I was late to the party in regards to any engagement in the American Horror Story series. After a trepidacious turned immense enjoyment of FOX's Glee (seasons 1 and 2 only), it was hard to envision series creator Ryan Murphy with a vision for horror that I found palatable. Many additional factors went into that assumption but foremost, it was, and remains for me an extremely difficult task to commit time to serial television on a weekly basis, even in the advent of streaming.
It takes a tremendous amount of coaxing to convince me a series is worth my time. Film is an equally intense rather less time consuming habit to invest, a TV show can put me in a whirlwind of fandom for years, filled with endearing nostalgia and (slightly) terrifying devotion. My past has showed me this: when I loved a show, I loved hard. As an older gentlelady, those passions have simmered as I had to 'grow up' a little. A professor once said in my critical television class, "Being in television fandom is like a part-time job." Ask any of us there during the dawn of internet message boards.
Giving American Horror Story (AHS) a noble tryout viewing when the first season became available on Netflix Instant Watch reduced me to a fourteen year old girl who's learning to tame her hormones and emo rabbit hole with permanent floor jaw. With Murphy's FX conquest Nip/Tick being the medium from Glee's subversiveness yet bop-friendly, kid gloves approach to comedy and whatever the hell I was watching in AHS, the first season's aptly titled "Murder House" was a personal shock. Down to being completely unnerved by its opening credits. Sex and the supernatural is the best way to describe it topically but it also effortlessly turns to an audience daring us to explore its specifics in regards to family, romantic relationships, school violence, disabilities, mental illness, at levels of dysfunction as oddly angled as the common camera direction taken in the entire series.
Tackling the miniseries format by drawing a firm conclusion after each season, AHS employs its seasoned actors like the iconic Jessica Lange in its additional series' as new characters in different time periods and geographic locations. Its second venture, "Asylum" proved to be grander in plot and cast size and still just as entertaining. When it was time for its third act "Coven" to premiere, I was all caught up and ready to finally commit to this new tale that promised a weekly dose of witches in New Orleans. Add a few Black characters in the likeness of Angela Bassett and Gabourey Sidibe, this was going to be interesting.
During and after Coven's run, there's no way to separate its visceral thrills of structural/sociopolitical gems of awareness in matters of race, commonly with Bassett's Marie Laveau from the multiple problematic depictions of Black characters in the series (the salon shooting, the horrors endured by enslaved Africans bordering on exploitative, and Sidibe's Queenie arguably being more caricature than character). Being of (hesitant) praise yet fervent words maintains my position of our continuously convoluted experiences as pop culture consumers.
That is personally where I stand with "Coven". It is once again a cringe-worthy reminder how women of color's faces and intellect are a necessity and instrumental at times in writing characters of color. On the same rough turf of a well manicured field, there are cracks that inspire further inquiry into our uncomfortable history and present. This discomfort is the core element of the horror genre's affect on our sensibilities.
Much has been written about the series and its grappling of race being raised prominently, enough by the characters themselves to spark essays on the subject in ways that I find ripe for continued discussion. Regardless of Coven's overall assessment, it planted a seed in the forest of genre television for sure, particularly in regards to our continuous and very real issues with race. Like, love, hate or ambivalence, Coven's messy existence has earned our investigative rigor.
The complicated racial politics of "American Horror Story: Coven" by Neil Drumming
Certainly, it is naive to just be happy to be invited. Not all creatives are sensitive to the particular issues of people of color — or women, or gays, or the elderly, for that matter. The makers of shows like “Coven” often trip up over representation, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be called out on such missteps. I cringed at the scene in which Queenie masturbates before being raped and nearly disemboweled by an undead slave with the head of a bull. But after days of trying to decipher the political incorrectness of the moment, I concluded it was just uncomfortable and a bit hammy — no worse than the zombie frat boy being molested by his mother. This simply is FX on Wednesday nights.
American Horror Story: Coven Is Getting Race All Wrong by Sesali B. (@BadFatBlackGirl)
Let's Talk About The Extreme Racism and Sexism of 'American Horror Story: Coven' by Chloe Stillwell
Where "American Horror Story: Coven" Went Wrong by Louis Peitzman
Does 'American Horror Story: Coven' Have A Race Problem? by Kera Bolonik
'AHS: Coven': Gabourey Sidibe's Queenie as an Embodiment of the "Strong Black Woman" Stereotype by Cate Young