The women of American Horror Story are some of the best depictions of females in the entire horror genre, because they aren't rendered to the stereotypical horror tropes we are all too familiar with. You know the ones I am talking about - the damsel in distress, the saved virgin or the dumb blonde. Stereotypes such as these result in predictable and bland arcs and worst of all, poor representation for women.
Without a doubt, American Horror Story is one of the very few and best, female-driven shows on television today. The show exposed a whole range of strong actresses to a whole new demographic, such as Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, Connie Britton, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett and younger stars like Taissa Farmiga, Emma Roberts, Jamie Brewer and Gabourey Sidibe. Complex Magazine says the show "cornered the market on strong women" and this is completely accurate. From the get-go, audiences were given strong and complex female-focused arcs. The premiere of the show back in 2011 brought in around 3.2 million viewers, 54% being female. It is safe to assume that many female fans are drawn to the show because of how dominant the female narrative is.
Sure, we can all argue for days on what makes and breaks American Horror Story - which season trumps the rest, opinions on certain actors etc. but right now I want to celebrate how great the show is to its female counterparts.
In my honest opinion, the representation of women in horror hasn't always been the best. The way females are represented in horror majority of the time, has created a stigma that horror is predominantly male territory, because women are typically shown as the naive and weaker sex - whilst also being completely over sexualised. However, when the rise of feminism hit so did a storm of kick-ass female characters in the horror genre - the 'final girl' archetype for example. American Horror Story explores many classic female archetypes, but instead of conforming to tiring stereotypes, Ryan Murphy and his team make them incredibly refreshing and interesting.
Mother Knows Best
American Horror Story is nowhere short of motherly roles, with variants of the monstrous archaic mother that we are used to seeing in horror. Most of the mothers in the horror genre are remembered for how awful they are, and are usually given a supporting role. The most known mothers and some of the strongest characters in American Horror Story are from Season 1 - Vivien Harmon played by Connie Britton, Constance Langdon played by Jessica Lange and Nora Montgomery played by Lily Rabe. They are truly the mothers that have been through the most tragic things: murder, rape, suicide, cheating husbands and losing their own children.
In fact, all mothers in the world of American Horror Story experience tragedy. For example, Constance's son is shot by a SWAT team after he committed a mass shooting, Nora's baby is kidnapped and brutally murdered, Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) from Season 3 has her baby taken away in exchange for immortality, Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy) from Season 4 has to deal with a psychotic son and Alex Lowe (Chloë Sevigny) from Season 5 has her little boy kidnapped by a vampire. We see all of these women struggle immensely and commit acts close to sin, yet we are still captivated and cheer them on. Just me? Anyway, many of them overcome and fight on because of how wise and strong-willed they are at the core. Certainly not your average horror mother.
Am I Distracting You?
Speaking of captivating - yes, what is horror without the element of sex or sexy female characters. American Horror Story isn't one to shy away from the classic femme fatale trope. Moira O'Hara from Season 1 is the perfect example of this. We have two incarnations of the maid Moira - first, a young female scantily dressed played by Alexander Breckenridge and an older version dressed in more appropriate attire played by Frances Conroy. No surprises that many viewers would say that Young Moira is the exact stereotype of serving the male gaze - however - that is exactly what the show is trying to call out. Moira explains "I'm not naive to the ways of men. Their need to objectify, conquer. They see what they want to see." Basically, if men want to see Moira as her true self (Conroy version) they must resist the compulsion to see her as a sexual object. A great way to flip the script in my opinion.
Older Moira actually becomes a companion to Vivien Harmon during her troubles, so we question why Young Moira still seduces her husband. Well, Moira and Vivien's relationship has been described as "female solidarity" because Moira isn't seducing Ben to ruin the marriage - "the very contrary; she is attempting to deduce if Ben is worthy of forgiveness" for having cheated on Vivien. This is definitely a way of how American Horror Story likes to break the molds surrounding women in horror.
I'm No Cookie
The show also shatters the idea that women are the weaker sex. Let's be real - if you are a female character in the horror genre, you can bet that your chances of being killed off are extremely high. Horror is notorious for killing and victimizing women, more so than the males, thus reinforcing the stereotype that women are weaker. American Horror Story continues to crack down on this ideology.
The biggest example comes from Lana Winters played by Sarah Paulson. Lana Winters is a character from Season 2 and is the definition of a survivor. Having been committed to the insane asylum against her will, chained up in a serial killers' basement who rapes and nurses from her, falling pregnant to said serial killer/rapist and enduring electroshock and aversion therapy - Lana Winters comes out on top. She proves to be far more powerful than the men surrounding her, as she escapes and kills her rapist and exposes the horrors of Briarcliff manor.
Many of the female characters actually seem to fall victim to the men surrounding them. Other than Lana Winters, a few examples include Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) from Season 3, who is gang-raped by a group of frat boys and Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) from Season 4, who has her legs sawed off by masked men during a snuff film. What all the women in American Horror Story have in common is that they refuse to let their victimizes or men in their lives define or rule them. They won't settle for being the victims, which is something the horror genre seems to sincerely lack. Take it from Violet Harmon (Taissa Farmiga, Season 1) "You say we were victims of something bad there. I say that's the place where we survived." Well put Violet.
Sure, you will find strong kick-ass females in horror, but rarely do we ever see how complex they truly are. Put perfectly, American Horror Story "develops complex female characters who are powerful in their evils and sins and simultaneously in their wit and compassion". If you look at the women of American Horror Story, you will notice that they are all damaged in some way - physically, mentally and emotionally. Their insecurities are on display and that makes the characters more real and accessible. Females are only human, so why not make the characters flawed, interesting and active - more accurate depictions of women and not a one-dimensional character. Horror is constantly evolving and let's face it, the representation of female characters in the media on a whole still needs improving. One genre at a time I guess.