Expressing disappointment with American Horror Story has become an autumn ritual. Every year since the show’s debut in 2010, the weeks before Labor Day have been a blitz of 60-second teasers and posters of masterfully art-directed grotesques promising a subversive show. Then, Ryan Murphy’s monsters arrive and, invariably, fail to deliver.
From Asylum’s graphic portrayal of gender conversion therapies to the casting of Lady “Born This Way” Gaga, Murphy and Co. always seem about to address the real horrors of being an Other in America: being a woman (particularly a woman of a certain age), LGBTQ, a person of color, or having a body outside of “the norm.” When he accepted the 2015 Family Equality Council award in 2015, Murphy said that “the way to acceptance is understanding” and touted a creative ethos of boldness, saying “that’s the only way things are going to change.” However bold AHS may be, it’s not invested in acceptance or in change — AHS’ values are actually conservative to the core.
For a show that wears its saturation in queer culture like a rainbow merit badge (artfully frayed for good measure), AHS very pointedly affirms a drab, heteronormative view of family, one in which happily-ever-after looks like a ’50s era wedding cake topper. At the end of Season 1, our suffering protagonists, the Harmons, are reunited in the afterlife, decorating a Christmas tree in front a cozy fire, never mind that Papa Harmon cheated on his wife — and had the poor woman involuntarily institutionalized — or that the daughter Violet literally killed herself because of emotional strain from her family. Yet everyone is all smiles.
The few characters who survive Season 4’s Freak Show are rewarded with a place in a Father-Knows-Best vision of suburbia: Jimmy “Lobster Boy” Darling and a massively pregnant Bette and Dot Tattler snuggle on a sofa while Desiree Dupree, who billed herself as a hermaphrodite, ends up a married mother of two. Her discovery that her “ding-a-ling” is not, in fact, a penis, but a substantially elongated clitoris, is a Cinderella-like transformation. Now she’s a real woman, deserving of a diamond ring and a picket fence.
As reductive as this is, it’s still infinitely preferable to the fate of many gay characters: AHS doesn’t just embrace the “bury your gays” trope, it builds cisgendered suburbia on the cemetery. Notably absent from Season 1’s Yuletide soire? Chad and Patrick, the previous homeowners who were desperately unhappy even before they were violently murdered. In the afterlife, they are defined only by their rampant bitchery.
Freak Show’s closeted strongman, Dell, finds fleeting love with a handsome hustler named Andy before they are both killed. Andy’s death by dismemberment while he is (barely) breathing ranks among AHS’s most unbearable moments (and that same season gave us Kathy Batess Bawlmer accent). Murphy talks a good game about the vital necessity of seeing LGBTQ characters on-screen, but the gay people in AHS are defined largely through their victimhood. Even Asylum, which uses intrepid lesbian reporter Lana Winters’s imprisonment to make a Political Statement™, reduces Lana’s lover Wendy to a mere plot contrivance: the cowardly wretch who is blackmailed and bullied into signing Lana’s commitment papers before she is — you guessed it — also brutally murdered.
Wendy isn’t the only character to be smothered by Asylum’s insufferable smugness. The show may position blonde-haired, blue-eyed hunk Kit as a paragon of ’50s-era progressiveness for marrying a black woman, Alma, but Alma is all but forgotten once Kit finds himself in a padded cell. He immediately takes up with a fellow inmate, a foxy Frenchwoman named Grace. Kit grieves Grace’s death with a wailing and gnashing of teeth that he can’t quite muster for his own wife. Furthermore, when Alma’s alien captors return her, she is more of a nuisance than an actual presence, a damsel in distress lost to her own madness. Sadly, the neglect of Asylum’s lone black character is still more benign than the unchecked abuse that befalls POC in other seasons. When John Lowe, Hotel’s tortured detective/serial-killer-who-doesn’t-know-he’s-a-serial-killer, suspects his black partner of being attracted to his wife, he literally castrates the other man, putting his manhood in a glass jar. The show is too enamored with its own edginess to consider, even for a moment, the actual American horror stories of the black men who were tortured and lynched for supposedly looking at a white woman “the wrong way.”
This castration follows AHS’s tradition of reserving some of its worst violence and humiliation for black bodies: Consider Marie Laveau, the voodoo priestess who uses her magic to become virtually immortal and lay vengeance upon the generations of good ol boys who have pillaged her community — but who can, apparently, only cower in helpless terror as a white man with a shotgun barges into her beauty shop and blasts her fellow black witches away, one by one, in a spree that is filmed as a balletic pornography of bullets and blood. Laveau ends up throwing herself upon the tender mercies of the white witches because this is now — suddenly and inexplicably — the only way she can survive.
AHS reserves a particular kind of intersectional nastiness for Gabourey Sidibe who, in her public persona, is an advocate for body positivity but who, on the show, is reduced to the trope of the woebegone fat woman. At one point, her character in Coven, Queenie, is seen binge-eating cold fried chicken out of the fridge. When Queenie confronts a Minotaur, instead of using her formidable powers, she starts masturbating in front of him (no, really), saying that, as a fat black woman, she knows what it’s like to be a monster. Of course, women who look like Queenie are only “monsters” because people like Murphy tell us that they are. Though all of Covens young witches get some kind of love interest, or at least a sex scene, this pathetic jerk-off is the only amour Queenie ever knows. (Compare this to Empire, where Sidibe’s character enjoys a rousing, squick-free romp with a hot young rapper.) Queenie meets her end in Hotel during a cat-fight with Ramona Royale, a supposedly badass blaxploitation star who is flatly written as a head-rolling, cut-a-bitch stereotype — and who accomplishes exactly nothing in the course of the narrative, not even the vengeance she craves against her ex-lover, the Countess. Ramona’s bloodlust is miraculously sated by a quickie with the blonde beauty.
It’s tempting to suggest that AHS only has empathy for its imperial blondes, the fashionistas with arctic hearts. However, the show’s wicked women — women who privilege their own selfish whims for youth, sex, money, and power over anyone else’s rights (even the right to life) — aren’t immune to suffering. The Countess is gut-shot by John Lowe, who is only acting on behalf of Mr. March, her evil ex-husband (himself a profligate rapist and murderer). After she dies, she’s trapped forever with the man who engineered her killing. Despite her formidable powers of telekinesis, Coven’s bitchiest witch, Madison Montgomery, is choked to death by the boyfriend of her cloyingly wholesome rival. For erstwhile Supreme Fiona Goode, one of the tartest, smartest, most compelling characters in the series’ whole run, eternity is a cabin that stinks of catfish and gin, and the backhand of her boorish beau. It’s domestic violence as just deserts. And it’s a double standard given that the show���s most abominable men — like Mr. March, John Lowe, or Twisty the Clown — end up in their ideal afterlives, surrounded by friends or family.
The show has consistently deployed its boldness to affirm a Fox News vision of America, one that makes sport of denying LGBTQ people lasting happiness and of leveling black people (particularly black women). It mocks fat people as everlastingly unlovable and punishes its unsavory women with a severity that it rarely inflicts on men who are just as bad, or even worse. It reserves its greatest happiness for characters who embrace a Rockwell-esque ideal that even the staunchest “family values”-conservative could love.
AHS lurches into its sixth season with a marketing campaign that has deliberately obscured its overall theme — although rumor suggests that it will be partially set in Puritan times. If this is true, then the show will be playing well within its thematic wheelhouse, but not in the way that Ryan Murphy would have you believe.