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Does shock value muddle a message? October 28, 2013

I was watching a recent episode of American Horror Story Coven with my boyfriend when suddenly a scene got very uncomfortable. Had he been paying closer attention to a certain character’s dialogue he would have seen it coming. Alas, we multi-task and so occasionally certain bits get lost while we flip around on our iPhones. Now, you probably want to stop here if you’re not at least 3 episodes into the new season because it’s about to get spoilery. SPOILERS! DON’T READ BEYOND HERE. I WARNED YOU! If you’re caught up on the show, go ahead.

evan-peters-kyle-spencer-american-horror-story-coven-s03e03-the-replacements-tarThe “WTF scene” that made my boyfriend squirm was when the show’s Frankenstein’s monster, Kyle, gets touched inappropriately by his depressed and drug-addled mother (played by Mare Winningham). We had two very separate, but bold reactions to the scene. I stayed quiet and took in his shock and dismay. I’m probably paraphasing a bit, but it was something like, “oh, no…why?” He didn’t understand why they had to go there and lobbed it in with the second season’s incorrigible kitchen sink. I totally understand that AHS tends to throw reactionary scenes at the wall and sometimes they don’t stick. But, when they do, they really do. In this case, I felt an immediate sense of “yes!” Believe me, I am not excited to see a young man get molested by his mother on primetime TV. I was just proud that the show went there because for years Hollywood has all-but ignored female-on-male rape. Yet, it is a horrifying reality for many men, especially in the familial setting as shown on the series. With all this said, I don’t want you to think that my boyfriend lacks empathy for these characters and real-life situations. He absolutely does and this was really just a jumping off point for me to write a blog about this topic.

article-2476233-18F6899900000578-313_634x354The one thing AHS is good at is showcasing all sides of deviant behavior. Sometimes we don’t understand why they throw a certain twist in and others make perfect sense. What other shows do you know that are addressing mommy issues through oral fixation with breast milk, BDSM and women who will go to any length to get pregnant? While Kyle getting diddled by his mom may make us uncomfortable, I am so glad AHS took a stand and showed this. Like I’ve said before, through the guise of horror, they can get away with things television has shied away from for years. Incest being one of them. Not to sound like a broken record, but Gene Roddenberry did it with Star Trek through aliens and distant planets. AHS is doing it through broken people and messed up situations.

It’s easy for us to say, “ew” or “that’s gross,” but keep in mind whatever awful deviant behavior you see on-screen as horror could be someone’s reality. So, before you get up in arms over this moment, let’s look at the facts. According to RAINN.org, 2.78 million men in the U.S. have been victims of sexual assault or rape. In 2003, 1 in every ten rape victims were male. That’s just the ones reporting it. There’s a stigma in society about masculinity. Because men aren’t encouraged as much as women to talk about their feelings, I’m sure there are a lot of men who suffer silently. These men never get their stories of childhood sexual abuse heard. Film and television perpetuates these misconceptions. But, it also has the power to make us feel less alone. Some of my male friends have told me about their abuse stories and I’m always compassionate. Not everyone feels comfortable enough to talk about it to their friends and family. Television has a lot of power because it comes into our homes and invades our lives. It has the power to show situations that we envy, cars we want to drive and people we want to be. On the flip side, it can make people feel they are not alone. Let’s look at the movie, Bully and campaigns like “It Gets Better.” If those images and stories helped  just one person survive and overcome, then they were a success in my mind. Television doesn’t necessarily have to take on important issues, but good writing should. I knew when I saw the incest scene, it wasn’t just thrown in there for shock value. I knew the writers would make it pay off. On a side note, this is the second time in one week FX has shown motherly molestation on their network. Sons of Anarchy also featured a woman who came to a violent end for her actions in this area.

RAINN.org lists 80% of rape and sexual assault victims as being under 30 years of age. Under 30 is a huge section of AHS’ audience. I hope they are getting the messages across beyond the violent imagery. I know many of you were probably cheering zombie-Kyle on as he took a trophy to his mom’s face, but that’s the surface horror. Gore is not what makes something scary. The everyday-realities of our lives reflected back at us is the real horror. The real horror is that this happens all the time and no one is talking about it. I just have to wonder if the messages are getting across or do people just see this show as shock for shock’s sake? I really hope not because there is real potential here. a_560x0

While some of you are just grossed out, I am proud of the show’s writers for creating fully-realized characters with flaws. Even the mother is a role most women do not get to play often. They didn’t just show her as some trope of villany. She was complex, coping with the loss of men in her life, suicidal, down-trodden and probably suffered some form of sexual abuse in her past as well. She thought she was doing something to please her son. While we didn’t see what her relationship with Kyle was like when he was coherent, I get the feeling he went along with it for a while. His reaction to Madison getting gang-raped at the party takes on a whole new meaning once you consider that. Maybe I am reading too far into this, but I’ve heard rape survivors feel disconnected from their bodies. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse can become withdrawn. Perhaps the mute-monster version of Kyle is a metaphor for this. The silent, dissociative “Franken-Kyle” made up of other boys’ parts is a perfect parallel to how some victims of sexual abuse feel. If you were going for this, Tim Minear, then I applaud you! When Kyle screams, “NO!” right before he attacks his mother we know this was a breaking point. Who is the real monster in this scenario? Good writing should make you ask those questions.

As I’ve said before, TV is where writers are taking risks these days. There’s too much riding on movies and how do you market a downer? Television can show facets of life, no matter how ugly, and get away with it. Movies are so expensive to make and theater-going audiences are dwindling. I feel filmmakers (with some exceptions) are afraid to take risks because it’s so hard to get movies made and distributed these days. Shows like AHS, which feature ensemble casts, can focus on a few people per episode and highlight their dysfunction without the whole show being about that one issue.

AHS has not always done the best job treating these issues with respect and class, but I will argue for its place on my TV. So, next time the show makes you squirm, think about why the writers chose to go there. I guarantee there’s more to it than shock value.

***Male survivors and others affected by sexual violence can receive free, confidential, live help through RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline, 24/7. Call 1.800.656.HOPE to be connected to a local rape crisis center in your area, or visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline to get live help in an instant-messaging format.

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