Just How Witch-Tastic is American Horror Story: Coven? A Point/Counterpoint
At the American Horror Story panel that was part of August's Television Critics' Association press tour, the show's executive producer talked of a "feminist theme" pervading the third season of the show. After a first season in which women were terrorized, murdered, stalked, raped, impregnated with devil babies, tortured by a killer abortionist, and imprisoned for life in a haunted mansion; and a second in which they dealt with most of that plus nuns and aliens, yeah, sure, bring on the feminism.
And indeed, American Horror Story: Coven indeed has a lot of potential to be more feminist than its predecessors. Witchcraft, after all, has historically been associated with women whose talents, personalities, and life choices didn't jibe with those of the status quo, and the horrible things that were done in the name of purging communities of witches were at heart an expression of fear—fear of women who don't conform, fear of women who have no use for the usual institutions of male power, fear of women who can make shit happen.
It's shaping up to be a witchy TV season in general, with the soapy Lifetime drama Witches of East End joining AHS: Coven in putting spellcasters front and center, and the sheer number of amazing actors who've joined up with creator Ryan Murphy's repertory company is reason enough to watch. Along with Murphy regulars like Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, and Taissa Farmiga, AHS: Coven also features Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Gabourey Sidibe, Patti LuPone, Frances Conroy, and Christine Ebersole. And it's definitely off to a roaring start: Last week's premiere episode of Coven was the series’ most watched, with 5.54 million viewers tuning in.
If you already love witches and/or the larger American Horror Story concept, you're already watching. If not, you may be wondering both whether it's worth your precious pop-culture time and energy, and whether those claims of a feminist theme were more than hollow hype. Though only two episodes have aired, we've collected a series of points and counterpoints.
Point: Witches are fucking cool. After all, who among us has not wanted to employ some magic in our lives? From benevolent acts of clairvoyance to more sinister turns in the web of the dark arts, AHS: Coven pays respect to the idea that magic need not always be used for evil. And when it is—when, for instance, a character who's recently been drugged and gang-raped in a frat house flips a bus contained the rapists—we're meant to feel some satisfaction that at least in this fictional world, survivors can triumph in ways that real-world survivors often cannot.
Counterpoint: Witches are cool, but rehashing past plot points with some kind of witchy twist just makes viewers think this show is obsessed with evil pregnancies and rape. In just the first two episodes of AHS: Coven, you’ll be reminded that series creator Ryan Murphy has some pet subjects. Oh, there’s a woman struggling with infertility who is reluctant—but quickly talked into—using magic to conceive? I wonder if something super untoward will happen in her uterus that will make her wish she'd stuck it out for a round of plain old in vitro! And what's that you say? There's that aforementioned depiction of a drugging and gang rape? Well, that's so commonplace by now in American Horror Story that it won't even make it into BuzzFeed's roundup of the "16 Most WTF Moments from the American Horror Story:Coven Premiere." Etc.
Point: AHS: Coven has a large, mostly female cast of characters, and you'll want to see more of them. The nominal lead, offering viewers a fish-out-of-water introduction to Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies in New Orleans, is Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), whose parents failed to tell her she was a witch before she discovered it the hard way—by accidentally killing her boyfriend during sex. The mysterious wraith who comes to spirit her away is played by Frances Conroy, channeling Grace Coddington and being generally awesome. The young sister-witches she meets at the yawning white mansion that houses the school all have special powers to rival Zoe's killer vagina—Madison (Emma Roberts) is telekinetic, Nan (Jamie Brewer) is clairvoyant, and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) is a self-described "human voodoo doll." In a parallel storyline that converges in the second episode, we meet Misty (Lily Rabe), a young woman in rural Lousiana whose ability to revive a dead bird at an actual revival meeting gets her accused of necromancy and burned at the stake. In other words, ladies be witchin'.
Counterpoint: There's a large, mostly female cast of characters. But women, amirite? So far—and again, it’s only been two episodes—the women fit neatly into two categories. The “evil and awful” category includes Delphine LaLaurie, a New Orleans society lady whom we meet in 1834, when she is doing unspeakable things to the slaves in her employ “because I can.” (The first 15 minutes of the first episode are made even more sickening when you find out that they are based on true events.)
Less across-the-board evil is Madison, a former child star who pettily killed a film director by dropping a light on his head but who now traffics in a general ennui that occasionally bubbles over into contempt for her peers at Miss Robichaux’s. And then there’s Fiona Goode, whom we’ll get to in a second. In the “boring pushover” category are Zoe and her headmistress Cordelia Foxx, both of whom seem essentially secure in themselves yet manage to display almost no spine when pressured to do something like build a Frankenstein out of dead frat boys or do black-magic babymaking.
Point: Jessica Lange plays a badass older witch who is called "The Supreme," either because she is the most powerful witch around or because she got into a slap fight with Diana Ross and handily dispatched her while humming "Stop! In the Name of Love." Since coming to live with her daughter, school headmistress Cordelia, and the four young witches of Miss Robichaux's, she's already hurled a couple of the ladies against a wall, dug up the long-buried evildoer LaLaurie, wiped clean the minds of two meddling police detectives, and dropped a handful of bitchtastic bon mots on whoever happens to be around, all in sky-high heels. Get her some more scenery to chew, 'cause she's running out.
Counterpoint: Lange's character is, so far, pretty one-note. And, also, pretty ageist. AHS loves itself some ballsy women of a certain age, and Lange is the cappo di tutti, having previously appeared in AHS as variations on the same sassy, sexy, and straight-talking character. As Fiona, she has "getting her way in life" pretty well locked down by dint of witchcraft, which leaves plenty of time for her main obsession of not looking her age. It’s a fixation which in the first episode involves demanding increasingly large doses of an experimental rejuvenating serum from a cute male scientist, sucking the very life from said scientist once he threatened to cut off her supply, and keening at herself in a mirrored apartment while blowing rails and vamping around to the Iron Butterfly classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
It’s no coincidence that Fiona’s need to look and feel younger is juxtaposed with scenes of the slave-torturing Delphine LaLaurie daubing her face with a mixture of blood and pancreas that she believes will keep her face youthful—vanity, and more specifically the abject fear of aging, is a woman’s sin that has been the basis for more than a few horror movies. And now that Fiona has actually made the acquaintance of two immortal people—the damned-to-eternal-life LaLaurie, and Marie Laveau, the voodoo priestess responsible for said damning—we're presumably about to see her pay a price for that vanity.
Point: If you like X-Men, you might like this season. The us-versus-them premise that undergirds AHS:Coven is that witches can and do live quietly among the citizenry, but when she shit comes down they need to make themselves scarce. Zoe's parents never told her about the witch blood that runs through her family line; they simply hoped those powers would never manifest in her. Cordelia is the Professor X of the school, content to mix potions and murmur spells in her garden while the world goes on around her. Her mother, however, has her inner Magneto summoned by televised footage of a witch-burning, and decides that she's tired of spell casters playing by the rules of a society that would destroy them given the smallest chance. (For True Blood fans, this makes her the Russell Edgington of AHS, and the fact that Denis O'Hare plays the mute butler of Miss R.'s is just gravy.)
Counterpoint: You might also like this season if you like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. O'Hare's character is essentially Riff Raff. And when witches Madison and Zoe try to reassemble/reanimate Zoe's dead crush, Kyle, from a series of disembodied arms and legs, it's just a gorier version of Rocky rising from the table in a gold-lamé bikini to monosyllabically thrash around. It's cheesy, is what I'm saying, as will be the subsequent scenes of Zoe trying to access the former sweetness in the grunting monster she's created.
(Side note: During the reassembly process, I'm pretty sure the lower torso the women found for FrankenKyle was…Ken-doll style. Did anyone else notice this? Is the idea that since Zoe can't have sex with her formerly-dead crush without re-killing him anyway, he might as well be penis-free? Or is there something more complex and beyond gender going on here?)
Point: If you like second-wave feminist history, you also might like this season. The interactions between Cordelia and Fiona at Miss Robichaux’s are something of a distillation of the tension inherent in many social movements—the inclination to assimilate, to blend in, to go along to get along versus the drive to demand visibility on your own terms, to not demand your own plate of equality but instead smash the whole dinner service. Cordelia purports to be running a tidy haven of would-be assimilation, but in fact, she’s just hiding her students away. (And there seems to be a definite lack of structure, what with the girls’ extended trips to the morgue for reanimation purposes and her own midday snake-and-fire sex rituals.) And Fiona is determined to break the girls out and put their powers in public view; in encouraging the girls to wear black and hone their skills, she’s spoiling for a showdown with a world of adversaries. It’s liberal witching against radical witching, and, as with feminism, it almost doesn’t matter which one prevails—because, to their as-yet-unseen opponents, they’re all the same.
Counterpoint: Like second-wave feminist history, AHS: Coven is also pretty white. And its attempts at diversity are… well, I’m sure someone involved in the show would probably claim something like “irony” to describe them, as this isn't the first time the show has let the casual racism fly. There’s Queenie, of course, whose character has been fleshed out only inasmuch as we know she really likes fried chicken. And there’s Marie Laveau, whom we met in the first episode as a powerful New Orleans voodoo priestess, and who in her current, immortal incarnation, runs a weave-and-braids shop in the 9th Ward called Cornrow City, where Fiona tracks her down.
That Fiona feels comfortable with white supremacy is clear, because she wastes no time in insulting Laveau while the woman is literally holding a hot flatiron next to her head. The two are clearly equally powerful—and Laveau has the immortality Fiona desperately craves—so what gives, Fiona? Oh, yes. Racism. With the unapologetic LaLaurie on the scene, and with both Laveau and Queenie invoking the name Tituba to cement their lineage in historic witchcraft, hopefully AHS can find ways to make the racial dimensions of witchcraft something other than a side note.
Point: Misty Day, the bird-reviving witch, has regenerated herself after being burned at the stake by her own church congregation and now lives in a swamp shack, enacting vengeance on alligator poachers, helping Zoe out with her Frankenboyfriend problems, and listening to Stevie Nicks.
Counterpoint: None. This is unassailably great. You do you, Misty. I'll be watching.
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