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March 29 2013
Sex & Low Beach
by Thuto Durkac-Somo
“Don’t you ever let a man tell you who you are or make you feel like you are less than he is.”
The blogosphere was abuzz with excitement last month over these words of advice from the finale of American Horror Story’s second season. Considering the series is part of a genre that has spawned the likes of Dracula and Psycho, blatantly feminist lines like these are as striking as vampires walking in daylight. But this is far from the only instance of feminism in the wonderfully creepy series. There’s the time one female character sings “You Don’t Own Me” to a crucifix on the wall. Or when another declares that she will “always win against the patriarchal male.” Or, my all-time favorite: “It drives you crazy, doesn’t it? To be the smartest person in the room, with no real power because of that smelly clam between your legs?” None other than Satan himself utters that gem to the second season’s protagonist, Sister Jude (played by Jessica Lange).
But it’s not just these smart little lines that render the series surprisingly feminist. It’s the pure, dazzling strength of the show’s female characters. These women are not damsels in distress. They’re damsels who straight-up refuse to scream or run away, who instead punch out the monster and then give him the finger, all while the male “hero” cowers in the corner. After escaping from the therapist-cum-serial killer who kidnaps her, one character, Lana Winters, is told by a police officer that she’s “one tough cookie.” Lana’s response? “I am tough. But I’m no cookie.” Preach it, sister.
This empowerment is not exactly typical of horror,which traditionally victimizes women. According to Columbia film studies professor Evangeline Morphos, until recently, the female role in horror films was simply to scream. But recently, television horror shows like True Blood and The Walking Dead (and, obviously, American Horror Story) are taking the woman from victim to protagonist.
“Now, they [women] have a more powerful role, partly because they have a more powerful role in society, too,” Morphos says. “In Psycho, the female’s entire function is to be the victim and scream in the shower. I think we’re seeing that change.” And this change, according to Morphos, is not restricted to horror. “Look at Homeland,” she says. “Ten years ago, Homeland would not have had a female protagonist. We’re seeing that phenomenon across the board.”
This change, Morphos believes, reflects the shift toward a more democratic approach to watching television. While in the past families had to decide what to watch as a group, the shift to online viewership has put each individual viewer in charge of choosing what to watch. Women now drive television numbers as much as men.
Columbia film studies professor David McKenna offers a similar perspective on the horror genre’s feminist shift. He believes markets, rather than producers’ political impulses, are driving the change. “Production companies survive by making money, and they will release whatever products they believe will generate the greatest profits,” he says.
McKenna believes that after the release of the movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1992, savvy producers realized there was a market for horror heroines. “They refashioned Buffy to appeal to young female audiences, a demographic segment that had never been seriously considered by the horror genre before,” he says. “Like Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy showed that females could flourish in genres previously dominated by male characters and shaped by young male audiences.”
And the feminist approach to American Horror Story seems to be working. Showrunner Ryan Murphy even gained the approval of staunchly feminist blog Jezebel. And, what’s more, he recently revealed to Vulture that his third season will be “really about female power.”
But why is this only a recent change? Where were the powerful heroines in horror until now? McKenna asserts that the reasoning is economic: the trope of the scantily-clad young woman running from a monster is what traditionally sold tickets. Morphos’ explanation is also practical. “A woman screaming just sounds shriekier,” she says, which is why the piercing soprano scream has become a defining feature of the horror genre.
However, Columbia film studies professor Rob King offers a different perspective. King believes that the horror genre has always been preoccupied with anxieties of female sexuality. The last girl standing in many horror films tends to be—unsurprisingly—the virgin. “These themes became very strongly foregrounded in American horror beginning around the 1970s. During that period, horror, as a kind of marginal form, came to be marketed to teenage audiences,” King says. “An audience going through puberty is an audience worrying [about] these aspects of sexual identity that we then see played out in the films themselves.”
Morphos agrees that horror films were once a way to talk about sexuality. “They were a way to describe it, describe the emotionality of it. The whole vampire idea is an equation for talking about sexuality and talking about rape,” she says. “But because we have a much more open way about talking about sexuality now, I don’t think we’re as dependent on the horror film to give us that anymore.” Even so, shows like True Blood and American Horror Story are rife with sexuality. The latter is bound up in themes of infidelity, promiscuity, rape, fertility, and miscarriage. But the role of women relative to those themes has been empowered.
In American Horror Story’s first season, while the male protagonist, Ben Harmon, is away on business (read: seeing his mistress), three psychotic murderers break into his home and attempt to perform a disturbingly sexual ritual killing on his wife, Vivien, and daughter, Violet. The female duo bravely fights off these murderers despite—as Violet is quick to point out—the father’s absence. While Vivien is at first traumatized by the experience, Violet puts a more positive spin on things: “That’s where you and I kicked ass, Mom. You think we’re victims of some nightmare? I say that’s the place where we survived.”
Kicking ass and surviving are two things the women of American Horror Story are pretty damn good at.
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