp that treats Jessica Lange snorting coke to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” like just another day in the neighborhood. Part of the fun of watching AHS‘s 13-episode cycles unfold has been the way it wields tropes of gore and body horror like a sledgehammer — then takes that sledgehammer to social issues like disability, race, and, most prominently, gender. Historically, that questionably good-faith effort at blending shock value with social criticism has had mixed results at best. But unlike the series’ first two iterations, Murder House and Asylum, Coven has finally figured out a way to incorporate feminism convincingly into the DNA of American Horror Story.
In an exploration of Coven‘s particular brand of scare for the always-excellent Dear Television group discussion, now hosted on the L.A. Review of Books website, Anne Helen Petersen observes that “American Horror Story treads the knife-edge between feminism and misogyny.” While the rest of Petersen’s essay largely deals with the role of the “monstrous feminine” in American Horror Story‘s ability to terrify, she also rightly brings up one of the most uncomfortable aspects of a particularly uncomfortable viewing experience: when it comes to the women who make up a greater and greater portion of the series’ cast, the average viewer “can’t decide if [the show]’s sympathetic or predatory, misogynistic or feminist.”
For the most part, the “misogynistic” part of that equation has come from depicting women as the victims of acts of violence to make even onetime Nip/Tuck fans cringe. Thanks to a leather-clad ghost and a skin-obsessed serial killer, rape was a common motif long before the Coven premiere’s shades-of-Steubenville frat party. And that’s to say nothing of the suicide, imprisonment, and brutal killings that befall other female characters, with the few survivors emerging bitter and battle-scarred, like Murder House‘s Constance Langdon and Asylum’s Lana Winters.
That American Horror Story isn’t afraid to take its women to low places — in fact, it practically revels in it — has opened it up to the usual accusations of exploitation. But as I’ve written before, writing female characters into situations where they’re brutalized isn’t sexist in and of itself; it’s often an opportunity to comment on the systems that brutalize them. The problem with American Horror Story‘s previous attempts to translate terror into a takedown of the “patriarchal male,” an epithet Jessica Lange spits out early in Asylum as hard-bitten Massachusetts nun Sister Jude, has been its inability to use that opportunity to do much more than say “men bad, female protagonist good.”
AHS‘s freshman outing mostly steered clear of this kind of allegory, settling for a small-scale story of a single family ripped apart by a haunted house. Vivien and Violet Harmon are central to the Murder House story, but their struggles with toxic teenage love and an unplanned pregnancy feel intensely personal, not tied to a broader struggle for agency. At some points, the plot even stumbles into straight-up sexist tropes like Kate Mara’s character, a psycho ex-mistress obsessed with destroying the Harmons. Asylum, however, took the craziness of Murder House and projected it onto various social issues, an approach that fit well with its 1960s period setting but, if Coven‘s any indication, is here to stay for the duration of the show.
Between Lange’s Sister Jude and Sarah Paulson’s Lana Winters, Asylum positions itself as a story about the dangers of being an outspoken woman ahead of her time. If you’re a reformed alcoholic in charge of an asylum, the Church will thank you for your service by driving you insane and throwing you in a cell to rot; if you’re an eager investigative reporter who also happens to be gay, you’ll fall into the clutches of a psychopath (and have his baby). Other subplots work in bits of sex positivity and racial progressivism, with a spoonful of Nazi doctor/alien abduction sugar to help the medicine go down.
Asylum‘s total unwillingness to even attempt blunting its message is half the fun. Even so, the more blatant its attempts at girl power become, the more one-note and outdated they feel. There’s a helpful appraisal of Sister Jude as “the smartest person in the room, with no real power because of that smelly clam between your legs” by the Devil himself. Then there’s Jude’s own parting advice to one of her half-alien charges: “Don’t you ever let a man tell you who you are or make you feel like you are less than he is.” The takeaway message is an admirable one, but calling out 1960s Catholicism for sexism is a little too easy to score any real empowerment points, as is vaguely telling a wide-eyed little girl not to let The Man, or any man, get her down.
That’s where Coven comes in. Far from being a straightforward story of Woman vs. Patriarchy, Coven serves its female characters by simply handing its namesake witches the microphone and letting them run with it. Instead of pitting a central figure against a few men who conveniently stand in for all of oppression, American Horror Story takes men almost entirely out of the picture. This means Coven passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, and has the added bonus of making its conflicts way more interesting than Asylum‘s “men shouldn’t mistreat women for liking sex or power or other women” moral.
In just two episodes, Coven‘s ventured not just into the well-trodden territory of female sexuality, but also mother-daughter relationships, fertility, aging, and other themes that deal with women’s identity and their relationships with one another. (Between Taissa Farmiga’s deadly “power” and the aforementioned frat party, though, there’s sexuality aplenty.) When Fiona Goode, the “supreme” witch who’s Lange’s latest excuse to steal every scene, hisses at her teenage charges that “the only thing in this whole wide world you need to be afraid of is me,” she’s driving home what we already know: in Coven‘s universe, non-witches — and, by extension, men — are irrelevant.
American Horror Story shows no signs of toning down, but it’s definitely grown up. Where Asylum often felt as if Ryan Murphy was begging to be patted on the back for his messed-up version of women’s liberation, Coven‘s moved on to the bigger and better work of exploring what happens when a leader comes to grips with the limits of her power, a would-be mother struggles to cope with the knowledge that she can’t have biological children, or two alpha females as stone-cold terrifying as Lange and Angela Bassett butt heads. Coven may not deal with sexism as explicitly as its predecessor, but its choice of subject matter ultimately renders it a far better example of media that’s made for women, not just about them.