Women in American Horror Story

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Those of us who grew up in the 1980s drew the short end of the stick when it comes to strong female roles on screen, since having to pick between Angela Channing or the mum in Growing Pains is hardly the stuff that feminist dreams are made of.

Female roles slowly improved in the 1990s, with series such as Murder, She Wrote, Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sex in the City presenting us with strong, intelligent, sometimes delightfully wacky women, who were as capable of strutting down Manhattan in a pair of Louboutins as of winning important cases on discrimination, racism or women’s rights.

American Horror Story, created and produced by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, takes feminism to the next level, through characters who are so complex and multi-layered, that they challenge female actors to a profound level. These characters are not for the feeble; since the crux of the series is terror, it takes tremendous talent to express true fear and panic, as the series’ divas have been asked to do, season after season.

To a great extent, Murphy and Falchuk resuscitated the career of Jessica Lange, an actress oddly enough known for her astounding beauty, who boasts a string of awards that includes two Oscars (Best Actress for Blue Sky, 1994, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Tootsie, 1982), in addition to four other Academy Award nominations.

In 2014, she won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie for playing Elsa Mars in American Horror Story (2011 season), though there is hardly a year when she isn’t nominated for a Primetime Emmy.

American Horror Story has been running for seven seasons now; the very best season is said to be Season 2: Asylum. Certainly, it presented Murphy and Falchuk’s two longstanding muses (Lange and co-star, Sarah Paulson) with the defining roles of their career.

Lange plays Sister Jude – the Catholic nun who runs the asylum with an iron fist, but who wears red lingerie under her habit and secretly dreams of bedding the Monsignor. Paulson is her nemesis and eventual savior; she plays Lana Winters, a feminist journalist who is unwittingly admitted into the asylum after getting caught snooping one too many times.

The series runs the gamut in terms of mental health abuse, revealing the historical use of shock therapy and chemical experimentation in mental health treatment, and the abuse that ran rife at ‘asylums’. Throughout the season, we see Sister Jude turn from villain to hero after she unwittingly becomes a patient herself and is subject to the same torture she coldly bestowed upon others.

A beautiful balance to these two strong femmes is Evan Peters. Lange, Paulson and Peters have appeared in nearly every season, always playing different characters, with a whole new mindset to climb into. The sophistication of the emotions they express is no less than astounding. It certainly is true that many of the best actors are foregoing the big screen in favour of quality series such as this.

Lange, Paulson and Peters, the holy triumvirate of American Horror Story, have shone in a host of different scenarios; in one of the lightest and funniest of the seasons (Coven), Paulson is a natural medicine specialist who also happens to be the daughter of the ‘supreme’ leader of a coven (played by Lange).

To watch the two actors confront deep issues such as abandonment, narcissism and sacrifice, is no less than a treat. Somehow, this is the type of art you would pay big money to see onstage – and there it is, available via streaming, anytime you want. It almost seems too good to be true.

As we go to print, American Horror Story will have just finished its seventh season – hailed one of the top three alongside seasons one and two. Cult takes on hairy topics such as the anxiety that overtook many post-Trump election.

It also sees Sarah Paulson playing a housewife suffering from more phobias than you could poke a stick at – including coulrophobia (fear of clowns), haemophobia (fear of blood) and trypophobia (a fear of irregular patterns or clusters of small holes or bumps).

Of course, under the sadistic supervision of Murphy and Falchuk, she faces more clowns, blood and bumps than even the characters in Stranger Things ever had to encounter – in this universe or ‘the parallel one’.

Would you ever have imagined America’s biggest stars – Liz Taylor, Ava Gardner, Doris Day – giving the performances of their lives on the small screen? Somehow we feel if they had been offered a chance, they wouldn’t have hesitated to grab it. An actor can only show her full scope when she oversteps her limits. No real feminist ever wanted to just ‘play safe’.

Words Marisa Cutillas

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