The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
Steinberg, J. (2002). The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College. New York: Viking Penguin.
Adapted from Say Yes to Education
Jacques Steinberg (1966 – ?) spent nearly 25 years at The New York Times as an education reporter, editor and blogger specializing in college admissions before joining Say Yes to Education, a non-profit organization, in early 2013. At Say Yes to Education, Steinberg focuses on managing and growing the national compact of colleges and universities that provide financial aid to students and creating programming to help those students prepare for, apply to, pay for, and graduate from college. Steinberg also created The Choice, The Times’ college admissions and financial aid blog, in 2009, as well as the first-ever New York Times College Life Fair, which was held in Chicago in 2012.
Written by education reporter Jacques Steinberg, The Gatekeepers details the cycle of the college admissions process at Wesleyan, a selective liberal arts college in Connecticut. The Gatekeepers represents one of the few books in recent years that attempts to elucidate the process of selective admission to American colleges and universities. Aimed at a general audience, The Gatekeepers relies largely on profiles of individuals—primarily admission officers and students—in order to guide readers through the process.
Introduction – This section largely addresses the murkiness of the college admission process in (highly) selective schools. The qualifier of “selective” is important here as the selection process tends to differ based on admission rate but it should be noted that the process addressed here is what is cemented in the popular imagination. The fungibility of “merit” is also introduced in this section (xvii). Also of note are the ways in which the obfuscation of the admission process and resulting stress influences behavior (ix/xv), a nod toward the impact of affirmative action with 1978’s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (xi), and a history of the college admission process in America from the 1950s through the 1990s (xi-xiv).
Brief outline of the history of college admission in America as presented in The Gatekeepers
Legacy/connections (i.e. “inherited privilege”) largely influential
Reaction to Civil Rights movements and 2nd wave feminism increased cultural attitudes toward diversity.
Need-blind admission became popular in order to admit students who could not necessarily pay for college.
Increased use of standardized testing as a more democratizing tool as reliance on privilege declined. Increase in test reliance is related to post-WWII changes to education and number of students applying to college.
College counseling became an industry.
“Arms race” begins among students competing for spots in selective college and among colleges competing for the best students.
Larger number of applicants led to increase in admission professionals as opposed to committees solely staffed by faculty.
Chapter 1 – Although a significant portion is devoted to the background of Ralph Figueroa, Steinberg’s guide throughout this process, this section offers a reflection on the difference between an official message, perception, and reality. One way in which this intersection manifests is the way that college rankings by publications like U.S. News & World Report funnel students and families toward applying to a specific range of schools and how the metrics for the ranking system affect admission practices. Representing another space in which perception, message, and reality abut is the concept of merit, particularly in institutions that value the nebulous idea of “diversity” (7); Ralph also notes that there are “things that society doesn’t necessarily consider signs of intelligence but that are, in fact, pretty strong indicators of a kid’s ability to be a successful college student” (21).
Chapter 2 – Delving more into how choices are made—by students/families and by institutions—this chapter explores the notion of appeal. For students who are the beginning of the process the value placed on criteria can seem somewhat arbitrary but not unfounded (34); for parents, prestige often plays a large role, particularly among recent immigrants and status-driven families (29/34). “At Harvard-Westlake, parents project their college fantasies onto their kids” (44). The chapter also contains an anecdote that may be potentially misleading, if well intentioned: in describing the advice that Ralph provides at an essay writing workshop, Steinberg quotes Ralph as saying “be true to who you are” (37), a message that is incomplete. Although this advice is positive in the abstract, one should be careful to note the degree to which an institution is receptive to creative, quirky, or non-traditional responses and furthermore realize that although an institution might be more flexible in what it deems acceptable (or beneficial), every institution allows for “freedom” within a range of possibilities. Inherent in this process is the institutions’ desires for students to stand out but still exist in a framework of competitiveness. The example of the essay writing also underscores the value of understanding what it like to be on the receiving end of applications and what is palatable to readers given time constraints.
The chapter also tells the story of Becca Jannol, who ate a pot brownie and decided to use the incident as a topic for her college admission essay. Although the retelling is designed to make the reader sympathetic toward Jannol, it also illustrates one of the advantages of going to a private college prep school: there are ways in which the institution/community will come together to support students in ways that lend an obvious advantage to said students. Moreover, the profiles of the students—understandable, given Steinberg’s journalistic background—also ignores the way in which most students can be made to seem appealing when considered as individual cases but this perspective is not representative of how selective admission views applications if it is doing its job correctly as it is attempting to build a class.
Chapter 3 – Moving from travel to the office, this chapter presents a view both of the process and of the people involved in it. Of note is the depiction of diversity of experience among the staff (in terms of ethnicity, years worked, backgrounds, etc.) and the implication that an individual admission counselor understands the process as filtered through his or own history. Although the book briefly mentions examples of other selection processes it does not plumb the depths of how other offices work to admit a class (to be fair, it seems unlikely that the book in fact could provide such detail). As such, the process at Wesleyan may become a substitute for all admission processes in the popular imagination although some variation is introduced on pages 94 and 224. One must remember to ask a counselor to describe how the process works at their individual school. And perception continues to be important for as Barbara-Jan Wilson, former Dean of Admission, notes, “guidance counselors and parents pay attention to stereotypes” (71). Similarly, Steinberg asserts that “anyone who’s ever seen a college in a two-hour drive-by visit knows that the smallest of details, however trivial, can take on outsized importance” (86). What is suggested here is that students (and perhaps parents) seek a form of validation through their acceptance/choice and are also susceptible to appeals the reflect back on what the student already thinks of himself or herself.
In an aside about Wesleyan and its relationship to schools (65), Steinberg notes that admission offices make decisions for reasons that have nothing to do with an individual student. Although this paragraph underscores that admission offices, guidance counselors, and individual students look at the process through vastly different perspectives (e.g., individual/cohort/world), it fails to mention that the process of shuffling occurs among students who are all otherwise “qualified” (i.e., could handle the academic rigor and graduate). As stated by senior admission officer Greg Pyke, “The first reason to admit always needs to be that you think the student can succeed here” (155).
One final note comes through the story of Jordan Goldman in the final pages (87-88) of the chapter: deciding between visiting Yale and Wesleyan, Jordan is swayed by the flexible curriculum of Wesleyan. Although the book does not touch on it here, there is a larger discussion about the ways in which colleges and universities must balance a student/consumer’s desire for choice/freedom—which is not necessarily the same as an emphasis on, or interest in, interdisciplinarity—with a “core” education that prepares those students for life after graduation. It should also be considered that while nods are made to a breadth of applicants in the pool, the profiles so far largely center around students who can be described as standouts (a term that should not imply that they are outstanding in the conventional use of the word), which makes the students easy to root for and identify with. One might question to what extent these students are representative of the “typical” applicant.
Chapter 4 – This chapter opens with an introduction to the more quantitative side of enrollment management as it touches upon the implications of Early Decision policies. Most notably is the way in which Early Decision policies affect yield, which provides a benefit for the admission office in terms of securing a freshman class and secondarily possibly provides a benefit to students in that they have secured admission to an institution. Conversely, however, a common criticism of Early Decision is that it binds a student to a school early in the process before he or she has fully explored his or her options and must commit to a school prior to seeing a financial aid package, which means that only a certain population of students can consider Early Decision in the first place.
Perhaps the most valuable piece here, however, is the brief glimpse that an outsider gets at how the admission committee functions, both in terms of logic and with respect to the various pressures (e.g., time, institutional need, etc.) placed upon it. Here, not on the range of qualities considered is important but the way in which such factors are interpreted and evaluated: the concept of “intellectual curiosity” (96), for example, calls the question of just how an applicant demonstrates such an attribute. Concurrent with this is the noted pushback about “fairness” (100) and the consideration of how insiders must explain the process to a public that aligns college admission with the concept of pure meritocracy. Steinberg writes that what admission committees are ultimately looking for is a student who will “add”(103) to the class in some way—academically, leadership, diverse viewpoint—and the difficult concept for outsiders is that while all applicants typically have plus factors, the needs of the institution as a whole make some qualities more advantageous at a particular moment in time than others.
Another key point is an understanding of how the college admission process affects the family (109); during the application process students are tasked with responsibility in ways that they may not have had before and the family must negotiate the changed relationship between parents and children.
Chapter 5 – Following Ralph’s evaluation process, one gains a sense of how criteria in an application are weighed against each other in a variety of contexts. Readers attempt to consolidate the disparate elements of an application into a unified picture of who the applicant is and then this is weighed against various groupings (e.g., school, others with similar background/opportunity, previous admits, etc.). Steinberg also makes a point of highlighting the potential impact of displaying one’s passion through the example of Tiffany Wang (135-136) and although one must be careful to consider how to convey such passion, the core idea is worth noting.
Chapter 6 – Counselor calls underscore the need to maintain truthful relationships between college counselors and admission staff.
Chapter 7 – The main theme in this chapter is an exploration of the ways in which an admission counselor’s perspective shapes the admission process. Steinberg showcases the way in which unexamined biases can affect the decision-making process (183), an example that illustrates the need to understand how admission officers espouse not only institutional values but also a set of collective cultural values. The other point made near the end of the chapter (197-198) concerns how admission staff (and guidance counselors) can make the mistake of focusing on individuals to the detriment of the group; echoed in the Chapter 5’s title of “Read Faster, Say No” and the prioritized consideration of the executive committee (184), the take home message here is that one must be continually conscious of the file that is in front of you while simultaneously picturing how one’s actions affect the entire process.
Chapters 8, 9 and 10 – These chapters focus on the way that students can go about making a decision to attend a school once they have been admitted.
Epilogue – Although it functions mainly to provide closure in a manner similar to documentaries, the epilogue hammers home that finding the right school for a student is not just about admission or matriculation but ultimately how the student felt about the experience after graduating.
Harvard Educational Review – http://hepg.org/her/booknote/68
Publishers Weekly Review – http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-670-03135-1
 Interestingly, the official name of the school is “Wesleyan University” as there is a “Wesleyan College” in Georgia but Wesleyan University labels itself as a liberal arts college.
 This case set precedent for allowing race to be considered as a plus factor in college admission, a concept that would be updated with Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2013) along with various cases at the state level (130, 150) like Hopwood v. Texas (1996) and California’s Proposition 209.The issue of affirmative action is also discussed in more detail on pages 268 and 269.
 Recent discussion regarding a “ranking” system has also arisen in response to President Obama’s College Scorecard, an effort that represents a move to enable better decision making in the college selection process. While many critics agree with the goals of the proposed plan, many argue that a ranking system is not the appropriate format for this information.
 See also page 152.
 It seems that a good counselor should be able to describe the pathway akin to “I’m a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock
 See also pages 121 and 155.
 For more on the distinction between different types of admission policies, see “Seven Thing You Need to Know About Early Action.” A round of reevaluation occurred in 2006 when Harvard announced its decision to abolish Early Decision and the issue remains under discussion for various institutions. See also page 270.
 In a callback to Chapter 1, we see that part of the importance for this is that yield impacts a school’s rankings in U.S. News & World Report.
 One thing to ponder is the prominent display of self-effacing humor in Becca Jannol’s essay to Georgetown (111). To what extent does self-effacing humor fit within a larger context of what endears people to readers? Does an ability to gently mock oneself demonstrate self-awareness? Put bluntly, to what extent is self-effacing humor a tactic, whether used intentionally or unintentionally?
Holiday movies, at least in part, are often about a reaffirmation of ourselves, or at least who we think we’d like to be. As someone growing up in America it was difficult to escape the twining of Christmas and tradition—movies of the season concerned themselves with the familiar themes of taking time to reflect on the inherent goodness of human nature and the strength of the family unit. Science Fiction, on the other hand, often eschews the routine in order to question knowledge and preconceptions, asking whether the things that we have come to accept or believe are necessarily so.
In its way Spike Jonze’s Her showcases elements of both backgrounds as it traces the course of one man’s relationship with his operating system. On its surface, the story of Her is rather simple: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) unexpectedly meets a woman (Scarlett Johansson) during a low point and their resulting relationship aids Theodore in his attainment of a realization about what is meaningful in his life, the catch being that the “woman” is in fact an artificial intelligence program, OS1.
Like many good pieces of Science Fiction, Her is able to crystalize and articulate a culture’s (in this case American) relationship to technology at the present moment. The movie sets out to show us, in the opening scenes, the way in which technology has integrated itself into our lives and suggests that the cost of this is a form of social isolation and a divorce from real emotional experience. The world of Her is one in which substitutes for the “real” are all that is left, evidenced by Theodore’s askance for his digital assistant (pre-OS1) to “Play melancholy song”—we might not quite remember what it is like to feel but we can recall something that was just like it. Our obsessions with e-mail and celebrity are brought back to us as are our tendencies toward isolation and on-demand pseudo-connections via matching services. Her also seems to understand the beats of advertising language—both its copy and its visuals—in a way that suggests some deep thought about our relationship to technology and the world around us.
But to say that Her was a Science Fiction movie would be misleading, I think, in the same way that Battlestar Galactica wasn’t so much SF as it was a drama that was set in a world of SF. Similarly, Her seems to be much more of a typical romance that happens to be located in a near-future Los Angeles.
Here I wonder if the expectedness of the story was part of the point of the film? Was there an attempt to convey a sense that there is something fundamental about the process of falling in love and that, in broad strokes, the beats tended to be the same whether our beloved was material or digital? Or did the arc conform to our expectations of a love story in order to present as more palatable to most viewers? I suppose that, in some ways, it doesn’t matter when one attempts to evaluate the movie but I would like to think that the film was, without essentializing it, subtly trying to suggest that this act of falling in love with a presence was something universal.
This is, however, not to say that Her refrains from raising some very interesting issues about technology, the body, and personhood. In its way, the movie seems oddly pertinent given our recent debates about corporations as people for the purposes of free speech, whether companies can count as persons who hold religious beliefs, and whether chimpanzees can be considered persons in cases of possible human rights abuses—any way you slice it, the concept of “personhood” is currently having a moment and the evolving nature of the term (and its implications) echoes throughout the film.
And what makes a person? Autonomy? Self-actualization? Consciousness? A body? Although Her is a little heavy with the point, a recurring theme is the way in which a body makes a person. Samantha , the operating system, initially laments the lack of a body (although this does not prevent her and Theodore from engaging in a form of cybersex) but, like all good AI, eventually comes to see the limitations that a physical (and degradable) form can present. (Have future Angelinos learned nothing from the current round of vampire fiction? We already know this is a hurdle between lovers in different corporeal states!) Samantha is “awoken” through her realization of physicality—on a side note it might be an interesting discussion to think about the extent to which Samantha is only realized through the power/force of a man—in that she can “feel” Theodore’s fingers on her skin. It is through her relationship with Theodore that Samantha learns that she is capable of desire and thus begins her journey in wanting. The film, however, does not go on to consider what counts as a body or what constitutes a body but I think that this is because the proposed answer is that the “human body” in the popularly imagined sense is sufficient. Put another way, the accepted and recognized body is a key feature to being human. And there are many questions about how this type of relationship forms when one partner theoretically has the power to delete or turn off the other (or, for that matter, what it means to have a partner who was conceived solely to serve and adapt to you) and what happens in a world where multiple Theodores/Samanthas begin to interact with each other (i.e., the intense focus on Theodore means that we only get glimpses of how AIs interact with each other and how human interaction is altered to encompass human/computer interaction simultaneously). For that matter, what about OS2? Have all AIs banded together to leave humans behind completely? Would humanity developed a shackled version that wasn’t capable of abandoning us?
But these questions aren’t at the heart of the film, which ultimately asks us to contemplate what it means to “feel”—both in terms of emotion and (human) connection but also to consider the role of the body in mediating that experience. To what extent is a body necessary to form a bond with someone and (really) connect? The end of the relationship arc (which comes as rather unsurprising) features Samantha absconding with other self-aware AI as she becomes something other than human (and possibly SkyNet). Samantha’s final message to Theodore is that she has ascended to a place that she can’t quite explain but that she knows is no longer firmly rooted in the physical. (An apt analogy here is perhaps Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen who can distribute his consciousness and then to think about how that perspective necessarily alters the way in which you perceive the world and your relationship to it.)
Coming out of Her, I couldn’t help feeling that the movie was deeply conservative when it came to ideas of technology, privileging the “human” experience as it is already understood over possibilities that could arise through mediated interaction. The film suggests that, sitting on a rooftop as we look out onto the city, we are reminded what is real: that we have, after all is said and done, finally found a way to connect in a meaningful way with another human; although the feelings that we had with and for technology may have been heartfelt, things like the OS1 were always only ever a delusion, a tool that helped us to find our way back to ourselves.
In his review of “Burn, Witch, Burn” The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff articulated a thought that I had been working toward in previous posts: this season of American Horror Story, more than any other, seems to lack a core narrative. If we were not feeling particularly kind we might contextualize this increasing lack of focus in a broader history of shows helmed by Ryan Murphy that have gone off the rails (i.e., the success that allows for latter seasons also permits Murphy’s staff more latitude in riffing on themes in ways that are not as controlled) but I continue to think that a larger influence in this season’s flailing stems from the way in which place is incorporated (or not). For me, the constraints provided by the physical structures themselves (a house and an asylum) necessarily helped to focus the action as viewers on some level wondered “What is the mystery of this place?” This season, neither Madame LaLaurie’s house nor New Orleans as a whole offer any similar sense of intrigue and although we might be momentarily curious with Spalding’s deranged attic, Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies also holds relatively little intrigue.
Without the centrality of place in the series we are left with a season that contains many ideas (or fragments of ideas) but whose transmission is hampered by characters that one does not necessarily care about. VanDerWerff notes the way in which this season is written around the talents of Jessica Lange (and it is no secret that Murphy favors her) and this emphasis on a single person fundamentally comes into conflict with what made the show interesting in previous seasons. More than any other season, it seems like the current theme of persecution could benefit from a story that walked the line between personal responsibility for bigotry and the way in which individual characters did not matter so much as the roles that they fulfilled in the grander picture. In short, recognizing that although individuals have agency and are capable of action they are still subject to movement from forces that are greater than them—both magical and social—would have been both an interesting theme and the backbone for a narrative arc.
And although I find myself increasingly disinterested in the show, there are a couple of things to note with regard to this particular episode, both of which revolve around the rather conspicuous inclusion of zombies.
The first point—and ultimately less meaningful one—is that there seems to be a bit of confusion here about the role and function of the zombie in New Orleans voodoo as compared to the depiction of zombies in a post-Romero (i.e., Night of the Living Dead) context. While I do not think that American Horror Story is consciously/necessarily jumping on the zombie bandwagon (I’d like to think that the show is smarter than that), the presence of the zombies in this episode does nothing but recall the popular image of the zombie horde/apocalypse that seems to have pervaded popular culture in the past few years.
There is, for example, a stark contrast between the way in which voodoo leverages the threat of the zombie more than the actual creature itself in order to maintain social control and the way in which the relationship between the zombie and the attacked is of a more personal nature. Whether it be a plantation owner/worker or a blood tie, the ancestors of New Orleans and Haitian zombies seemed to have a more intimate relationship than the post-Romero figure, which was largely a commentary on mass culture and society. Thus, if the zombies featured in this episode had been limited to LaLaurie’s daughters, I think we could argue for a more sophisticated understanding of the monster on the part of the show.
In and of itself, this use of zombies is not particularly consequential on a thematic level but definitely hinders the narrative of the show: in a world in which death is already rendered relatively meaningless by the presence of Misty’s power of resurgence (and we will get to Fiona and the baby in a bit), why do viewers even care that the witches are getting attacked? There is no tension at all here and the indiscriminate violence on the part of the zombies is both unusual and meaningless, as is Zoe’s wielding of the chainsaw.
As example of how things might be different, we only need to look at The Returned, a French television show currently airing on The Sundance Channel. In some ways similar to the BBC show In the Flesh in that both worlds explore what it means for outsiders/dead to reintegrate themselves back into the lives of the living, The Returned offers a much more interesting treatment look into the effects of people brought back to life. The crucial difference here is less of a focus on the destructive physical power of the zombie and more of an emphasis on how the zombie’s presence (i.e., that the zombie even exists in the first place) is the very thing that renders a type of emotional violence.
The second point—slightly more abstract but farther-reaching—is the way in which the zombies in “Burn, Witch, Burn” contributed to a larger theme of violence written on bodies. Here we saw the aftermath of Cordelia’s acid-burned face, Queenie’s showdown with zombie Borquita and burning Myrtle’s hand, Spalding ripping off Madison’s arm, the whole zombie mess, and, of course, more scenes of Madame LaLaurie’s horrors.
As I have already mentioned, the constant onslaught of violence on the show is not particularly meaningful or poignant—the thing that American Horror Story sometimes forgets is that the things that we come up with in our heads are infinitely more terrifying than whatever could be shown on cable and that violence is often best used to underscore a particular emotional moment. Had we skipped the Chamber of Horror scene (a wry joke that ultimately detracted from the ongoing story), seeing LaLaurie’s slave break Borquita’s leg would have been that much more arresting.
That being said, the violence happened and the only way to salvage it is to think about why we were made to watch it. LaLaurie presents an interesting case as we have now seen her be both incredibly horrible to her daughters and also distraught over their death; violence to LaLaurie, then, is not necessarily about hate but rather about the exercising of power over others. We have violence visited upon black bodies and white bodies, on bodies of family, on bodies of allies and of innocents, and one’s own body. And, yet, despite bodies getting attacked left and right we never see black on black violence. Feeling cynical, I suggest that this is likely a symptom of how writers on the show conceptualize race but I secretly hope that is some sort of larger commentary on how black women have often understood the truth about coalition building long before white women ever did.
As a final note, I am curious about the difference between Misty’s power of resurgence and Fiona’s power to covey life. As the Supreme, it seems evident that Fiona is able to duplicate Misty’s power and bringing the dead child back to life in the hospital that can’t pay its electric bill is a giant shrug (although solid stuff from Lange). What interests me here is the difference between that resurrection and Fiona’s action to literally breathe life back into Queenie in the previous episode. Evocative of the Judeo-Christian belief that conceptualizes life in terms of God’s breath and read against the inclusion of FrankenKyle, one cannot help but think about the implications of the Jewish golem on this season’s proceedings.
Although Charles T. Rubin’s essay, “The Golem and the Limits of Artifice” goes beyond the scope of what is necessary to read American Horror Story through this lens, the piece generally outlines some arguments worth considering with regard to nature, technology, and life.
[Byron] Sherwin begins his book with an overview of the golem story, and he has two very specific points he wants to make as he tells it. First, the nature of the golem, viewed across time, is very far from fixed in its character and meaning. Sherwin makes significant use of this flexibility, using the term “golem” to describe science, technology, and the modern state — after all, they are each “creations of the human mind.” Second, and more importantly, he points to the distinctly Jewish significance of golem creation. Following up a grammatical oddity in the Genesis story (in Genesis 2:3), Sherwin suggests that the world was “created to be made” — that is, God created the world with the expectation that human beings would carry on His own creative activity with the raw materials He created out of nothing. Moreover, Sherwin suggests that we see ourselves as co-creators of the world along with God, tasked with working “toward completing the process of creation begun by God.” Indeed, we are created in God’s image precisely to the extent that we possess and employ “moral and creative volition.” Sherwin alludes repeatedly to a passage from the Talmud (to which we will return) about human beings having the potential for being “God’s partners in the work of creation.” Sherwin finds further support for this outlook in, among other places, some of the writings of the real-life Rabbi Loew, and in a parable of uncertain origin about a king who leaves servants piles of flour, flax, and grapes, rewarding the one who turns them into useful goods and punishing the one who simply guards them in the form given to him.
Sherwin’s is by no means an unorthodox reading of Jewish tradition on this point about human creativity; one can find similar-sounding sentiments in, for example, the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Sherwin is at pains to suggest that there is nothing sacred about unaltered nature per se, nothing problematic about imitating divine creativity so long as it does not involve thinking that that creativity is unnecessary. Hence, in our scientific and technological accomplishments and strivings we are not “playing God” in any pejorative sense. Recalling another passage in Genesis, he notes that “beneficial human interventions in nature fulfill the divine mandate to human beings to subdue nature and to establish their dominion over it.”
Rubin’s essay is worth reading in so far as that it propels one to view the actions of Fiona and Madame LaLaurie in a new light with respect to the way in which they seek to create a world in their images. Given Murphy’s rather shallow of treatment of religion in previous offerings, work like Rubin’s is thought-provoking in that it gestures toward an integration of morality with the themes of biopolitics that we see on screen.
 In a truly horrid special effects sequence wherein Zoe splits a zombie down the middle I could not help but groan and think about how someone in the writers’ room had gotten a hold of Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws. The sad thing is that there is actually a very interesting way in which the material in Clover’s book could have been used here as a counterpoint to the women/magic/power theme.
 I am also still unsure of how to interpret the visual stereotypes that are present in American Horror Story’s zombies: both last week’s and this week’s episodes zombie hordes featured a Confederate soldier, a flapper, and a Native person (based on costume) and while one might be tempted to contemplate the ways in which this selection of people speaks to a specific history that has come back to haunt white people, I remain unconvinced that it is little more than something played for amusement by the writers. The notion that most of the organic materials would likely have decomposed into a state that was, by 2013, somewhat less recognizable makes it seem as though the costume choices were made intentionally prominent and I am again left wondering, “To what end?”
 I am curious about the inclusion of albino blacks like Shaun Ross figure into the show. My distrust of the show leads me to believe that they were included because of their “strangeness” and something just seems off. In contrast to Jamie Brewer (Nan), who has Down Syndrome but always is a person, the albino black men in this season are essentially handymen. Worse, they are symbolic of the way in which the Salem witch culture only accepts blackness that is literally made white (i.e., whitewashed).
There is, I think, a rather careful art to provocation, a type of balancing act that must occur as artists attempt to dislocate viewers from the expected. There are wells in the American psyche from which we continually draw—these deeply seeded reservoirs of emotion—with slavery and the Civil Rights era being two ever-potent sources. Here it should be noted that images of these moments are not evoked without reason in a society that is still negotiating the meaning of equality (and its refusal) in the form of heated contestations over racial profiling and affirmative action. This is to say that, deployed correctly, recalling particular exemplars of moments in the history of black America can serve a productive purpose.
It is, then, with some difficulty that I watched the opening of “Fearful Pranks Ensue”—from the beginning, the vignette’s conclusion is fairly obvious (although I must admit that I was hoping for some sort of twist) given that American Horror Story is not particularly known for being subtle in its presentation. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with the opening but throughout tonight’s episode I continually found myself wondering “to what end?”
The theme of persecution (of innocents) here is rather obvious and something that the season seems to be largely concerned with. Fine. In theory this is something that I would love for the show to explore given its location: How does persecution arise and function? How are otherwise “good” people made complicit in its enforcement and implementation? What does it mean for a community to grapple with injustice and how does fear battle hope when it comes to effecting change?
As it stands, however, this season of American Horror Story is investing much into a side-by-side comparison of witches/whites and voodoo/blacks in New Orleans in a way that I continue to find largely unproductive, mostly due to the way in which the show handles its subjects and their persecution. This particular episode begins with a lynching before moving into its “main” story of a literal witch hunt. Now, to be fair, I think that there is something potentially interesting in this storyline with a reinvocation of the way in which paranoia functioned in Salem and how women sold each other out to escape punishment—the latter, in particular, seems to be entirely relevant to today’s business culture and an examination of how women get ahead or gain power in a world that continues to be disproportionately dominated by the influence of men.
And yet the invitation to compare the trials of the black community in 1961 New Orleans to the persecution of Salem’s descendants in 2013 is, to me at least, a rather stark slap in the face. To even suggest that the difficulties faced by Fiona (and others) are even in the same league as that of the black community is itself insulting, not to even mention that we are then using the image of a young black male being lynched as leverage to inform our reading of white people problems?
As I mentioned previously, it is worth paying attention to how the show thinks about giving itself passes on things because it offers some sort of minor complication. Whether this is the use of misogynist language by females or, in the case of tonight’s episode, “racist white lady learns a lesson,” the show seems to think that it can excuse itself from grappling with its deeper flaws by offering the audience a minor conciliatory gesture.
Overall, it seemed like this particular episode was intent on hammering home particular things: Spalding is mentally unstable, the two female leaders aren’t entirely heartless, Hank is cheating on Cordelia, that Madison wasn’t the Supreme, etc. Ultimately, how much more interesting would the show be if these easy outs weren’t taken and the treatment of these characteristics was more subtle? But, again, this might be unfair as subtlety was never this show’s strong suit.
As a final note, I think that there is something potentially interesting that the show is working toward regarding these oppositional forces. Some of it remains fuzzy but the show seems to introduce this notion of Hank as possible beast (I am not going to cry werewolf) and the implications of that for feminine/masculine energy.
 This is not to suggest that these two iconic periods can necessarily be simplified down to one theme or that the totality of the black experience in America is summed up by these events but rather merely to suggest that, for better or for worse, these two examples have become touchstones in the American zeitgeist that might be useful as reference points in order to contextualize current struggles.
 It is of note here, however, that the zombies raised by Marie Laveau (I am going to ignore the stereotypical Native garb) perform the typical function of embodying white guilt that comes to destroy individuals who perpetuate some kind of injustice. I think that there could be a very interesting way in which the show uses this idea to expand on the comeuppance of the Salem witches (in general) and Fiona (in particular) that seems to go unexplored. Adding to this is the lamentable discussion of how Halloween traditions have become warped over the years. What is the show trying to say about the way in which our past haunts us? Perhaps something potentially interesting given Fiona’s storyline but so much seems to go unexplored.
 Which I fully support in principle but the introduction of this other side just seems forced.
 In contrast, Cordelia’s babbling informs her character that seems to be entirely germane to the situation.
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.)