American Horror Story, Season 2
Does AHS have a woman problem?
Why is so much of the most pornographic violence in American Horror Story reserved for its female characters? Here’s what Dan Engber wrote in a previously unpublished moment from last week’s chat:
We started by comparing Season 1 and Season 2. One major difference, in my view, is that for Asylum we've gone from haunted-house horror into torture porn. This is not surprising, since AHS has borrowed from nearly every type of horror film. But some borrowings are weak and pointless—like the feisty zombies in the woods—while others are more interesting. It seems to me that the torture porn in Asylum—the canings and lobotomies, the Santa murders and sadistic kiss—is doing something different. How do you feel about this brand of horror violence in the show, and especially the way it's done to women?
It’s a question that I’ve been batting around all season. I don’t just mean Sister Jude’s arguably deserved caning at the hands of Santa Claus, or the rough-and-tumble treatment that almost everyone in Briarcliff has been subject to at one point or another; I’m thinking more of the violations and cruelty inflicted by the show on women’s bodies, especially in terms of reproduction and sexuality. Shelly (remember her?) had her legs amputated and beauty destroyed for being a “whore,” and three different women—Grace, Alma, and, most disturbingly, Lana—have been through all kinds of baby-related trauma, from alien probing to botched self-induced abortions. And then we had last week’s breastfeeding-themed episode in which Lana was shamed into feeding her rapists’ child, and a sex worker was brutally murdered in a lurid scene after sharing her milk with a grown man.
Now, I’m not the prudish sort; I’m basically unoffendable when it comes to what we’ll loosely call “art.” But at some point in an onslaught like AHS, you have to ask yourself, what’s all the violence for, beyond mere shock value?
On the one hand, a generous reading might be that Ryan Murphy and AHS are simply manifesting, in grotesque, exaggerated fashion, the kind of sexist violence that American society is particularly talented at exhibiting toward its female members. It’s probably no coincidence that the one thing that truly scares Thredson is Lana’s ability to make a choice about the baby he forced on her through rape. Of course, such sexism was rife in the early 1960s before Roe v. Wade, when “Asylum” is set; but, as last year’s litany of GOP outrages—from contraception restrictions to transvaginal probes (sound familiar?)—demonstrates, we are still very much haunted by it today. If you believe that AHS is capable of this kind of critique, then maybe it’s all for the good.
However, there’s a part of me that can’t help but read in the cinematic glee of the most disturbing moments—the alien baby sac being shoved into Grace’s vagina, the dribble of breast milk from Dylan McDermott’s chin, Thredson’s necrophilic rape of Wendy—a weird strain of gynophobia mediated through camp that is unfortunately not uncommon in some segments of the gay male community. I’m not calling Murphy out in particular for harboring this sensibility, but if the John Waters school of gross-out hyperbole is at play in AHS, it’s clear that such dark humor is being deployed to account for moments that would otherwise be completely objectionable.
I’ll be the first to admit that I laughed with gleeful disbelief at certain of these events, but in the sober light of day, I worry that my comfort level with female abjection has been increased to an unhealthy level over the course of this season. But I’m curious what you think—is American Horror Story’s treatment of women problematically violent or merely of a piece with the sadistic universe it inhabits?
J. Bryan Lowder is the Slate editorial assistant for culture.