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.)