It is hard to choose just one thing that is problematic about FX’s American Horror Story. It is the guiltiest of pleasures. The first two seasons of the mini-series were captivating, cringe-inducing, camp celebrations of the art of horror storytelling, complete with cribbed soundtracks from films like The Exorcist and featuring an immensely talented cast: Denis O’Hare, Zachary Quinto, and Jessica Lange(!), gnawing scenery like starved theater mice. American Horror Story also heavily exploited racism, sexism, violence against women, sexual violence, homophobia and ableism.
The show’s latest incarnation, American Horror Story: Coven, is no different. It is set in a secret New Orleans school for young witches, run by a headmistress who wants to help her charges harness their powers for good, in opposition to her more powerful nemesis (and mother), who just wants to wreck shit. It’s like X-Men with Spanish moss, crawfish, and three of Hollywood’s best actresses who no longer get roles because they are older than the internet. In addition to Lange, the show includes Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett in key roles.
Perhaps you are expecting, since the history of witch hunts in America is intertwined with the history of women’s oppression or since Coven showrunners clearly recognize the value of three great under-used actresses of a certain age, that this season of American Horror Story would present a tale about women that is less reductive and trite than the usual. You might think, like a person in the clip above, that it would celebrate women.
You clearly don’t know Ryan Murphy (showrunner; see also: Glee and Nip/Tuck).
What would make an all-powerful witch dig up the zombified body of a 19th-century serial killer? What would make a wealthy woman set up an attic torture chamber to perform horrific experiments and concoct a special pancreas-based elixir? If said witch or woman is of middle age, then it must be a desire for the sweet beauty and desirability of youth. American Horror Story: Coven offers up the all-too-typical message that a young woman is always more desirable than an older one and that the saddest and most disturbed of hags can’t deal with the fact that their looks and sexual currency are necessarily fading.
In Coven, Fiona Goode (Lange’s character) is an all-powerful witch–The Supreme Witch, in fact. She has a host of handy powers, not the least of which include tossing people with the flick of a wrist and sucking away life essences with a kiss. But power, both magical and within the the world of witches, doesn’t make Fiona happy, because…wrinkles.
Bates plays the infamous Marie Delphine LaLaurie, who, in real life, horribly abused, maimed, and tortured slaves in her Royal St. mansion, until she was run out of New Orleans. LaLaurie’s real story is an illustration of the brutality of slavery, even in a place that fancied itself “permissive” and “humane” with enslaved Africans. In Coven, though, LaLaurie’s actions are explained by… you guessed it…her desire to remain young. She is certain that human blood with a touch of pancreas does wonders for aging skin. And we are treated to scenes of the mad Madame using a makeup brush to smear her face with gore.
Angela Bassett, who, with her bad self, plays famed voodoo queen Marie Laveau, has escaped the aging narrative (thus far), because, as Goode observed in Wednesday’s episode, “black don’t crack.”
Coven buys wholeheartedly into the idea that all women uniquely diminish with age, in great part because of decreasing sex appeal, which is, let’s be honest, our only real value. This isn’t new, of course. One of many things wrong with 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman was that the audience was asked to believe that Charlize Theron’s evil queen, looking luminescent and sporting a cloak made of ravens (ravens, ya’ll!) was jealous of Bella’s Snow’s White’s (Kristin Stewart) youth and beauty. If even 38-year-old Charlize motherfucking Theron, poster girl for the Eurocentric beauty standard, is supposed to believe herself long in the tooth and past her prime, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The double standard about female aging is a real thing, and it makes sense that fictional narratives reflect reality. My concern is that Coven, like too much film and television, doesn’t merely reflect societal gender bias but buys into and endorses it. That most women I know who are over 40 emphatically do not wish to return to their 20s–physically or emotionally–is a testament to the strength of women, despite the onslaught of sexist media messaging.
And I need to say this about black women. It is true that melanin helps protect the skin from damage and some signs of aging. But black women age like everyone else, and an unlined face does not equal skipping out on other physical changes that come with getting older. The idea that black women are to remain preternaturally young doesn’t really do us any favors. The notion that “black don’t crack” implies that “cracking” is not a natural and acceptable thing to do in one’s later years, and it gently shames any black woman who looks just as old as she is. (We can’t all be Angela Bassett, who, I’m pretty sure, really is sucking the blood of virgins.)
I, frankly, don’t expect much from a show that routinely uses rape for shock value and has, in each episode this season, directed a fat joke at Gabourey Sidibe (who plays Queenie), because, of course. The show, like many examples of art before it, confuses being offensive with being challenging and repeating tired “isms” with being cutting edge. American Horror Story: Coven could be a great horror show–one part grit and gore to three parts camp (and deliciously twisted dialogue. If you watched last season’s AHS then “mossy bank” and “colostrum” will forever make you shudder). But its insistence on gleefully presenting societal biases, including the one against middle-age women without question or counter-balance, leaves me feeling disturbed for all the wrong reasons.