There is, I think, a certain amount of apprehension that some have when approaching any project helmed by Ryan Murphy and American Horror Story is no exception. Credit must undoubtedly be given for the desire to tackle interesting social issues but the undulation between camp, satire, and social messaging can occasionally leave viewers confused about what they see on screen.
Take, for example, Queenie’s statement that she “grew up on white girl shit like Charmed and Sabrina” and we see a show that is self-conscious of its place within the televised history of witches (Murphy also notes a certain artistic inspiration from Samantha Stevens of Bewitched) while also subtly suggesting a point about the raced (and classed) nature of witches. That Queenie’s base assertion—that she never saw anyone else like her on television growing up—had implications for the development of her identity is not a particularly new idea (which is not to diminish anything from it as it remains a perfectly relevant point to make in the context in which it is said) but one must question whether the wink/nod nature of the show detracts from the forcefulness of such an idea. In what way should we understand Queenie’s statement to comment on her current surroundings, in which she is surrounded by white women and is being acculturated accordingly?
Positioning Queenie as a descendent of Tituba is an interesting move for the show that once again blurs the line between historical figures and fiction. Although Tituba is the obvious reference for anyone who might be looking for a non-white New England witch, she also sets an interesting precedent for Queenie as someone who was both part of a community and yet did not belong. Moreover, accepting Queenie’s lineage serves to reinforce the symbolic power of Queenie in the show as it places her in alignment with witchcraft (and not, for example, as a voodoo practitioner who somehow just got swept up with the rest of the witches). In some ways, Tituba was the harbinger of change for Salem and I am left wondering if Queenie is fated to do the same for the people around her in this season.
Speaking of witches and in/out groups, there continues to be an us/them mentality on display throughout this episode. What strikes me as particularly noteworthy, however, is the way in which a persecuted group (in this case the witches) can stereotype others and generally work to maintain the difference that they feel diminished by. Early in the episode Fiona entreats that “Even the weakest among us are better than the rest of them” and Madison speaks negatively of Kyle, noting that “Those guys [who raped me] were his frat brothers, it’s guilt by association.” I remain hopeful that this schism in thinking will develop into the real conflict of the show and that the voodoo/witch nonsense is only manufactured drama.
And yet, for all of the things that the show makes me nervous about, American Horror Story also excites me because I think that it is trying to tap into very relevant veins in American culture at the moment (albeit in slanted ways). Echoing a theme that began last week, American Horror Story mediates on what appears to be its core theme for the season in a slightly different manne through the further development of power’s relationship to nature/life (and, in this case, to motherhood and feminine identity) with undertones of science and technology.
The most obvious reference is of course Frankenstein’s monster in the form of a resurrected Kyle. One of the things that I love about the Mary Shelley story is that it is, among other things, a story about hubris and what happens when power gets away from us. Fitting in a narrative lineage that stretches from the creation of Adam and the Golem of Prague through androids, cyborgs, and certain kinds of zombies, the story of Frankenstein is also very much one about the way in which anxieties over life and human nature are expressed and explored through the body.
Here I make a small nitpick in that Kyle seems to benefit from the idea that reanimation is the same thing as restoration. Thinking about the physical implausibility of zombies’ mobility, we must take it upon a leap of faith that the spell meant to reanimate FrankenKyle also restores the connective pathways throughout his body. Which, given the stated restorative power of the Louisiana silt, causes one to wonder exactly how far the power of magic extends and in what ways it fails to compete with nature.
And the notion of magic working within the bounds of nature or being used to circumvent it is an interesting point to mull over, I think, given what has happened in this episode. What else is the creation of FrankenKyle but an attempt to steamroll nature (only this time through magic and not science)? We see this theme echoed in Cordelia being initially reluctant to use her powers in a way that invokes black magic even though it (and not science!) can restore her ability to conceive. The implications of this barrenness should not be lost on us for the ties between notions of motherhood and American female identity undoubtedly remain even if they are not as firm as they might have been in earlier years. In a rather groan-worthy line, Cordelia explicitly describes her husband’s request to intervene as “playing God,” which of course directly mirrors the story of Frankenstein and his creation.
Returning to FrankenKyle for a moment, should we really be surprised that Zoe is at the center of all of this? As one whose name suggests that she is the embodiment of life and yet brings death (in the act of what brings about life!), she is precisely the one who would be involved in the reanimation of Kyle. Ignoring the seemingly unearned emotional connection for a moment, Zoe’s ability to wake a man with a kiss was an interesting reversal of the Snow White trope that has long been ingrained in our heads. And yet there is a curious way in which the power of witches continues to be tied to concepts of emotion and feeling, which have traditionally been the province of women. Furthermore, the kiss of life also opens up questions about Zoe’s abilities regarding her powers and the connection to Misty’s compulsion to arrive.
On another level I also struggle with Zoe’s decision (and this is related to my feeling that her emotional connection is unearned) as bringing Kyle back also seems to indicate that you are not only imposing your will upon nature but also upon Kyle. As acknowledged in the car ride home from the morgue, Kyle might not have wanted to come back, much less suffer the indignity of being a shadow of his former self. Moreover, if Kyle were to regain a measure of sentience (which Murphy’s interviews have suggested that this is not necessarily the case), he must also eventually grapple with the possibility of dying, which also seems like a horrible punishment to visit upon someone. And really, what kind of life is that?
Ultimately, in this episode we see many of the women clinging to life in various forms: Fiona continues her quest to achieve immortality, Laveau is shown to have been harboring her Minotaur lover, LaLaurie laments the life she once knew, Cordelia goes dark in order to foster her ability to bring forth life, and Zoe follows through on her desire to reconnect with the life of Kyle. As Tithonus learned, eternal life is not the same as eternal youth and the show seems to be conflating the two. (Which, to be fair, I would be totally fine with a potion or magic or science granting both but I would like it made clear that they are not necessarily the same thing.) The question that undergirds all of this, then, is about the value of life. What is a life worth, what does a life mean, and what does it mean to lose/give/take a life?
As a last aside, I also remain curious about is whether the universe of the show will ascribe to some sort of cosmic balance in that it trades a life taken for a life given. Nothing about the show thus far suggests that this will be the case but I think it is an interesting point to consider if we are thinking about how the forces of nature and magic intertwine with one another. If Misty is right that “Mother Nature has an answer for everything,” should we see attempts at circumventing nature as a short-term gain in exchange for an eventual comeuppance?
*Also what to make of the assertion that Queenie did exceedingly well in math but is working at a fried chicken restaurant and that Laveau (who is portrayed as the ultimate Voodoo Queen) is running a beauty parlor in the Ninth Ward? Normally I would be interested in thinking about how these scenarios provided a commentary on opportunity for black people in New Orleans and/or suggested something about reinvesting your skills into your community but I just don’t trust Ryan Murphy to be particularly insightful about race and class issues that are outside his norm.
Vulture published an interview with American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy that touched on many of the points that I considered while watching the premiere of Coven last night. For me, the interview epitomizes the way in which the show often contains grand and somtimes compelling ideas that don’t always come across clearly (or at least readily, which of course is not necessarily the same thing). I am interested in what Murphy has to say and although I disagree with bits of it, I continue to applaud the show for putting forth something different that just makes me want to go along with it for 44 minutes.
In the Vulture interview Denise Martin picks up on the theme of youth and women, noting that both Kathy Bates’ Delpine LaLaurie and Jessica Lange’s Fiona Goode express an interest in maintaining a sense of youth. Murphy responds:
Well, there’s a reason why Fiona’s aging: It’s not because she’s dying or because of a natural process. It’s because the next Supreme has declared herself and her powers are growing and they’re sucking the very sap from Fiona…She’s that kind of lady, and it’s very hard for people in power to give up power. That’s the real idea. She’s not feeling well and she doesn’t understand why her vitality is slipping, and it’s really because a new witch in town is sucking her dry.
Here, two things appear to be of note. While LaLaurie is invested in youth and beauty in order to maintain the affections of her husband (who is having affairs), Murphy positions Fiona as interested in youth as a synonym for power and vitality. Both representations/readings of youth are valid here but I am skeptical that the show will actually put these two in conversation with one another and contrast the various ways that youth plays out, much less what youthfulness means to a woman in various contexts.
The second thing of note to me is the way that power is the connective tissue between these women. Although LaLaurie understands power as force (e.g., physically restraining slaves in order to use their blood in a youth ritual), Fiona in some ways represents the opposite as a figure whose power emanates from her ability to force her will upon the world. Here I think that the show is treading on potentially treacherous ground because the show, to me, is so much about power that manifesting this theme through the rather literal theme of magic could either be great as it illustrates otherwise invisible forces or groan inducing as it is attempting to use power to talk about power.
The other dynamic that relates to power—control/subjugation/domination—also makes an interesting appearance through the tension between Cordelia Foxx and Fiona (Cordelia just happens to be Fiona’s daughter and headmistress of the school to train young witches). The premiere episode evidences Cordelia’s desire to harness and focus the powers of young witches while Fiona expresses the sentiment that witches must fight or they burn. Here we see a contrast of sorts between energy that is directed inward and that which is focused outward: control of the self as opposed to control of the world around you.
Another major theme throughout this season almost necessarily has to be women and gender, given the subject of the horror figures at play. In response to the question of how Murphy and crew came up with the powers that would be on display, Murphy says:
They were things that were attributed to witches back in Salem. One had been accused of fucking someone to death. The truth of the matter is the guy was probably a hemophiliac who got too excited. Clairvoyance, the power to read minds, the power to move objects, those are old tried-and-trued things that witches were burned for. The one we took liberties with, and that I love, is Queenie’s [Gabourey Sidibe] power: the human voodoo doll. That ability to do something to yourself and have it transfer to someone else is a voodoo-esque power that some voodoo witches do have. We just gave it to a Salem witch. And Queenie’s gonna be tempted by that Marie Laveau/Angela Bassett voodoo magic. Just wait.
In and of itself, I think the decision to recycle powers is very much what American Horror Story is about: the show reaches into the depths of well-worn horror tropes and tries to weave them together in a context that is both somewhat new and somewhat old. Here, however, I think the show is running the risk of doing a disservice to its subject matter by failing to acknowledge that the powers in question were born out of a suspicion and fear of women’s power and sexuality, which means that employing them as is in a modern context only serves to reassert the underlying assumptions behind those powers. I very much hope that the show will turn some of this on its head and interrogate why American society views women in a particular way and how these instances of uncontrollable women reveal flaws in our conceptualization of gender relations.
On a related note, I think there is an interesting sort of litmus test built into the premiere episode (although the show does not seem to expand on it as of yet). During the course of viewing, we are entreated to two major scenes of brutalization: the collective mutilation of slaves by Madame LaLaurie and the rather unsettling (or at least I hope) attempted gang rape of Madison at the frat party. I do not think that the show asks viewers to compare the two directly or sympathize with one over the other but I think that this is a form of introduction into two of the major oppressed groups in the show. The problem sort of comes with the way in which these scenes are shoved at us, however. Without discounting the severity of what these transgressions represent, the show positions us as viewers firmly on the side of the oppressed and I think that real life is rarely this uncomplicated. I want the show to ask us as viewers to question why we throw our support behind one group (over another at times) and what this says about as individual normal sane people.
The other moment of pause in Murphy’s answer comes from the conflation (which I was initially worried about) between voodoo and witchcraft. I think that one can certainly make some insightful commentary about the parallels between magic users of different traditions but I also do not think that practitioners of voodoo consider themselves witches (and certainly not in the sense of the popular use of the term and the way that the Salem witches do). I think that Murphy is creating a false point of contention here between voodoo and witches when the more interesting discussion (which maybe we will get to) is how both traditions are formed in conversation with Catholicism, although each took different paths. (And on that point, I remain stymied by the use of Pentecostals in the opening episode because those folks seem like a bridge—albeit an unlikely one—between voodoo and witches as people who believe in the channeling of spirits as a very real thing in the world. That they would persecute Lily Rabe’s character for what essentially reminds me of the laying of hands seems a misstep.)
Murphy: The Salem witches and the voodoo witches have been at war for years and years, but something happens where they question that and wonder if instead they should join forces. They realize there’s a common enemy.
Unfortunately, this division between voodoo and witches also takes on a raced dimension with voodoo largely being populated (at this point) by Blacks and Salem’s witches being White. Many others have discussed the inability of Murphy’s shows to deftly handle issues of race but here I think we see some potentially sensitive areas given that we are discussing issues of power and oppression. Early on I expressed trepidation over the show pitting persecuted Whites against oppressed Blacks and some of that seems to have come to fruition.
Murphy has expressed a desire to use the motif of witches to speak to the plight of minorities in America and I think that it is here that he gets caught up in perhaps trying to do too much.
During season one. Jessica and I were talking about how she was always attracted to that Salem story because her granddaughters are actually descendants of the Salem witches. I found that to be very interesting and cool, so I started researching it. I really locked into it when I thought about the witches story as sort of a metaphor for any persecuted and hunted minority group in this country.
Although this is a noble effort and an interesting topic to take on, I think what is missing here is a nuanced discussion of the way in which minorities are often pitted against one another in an attempt to conserve the power that they do have. Given Murphy’s comments, there might be some recognition of this as the factions band together in response to an even greater threat but I think the really interesting point is to see how groups can complain about their own oppression even as they are (unconsciously) working to subjugate others. Given the subject matter of witches it seems so obvious that one can pull in lessons from the history of feminism (in American and otherwise) and this very issue of coalition building and minorities but I think that this is something that the show is likely to miss.
That being said, I remain hopeful for the show to develop into something rather amazing. I think that the show has great potential to deliver something interesting because of its subject matter and, to that end, I believe that Queenie represents the make or break part of the show. For me, Queenie is, in many ways, exactly what the show is about: a black girl who is in a school for white witches and the way in which one must reconcile one’s identity with one’s environment. Murphy seems to indicate that Queenie will be a battleground in the plot of the show (and, really, could it be any more obvious with her power and race?) but I think that Queenie also represents the salvation of the magic community if the show plays it right. Queenie represents the literal bridging of these two communities, embodying the idea that voodoo/Salem isn’t an either/or proposition but in fact a both/and. Voodoo and Salem are not in contention in the way that American Horror Story wants to posit—they operate on entirely different levels!
As a final point, I am interested by this last direction of the show toward Frankenstein’s monster, which is so much about playing God on level (and thus ultimate power and life) but also about the reconfiguring of bodies (the direction that I think horror should be going in because these are the fears/anxieties that we are dealing with as a culture). As a preview to the next episode Murphy says:
The second episode is called “Boy Parts.” Zoe [Taissa Farmiga] is devastated because she had feelings for this boy. Madison wants to make it up to her. So they go into Cordelia’s stash and steal a spell. They go to the morgue, and it turns out all the boys have been horribly dismembered in this crash, and so Madison gets this brilliant idea. “Fuck it, let’s build our perfect boyfriend.” So they take all the best parts they like and create this teenage Frankenstein. Evan really loves playing him because he gets to do something almost like a silent movie, very physical and crazy. He watched a lot of those Frankenstein origin movies, but he’s come up with his own physical thing which is really amazing, and quite naughty.
Nitpicking, you see here how Muphy gets some of the little things wrong (e.g., the creature is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster and Frankenstein always refers to the doctor himself although the usage is certainly slippery in modern references) and this makes all of the difference. That being said, I am still excited to see where this will go and I think that the inclusion of this has the ability to add to the central theme of the episode. (Which, for the record, I guess I tend to write off the comments that so much of the show is “random.” I agree that there is often a ton of stuff thrown in, but I continue to believe that much of it revolves around a central idea for each season. The trick is that intent/execution—as I’ve said before—do not always align and so it takes some work for viewers to get on the same page as the writers as to why things make an appearance. Example A being the aliens in season 2 of American Horror Story.)
Initial reactions from first viewing…
For better or for worse one of the things that American Horror Story excels at is maintaining a self-conscious eye toward visual presentation, particularly in the first offerings of each season. At its best, there are some truly memorable shots throughout each of the premiere episodes that help to set the tone for what this particular venture will be about. And yet there is also a way in which the show seems invested in continually reminding the viewer that he or she is a spectator in the proceedings—I enjoyed the snapshot montage of season 2—and we see this yet again with the anachronistic film stock of the Salem witch trials (not to mention the scoping in the opening LaLaurie scene).
And LaLaurie is a prime example of where some of the show’s haste to cultivate a style occasionally diminishes the impact of the (often intriguing) message at the core of each season. American Horror Story has always been a stylized and heightened experience (which is definitely part of its appeal) but there is a way in which this presentation severely undercuts the revulsion that one might feel in response to LaLaurie’s attic of horrors. Sure, the visuals are mildly unsettling but the scene takes on an entirely new dimension, I think, if one remembers that LaLaurie was a real person and, by extension, the mutilations visited upon these slave captives were quite real.
As a side note, I have yet to come to a conclusion about the featuring of a Minotaur in the first few minutes of tonight’s episode. In some ways I am reminded of Rome’s depiction of a ritual blood bath and yet I also wonder if the show is attempting to make nods toward the way in which the line between slaves and beasts was interchangeable.
But the connection that American Horror Story seems to be drawing between the New Orleans of 1830 and 2013 largely appears to rest on subjugation: using the obvious broad themes of slavery and a somewhat manufactured persecution of witches in the modern era the show unfavorably conflates the severity of slavery with a looser form of persecution (generally) and those who simply feel put upon (insultingly). I have yet to be convinced, for example, that a modern society would actively persecute witches in the way that the show details. Aren’t we much more a culture of skeptics? Moreover, what do we make of the genetic basis of witchcraft and does this mean that the powers have a grounding in physics? Is this explanation an example of the way in which the language and rational of science has so thoroughly pervaded our consciousness as viewers (and furthermore what might that mean about the way in which we are willing to relate to witchcraft)? And then there is the odd way in which American Horror Story juxtaposes Pentecostals and witchcraft, in my view passing up a very interesting opportunity to explore how America positions itself to those who have totally embraced the supernatural. Which, when you think about it, is sort of irritating for there are many ways in which all kinds of people—including women!—are made subject to differing levels of inequality and fabricating a storyline in which witches are hunted is to ignore a closer investigation into the ways in which those with power in America can attempt to maintain inequality on interpersonal and institutional levels.
All of that being said, I don’t get the sense that this season’s major/true theme revolves around oppression/control (as is frequently mentioned in various ways throughout the episode, see “We’re on probation” and “Do you want to be my slave tonight?” for examples) so much as it is about power, who wields it, and what effect power has on you as a person. This, of course, is related to oppression/control but is also somewhat fuzzier.
As example, I think there is a potentially fruitful discussion to be had regarding the depiction of male/female power and its ties to homosocial environments and aggression. The question that this episode sort of puts forth is, “How do people wield power?” In a very stark way, we see a link between aggression and power through the young witches and frat boys: while one group grounds their violence in emotion and physical aggression the other leans toward sexual/physical (guess which is which).
And, on that note, I am still cautious about the way in which the show thinks deeply on issues of women and power. Although witches have traditionally been the figure to express this combination, we see two major (white) figures obsessed with youth and looks. Are we to think, then, that this is what women aspire to power for? Is there a commentary here on the interplay between women’s power in their bodies (and why that is) and magic? I think that this last question in being too generous for what I’ve seen of this show, although I would happily be proven wrong. And then we have the “black widow” power of killing men through sex, which is 1) oddly heteronormative if it doesn’t also work with women and 2) a very basic retread of a fear that men have had about women for a long time. I want to say that the show is all about shuffling worn tropes and interrogating them so I remain hopeful and yet I am also not thoroughly confident that the show will pull it off.
(And what’s up with the title of “Bitchcraft”? I suppose this was my first red flag that this show would not be entirely nuanced in its exploration of this theme of women/power. Admittedly the “bitch” debate is not particularly resonant at the moment but my problem–as always–is that the sho does nothing to challenge or complicate the demeaning reading of the title.)