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The (Not So) Feminist Dream-Logic of American Horror Story: Freak Show

The life of a socially conscious American Horror Story fan is rarely an easy or enviable one.

Actually, the life of a socially conscious, feminist horror fan is no walk in the park, generally speaking: I maintain that the genre, best known for its lowbrow shock tactics and unfaltering dedication to punishing female sexuality with a sternly applied chainsaw to the face, can be a transformative and transgressive statement on how the world actually works.

Brutality and gore may be in poor taste, cinematically speaking. Yet we live in a brutal, gory world. And this is true particularly for the marginalized: People of color face disproportionate police violence and incarceration. (Much of this summer was spent watching the police force of Ferguson, Missouri brutalize the townsfolk who dared to protest the shooting of an unarmed young black man named Michael Brown. As I write this, reports are rolling in on the protesters arrested after a shooting a few towns over, in St. Louis, Missouri; the victim was yet another young black man, Vonderrit Meyers, and he was shot seventeen times.) 25% of women report being sexually assaulted and/or experiencing domestic violence. Trans women represented only 10% of anti-GLBT hate crime victims, but 45% of hate crime murders.

Horror is our literature of violence, and as such, it’s uniquely suited to address the brutality of society. It transmutes real-world pain and fear into mythologized, dream-logic nightmare representation. And when it works — as in the Alien series, the world’s longest and most lavishly entertaining argument for abortion rights — it makes its point far better than realist stories ever could. (Regardless of their political affiliation, everyone wants the characters in Alien to extract the chest-bursters from their stomach before they rip their way out and start running around.) When it goes wrong, however… well, when it goes wrong, you get American Horror Story.

It’s been clear, at least since American Horror Story’s masterful second season Asylum, that Ryan Murphy desperately wants to say something about American society with this series. It’s the most self-consciously political and progressive genre fiction on TV. Unfortunately, the success of its political statements has been wildly uneven, largely due to the fact that Murphy himself possesses all the subtlety and nuance of a chainsaw to the face. The first AHS season, Murder House, was about the oppressiveness of the traditional nuclear family; Asylum explored how female and queer sexualities are pathologized; its last and worst season, Coven, was at least nominally about race. But the disaster of Coven — which veered from cringe-worthy liberal self-righteousness at best to blatant racism at worst — and the fact that it followed so closely upon Asylum speaks to the scattershot and uneven nature of AHS’ storytelling, which is purposely calibrated to trigger giggles and WTFs just as often as genuine scares.

It’s this approach that stands to undermine Freak Show, which is pretty much what it says on the tin: A carnival display of disabled people, whether actual actors with disabilities (Jyoti Amge, Mat Fraser and Rose Simmons, some of whom have recorded illuminating interviews in advance of the series) or the core AHS cast of Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters et. al done up in prosthetics. The show wants us to think about what it is to be a “freak,” to be told that you and your body are too strange and ugly and frightening to ever be accepted by the mainstream. After only one episode, we’ve already gotten a stirring speech about how “the real freaks are out there,” in the form of self-righteous normals who come to the freak show to gawk. But, as much as the show wants us to interrogate our discomfort with the bodies we see on screen, Murphy’s over-the-top, gleefully crude aesthetic ensures that it frequently invites us to be uncomfortable, and to gawk. On the one hand, we’re being asked to identify with these disabled people, and condemn the society that shames and rejects their bodies; on the other hand, the sight of those bodies is supposed to gross us out.

What it comes down to, I suspect, is a poor use of metaphor. Because it’s clear that the “freaks” are a metaphor for something. For example, Ryan Murphy’s preoccupation with gender is apparent right away, this time in the form of women with bodies that defy gender norms: Kathy Bates plays a bearded lady, and Angela Basset plays an intersex woman with three breasts. The show has also cast a trans actress, Erika Ervin, as “Amazon Eve,” although — refreshingly — Eve is the carnival’s resident “giantess,” and thus Ervin’s role seems to be defined less by her as-yet-unmentioned trans status than by the fact that she’s nearly seven feet tall. (In this one case, there’s a certain crude fairness involved: There are plenty of trans women in the world, most of whom just want to live their lives without spending the whole day discussing their medical histories, but there are very few women, or people for that matter, who’d have to look down in order to lock eyes with Michael Jordan.) Murphy’s also doing his part to queer and subvert masculinity: Michael Chiklis plays a strongman, an archetype of traditional macho manliness, who left Bates to marry Bassett. Evan Peters (the show’s resident dreamboat, forever doomed to play characters who inventively pleasure women; last year, he played a non-verbal Frankenstein’s monster whom a couple of teenage girls deployed for three-ways) plays a “lobster boy” whose long, thick hands make him a popular gigolo among the town’s bored housewives.

So it’s not hard to read these “freaks” — the colorful outcasts who live in their own communities, who have unconventional gender performances and sex lives, who are outwardly reviled by the same upstanding citizens who privately lust after them — as metaphors for GLBT people. Or for women who don’t fit traditional definitions of femininity. Or, given that drugs, weird outfits and musical performance are also part of the mix (ringmistress Elsa is prone to David Bowie covers, and runs an opium den where the town’s “good girls” can get high and have group sex for a few days) as metaphors for counterculture in general. The freaks could represent queer communities, feminism, hippies. But what they’re not meant to represent, weirdly enough, are actual disabled people; their disabled bodies are used for sensational display, but the question of what it is to live with what Mat Fraser terms a “radical difference,” and how society fails to be accessible for radically different people, never quite comes into focus.

Horror speaks in symbol and dream-logic. But there’s a difference between telling your story in metaphors, and using someone else as a metaphor for you — in this case, using already marginalized people as metaphors for the marginalization of something else. Asylum was American Horror Story’s best social commentary because, for all its splatter and silliness, it was quite clear who it was talking about. The persecuted heroes’ differences — being sexually active women, or lesbians, or being in interracial relationships — were specific and anchored in the real world, even as the show brought in alien abductions and demon possession as stand-ins for prejudice. In this case, we’re being shown one group’s pain, but being encouraged to look past it, toward the pain of someone else. Granted, it’s early going, and if there’s one thing American Horror Story never does, it’s predictability and consistency: The show could be something completely different next week, let alone by the time the season finale comes around. But unless American Horror Story stops using disability as metaphor for oppression, and starts taking the oppression of disabled people seriously, a fatal flaw is built into its premise. It can’t tell the story it wants to tell until that flaw is resolved.