American Horror Story is a TV show that pushes a lot of boundaries, but when it comes to women is it reinforcing archetypes or breaking new ground? Interestingly enough, the show, which debuted in early October on FX, ranked highest of all FX series premieres in women ages 18-49. So, what are those archetypes and why does this program appeal to women?
The horror genre isn’t exactly the first place you’d look to find multi-layered roles for ladies, but AHS is turning that notion on its head. After all, you don’t get the star power of Jessica Lange if all you’re doing is victimizing women. Let’s take a look inside AHS’ “murder house” and pinpoint some of the female characters who make up its foundation.
The Scorned Woman- Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) has been through it all, miscarriages, a cheating husband and a home invasion. Yet, at the heart of it all she is a survivor and is determined to move on with her life. Yes, there are plenty of tears and even some gross-out moments with Mrs. Harmon, but she is more than just a weeping housewife. She defends what’s hers, has fantasies outside her marriage and stands up for what’s right.
The Cougar-Jessica Lange plays next-door neighbor Constance who is equal-parts charming and abusive. She prefers the company of younger men and has a nasty habit of putting down others to make herself feel better. She is a cougar, but she also plays the archetypal “boss” character. Her story deals with the loss of children, disabilities and loneliness.
The Innocent- Constance’s playful daughter Addie (Jamie Brewer) who has Down Syndrome. She is obsessed with the murder house and constantly sneaks in. Her innocence makes her one of the shows lighter, more endearing characters. She just wants to be a “pretty girl” but her struggles are heard loud and clear when her mother & society reminds her that she is not.
The Fatalist-Violet Harmon (Taissa Farmiga) is a goth-girl outsider in the making. She suffers from depression and cuts herself regularly. Her boyfriend Tate is a misunderstood young man from the wrong side of the tracks with violent delusions (and sometimes actions). She feels lost amongst her parents constant drama and can’t relate to others at school. She deals with bullying, suicide attempts and drug overdoses.
The Mistress-Kate Mara plays Hayden, the college student who had an affair with Mr. Harmon. She wants to be loved, but her love is not returned the way she would like. On the surface, her character seems like a plot device, but she really digs deep with issues of abortion, rejection and abuse. She plays an active role in making Vivien’s life miserable. The two share a handful of interesting verbal spats.
The Domestic-Francis Conroy plays Moira the cleaning lady who comes with the house. She cooks, she cleans, she gives advice when asked. Her cloudy eye and unflinching servitude to the Harmons make her seem like just another creepy old lady. However, we discover she is a rape survivor and is becoming a loyal confidant to Mrs. Harmon. She is definitely not afraid to get her hands, mouth or whatever dirty in the line of duty.
The Femme Fatale- Moira (Alexandra Breckenridge) appears in two forms. For the women, she is the before-mentioned matronly housekeeper with a cloudy eye. For the men, she is a young, sexed up pinup girl in a French maid’s outfit complete with garters. She uses her sexuality to gain favor and information from the men who cross the murder house threshold. This incarnation of Moira is less defendable, but is still not a throw-away character.
The Nurturer- Nora (Lily Rabe) is the loyal wife of Charles Montgomery, the doctor who first owned the murder house in the 1920s. She aided him in illegal abortions in the house’s basement. She starts as a strong demanding wife and mistress of the house, but when her own baby is kidnapped we see an interesting change in Nora. When she meets her “Frankenbaby” it is a enough to push her over the edge to do the unthinkable, but first she nurses it. Nora brings us some creepy moments, but like the other female characters there is an underlying tragedy motivating her. Despite her chequered past, she appears to have some redeeming characteristics, especially when it concerns the Harmons and their unborn child.
It would be very easy to dismiss this over-the-top shock fest, but that would be shortsighted. Underneath the gore and gimp masks, AHS is actually treading new ground for women. The show has created rich characters that employ teenage to older actresses.
In horror, we’ve seen the feisty machete-wielding heroine who fights for her life, but how often do we get to see what’s going on inside her head? Jane Espenson said at San Diego Comic Con that the secret to writing great female characters is to make them flawed. The one thing you can definitely say about the women of AHS is they are inherently damaged. Perhaps the true horror of AHS are the things women deal with in everyday life. Maybe this resonates with audiences more than the actual horror elements. What other show is currently covering teen shootings, miscarriages, abortion, hormones, infidelity, rape, death of children and bullying? The show has pulled a switcheroo on audiences by using provocative language and frightening imagery to tell emotional female-focused stories. Of course, no one is complaining about Dylan McDermott’s naked ass that comes with it.