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[Guest Post] On American Horror Story, Part 1/2: Lovers and Mothers

2012 December 3

American Horror Story is sexy.

No, let me rephrase that.

American Horror Story is SEXY. It emanates sweet tendrils of hotness, wisps of decadent, lustful sexual deviance and sultry taboo, while trotting apace through a veritable phalanx of horror tropes and borrowing heavily from the classics of the genre. I love it. It is also, in the words of the hilarious Is This Feminist? tumblr, PROBLEMATIC.

And who’s surprised, really? Ryan Murphy’s work is characterised by its casual misogyny (yo, Nip/Tuck, Glee, I’m looking at you) and so is horror as a genre. So not me, no. I’m not surprised, Mr Murphy, I’m not even angry. I’m just disappointed. Maybe you should go to your room and think about what you’ve done.

Now, don’t get me wrong. AHS is, by any critical standard, a terrible, terrible show. It’s fractured and bombastic and desperately wants to be, like, profound. But it’s not. It’s… y’know. Crap.

But luckily, I’m not a TV critic, so I bloody love it. And I’m allowed to love it because cognitive dissonance. This show is simply dripping with things that ought to make me hate it. And I do. I spit expletives at the screen. I rage against the covert anti-abortionism and the exploitative male gaze. And then I rewind and watch it again. Because, like I said. Cognitive dissonance.

I’m going to handle AHS in two parts. Today I’ll be examining the show’s representations of women as lovers and mothers, before looking at pregnancy, birth and maternal desire in the next exciting instalment.

Before I go on, beware. Here be SPOILERS.

Predatory Women in the Male Gaze

AHS is not much more than your typical haunted house story. It begins and ends with the house, designated ‘Murder House’ by local legend and built by Charles and Nora Montgomery decades before our protagonists – we’ll get to them later – were born.

The Montgomerys run an illegal abortion clinic from the basement, providing discreet help to women in trouble and fuelling the God complex which eventually sees the ether-addicted Charles sew together a Franken-baby – known as the Infanta – for his wife to care for. If we were looking for a symbolic representation of threat to the constructed (read: patriarchal) order of things, well, it doesn’t get any more obvious than that. Like Dr Frankenstein, Charles blurs the boundaries not just between God and man but also between male and female roles by creating life, upsetting the proper balance of the house and setting in motion the events which follow.

Nora and Charles’ lives end in a murder-suicide at Nora’s hand. Thus, they become the first to haunt the house.The third post-human (‘ghost’ is such an oppressive term, right?) resident of the house is Moira. Let’s start her story with a little pop quiz:

You, the lady of the house, enter your home to hear a woman being sexually assaulted. You pick up a gun – because they’re totally safe to have around when emotions are running high – and enter the master bedroom to find your husband raping the maid. You point the gun and fire. Who did you just kill? Was it –

a) your husband, because he’s a rapey scumbag?
b) Moira the maid, because, er… um… she’s there too?

If you said b) Moira the maid, congratulations! You hate women as much as American Horror Story does!

To be fair, this woman scorned does go on to shoot her husband too, but that maid, well. She was probably asking for it, wasn’t she, all walking around in clothes and getting on with her job and having breasts. What a slut.

Regardless of her intention or her consent, Moira is now a sexual predator, in death forced to play the role perceived as hers in life, and becomes a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure. The women she encounters see her as a sexless middle-aged woman, while the men (who, it seems, see only what they want to see) see a young, beautiful and carnivorously sexual temptress, seeking to undermine, manipulate or overthrow men through the power of her sexuality. She is the virgin/whore dichotomy made flesh.

I could get into how heterosexist this is, but frankly we’d be here for days. The height of Moira’s sexual power comes with the literal castration of the man who most poses a threat to her. Dr. Freud, you’re needed in the Literalisation of Symbolic Acts ward. Bring a towel.

The newest residents of Murder House are Vivien and Ben Harmon, a Bostonian couple intent on running away and leaving their marital problems behind them, because that always works. Moving into their suspiciously underpriced new home with their adolescent daughter is their first step towards repairing the damage done to the partnership by Ben’s affair with a student named Hayden in the aftermath of Vivien’s miscarriage.

Just as Moira ends up dead for having sex and getting above her station, so does Hayden. Hayden’s not above throwing herself at Ben, turning up at his home in an act of seduction and intimidation to rival the fatal-est of femmes.

We’re encouraged into this reading of women as wild by the show’s insistent male gaze.

A complex mythology that rules whether or not the ghosts age ensures that we get enough young female flesh to look at. There are lingering shots of gartered thighs and softly rising décolletée, there are those close, oppressive, slightly-from-above camera angles that make you feel like you dominate the subject – and there are straight-up no-holds-barred crotch shots. All of these things make sure we know where, and how, to look.

These women are women as men wish (or as gay men think straight/bi men wish) to see them: willing harbingers of sexual pleasure, built in the eye of the camera from tits and ass.

They’re supple-breasted and conveniently bisexual, with sexuality so magnetic that Ben must masturbate furiously – crying all the while – to stop himself from giving in to them. Where women are concerned, perceived sexual immorality is a barometer for bad. They are debased, and they will hurt you.

The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world

Motherhood comes in for a bad rap on AHS. From episode one (where Vivien’s longed for-pregnancy is spoken of in terms of an unwanted visitor violating the sacred space of the home) to the monstrous child-delivery at the end of the season, childbearing is painted as a threat to patriarchal social order. I’ll talk more about that next time, but for now I want to concentrate on what happens once you’ve got a bleating infant in your arms.

Another previous resident of Vivien and Ben’s home, and one of the few that is still living, is local Mommie Dearest Constance Langdon. She’s the self-appointed caretaker of the house, an amoral force of unfathomable intentions who appears to consider Mrs Bates and Margaret White her parenting role models.

Constance is a cruel, jealous single parent, abusing and using her children by turns. Unable to relinquish control of her brood as they age, and thus not allowing them autonomous identities, she ensures that dysfunction reins in the Langdon household.

She treats her daughter Addie, who has Down syndrome, as a sexual competitor. She imprisons both her daughter and her heavily-disfigured eldest son, the ironically-named Beauregard, in the home (sometimes resorting to shackles and chains as a demonstration of her sovereignty) and gleefully tells Addie that she’ll never be a ‘pretty girl’.1

Although all of her children are dead before they reach adulthood, the youngest remains as one of the fully corporeal phantoms haunting the Harmon household. Despite her treatment of her children, Constance is willing to kill to keep them together. The whole set-up screams narcissistic abuse.

Constance’s stranglehold over her youngest son, Tate, has prevented him from self-actualisation and produced an emotionally scarred adolescent, narcissistic and hypermasculine, who apes his mother in his desire for control over the bodies of others, raping and indiscriminately killing in order to exert his ownership. What a charmer.

Tate’s emotional state almost demands to be analysed as a reaction to Constance’s total control over the boy in the second stage of psychosexual development, which coincides with toilet training and in which autonomy is developed. Constance’s suppression of Tate’s self-actualisation has resulted in a rebellious, cruel, emotionally volatile adolescent who is so eager to please the woman he’s fixated on that he’ll commit terrible acts to gain her approval. It’s desperately clichéd.

Sexualised as it is, AHS’ regular female cast is not made up of victims in the great tradition of the genre: they don’t get cut up, and there’s no running through dark corridors in strategically torn clothing or fumbling ineffectually with locks that they could work perfectly well a minute ago.

This has caused some people to herald the show as a feminist buoy, bobbing about in the misogynist soup of Horror. Such is the jubilation at the thought that women might be allowed some agency, the flipside is missed. The show doesn’t victimise its women; it demonises them. In this world women are either maidens or mothers, either sexual or not.

And damn, they’ve got it in for you.

  • You can now read Part 2!
  • Libby earned her feminist stripes interning for the Fawcett Society where she was horrified by most of the stories she heard. An accidental activist, she is a regular contributor to BCN, the UK’s only 100% bisexual publication. Her latest project, TreasuryIslands, is the home of her other passion – children’s literature. Libby is very proud of her bad reputation.
  1. Ed’s Tiny Note: For more on Addie and how she is portrayed and treated, there’s a critical look at her role at Fangs for the Fantasy. Down Syndrome Daily also has a roundup of US press reactions to the character, some of which I think betray ableist prejudice in themselves, and some of which make good points. []
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