JUST HOW WITCH-TASTIC IS AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN? A POINT/COUNTERPOINT
At the American Horror Story panel that was part of August’s Television Critics’ Association press tour, the show’s executive producer talked of a “feminist theme” pervading the third season of the show. After a first season in which women were terrorized, murdered, stalked, raped, impregnated with devil babies, tortured by a killer abortionist, and imprisoned for life in a haunted mansion; and a second in which they dealt with most of that plus nuns and aliens, yeah, sure, bring on the feminism.
And indeed, American Horror Story: Coven indeed has a lot of potential to be more feminist than its predecessors. Witchcraft, after all, has historically been associated with women whose talents, personalities, and life choices didn’t jibe with those of the status quo, and the horrible things that were done in the name of purging communities of witches were at heart an expression of fear—fear of women who don’t conform, fear of women who have no use for the usual institutions of male power, fear of women who can make shit happen.
It’s shaping up to be a witchy TV season in general, with the soapy Lifetime drama Witches of East End joining AHS: Coven in putting spellcasters front and center, and the sheer number of amazing actors who’ve joined up with creator Ryan Murphy’s repertory company is reason enough to watch. Along with Murphy regulars like Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, and Taissa Farmiga, AHS: Coven also features Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Gabourey Sidibe, Patti LuPone, Frances Conroy, and Christine Ebersole. And it’s definitely off to a roaring start: Last week’s premiere episode of Covenwas the series’ most watched, with 5.54 million viewers tuning in.
If you already love witches and/or the larger American Horror Story concept, you’re already watching. If not, you may be wondering both whether it’s worth your precious pop-culture time and energy, and whether those claims of a feminist theme were more than hollow hype. Though only two episodes have aired, we’ve collected a series of points and counterpoints.
Point: Witches are fucking cool. After all, who among us has not wanted to employ some magic in our lives? From benevolent acts of clairvoyance to more sinister turns in the web of the dark arts, AHS: Coven pays respect to the idea that magic need not always be used for evil. And when it is—when, for instance, a character who’s recently been drugged and gang-raped in a frat house flips a bus contained the rapists—we’re meant to feel some satisfaction that at least in this fictional world, survivors can triumph in ways that real-world survivors often cannot.
Counterpoint: Witches are cool, but rehashing past plot points with some kind of witchy twist just makes viewers think this show is obsessed with evil pregnancies and rape. In just the first two episodes of AHS: Coven, you’ll be reminded that series creator Ryan Murphy has some pet subjects. Oh, there’s a woman struggling with infertility who is reluctant—but quickly talked into—using magic to conceive? I wonder if something super untoward will happen in her uterus that will make her wish she’d stuck it out for a round of plain old in vitro! And what’s that you say? There’s that aforementioned depiction of a drugging and gang rape? Well, that’s so commonplace by now in American Horror Story that it won’t even make it into BuzzFeed’s roundup of the “16 Most WTF Moments from the American Horror Story:Coven Premiere.” Etc.
Point: AHS: Coven has a large, mostly female cast of characters, and you’ll want to see more of them. The nominal lead, offering viewers a fish-out-of-water introduction to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies in New Orleans, is Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), whose parents failed to tell her she was a witch before she discovered it the hard way—by accidentally killing her boyfriend during sex. The mysterious wraith who comes to spirit her away is played by Frances Conroy, channeling Grace Coddington and being generally awesome. The young sister-witches she meets at the yawning white mansion that houses the school all have special powers to rival Zoe’s killer vagina—Madison (Emma Roberts) is telekinetic, Nan (Jamie Brewer) is clairvoyant, and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) is a self-described “human voodoo doll.” In a parallel storyline that converges in the second episode, we meet Misty (Lily Rabe), a young woman in rural Lousiana whose ability to revive a dead bird at an actual revival meeting gets her accused of necromancy and burned at the stake. In other words, ladies be witchin’.
Counterpoint: There’s a large, mostly female cast of characters. But women, amirite? So far—and again, it’s only been two episodes—the women fit neatly into two categories. The “evil and awful” category includes Delphine LaLaurie, a New Orleans society lady whom we meet in 1834, when she is doing unspeakable things to the slaves in her employ “because I can.” (The first 15 minutes of the first episode are made even more sickening when you find out that they are based on true events.)
Less across-the-board evil is Madison, a former child star who pettily killed a film director by dropping a light on his head but who now traffics in a general ennui that occasionally bubbles over into contempt for her peers at Miss Robichaux’s. And then there’s Fiona Goode, whom we’ll get to in a second. In the “boring pushover” category are Zoe and her headmistress Cordelia Foxx, both of whom seem essentially secure in themselves yet manage to display almost no spine when pressured to do something like build a Frankenstein out of dead frat boys or do black-magic babymaking.
Point: Jessica Lange plays a badass older witch who is called “The Supreme,” either because she is the most powerful witch around or because she got into a slap fight with Diana Ross and handily dispatched her while humming “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Since coming to live with her daughter, school headmistress Cordelia, and the four young witches of Miss Robichaux’s, she’s already hurled a couple of the ladies against a wall, dug up the long-buried evildoer LaLaurie, wiped clean the minds of two meddling police detectives, and dropped a handful of bitchtastic bon mots on whoever happens to be around, all in sky-high heels. Get her some more scenery to chew, ’cause she’s running out.
Counterpoint: Lange’s character is, so far, pretty one-note. And, also, pretty ageist. AHS loves itself some ballsy women of a certain age, and Lange is the cappo di tutti, having previously appeared in AHS as variations on the same sassy, sexy, and straight-talking character. As Fiona, she has “getting her way in life” pretty well locked down by dint of witchcraft, which leaves plenty of time for her main obsession of not looking her age. It’s a fixation which in the first episode involves demanding increasingly large doses of an experimental rejuvenating serum from a cute male scientist, sucking the very life from said scientist once he threatened to cut off her supply, and keening at herself in a mirrored apartment while blowing rails and vamping around to the Iron Butterfly classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
It’s no coincidence that Fiona’s need to look and feel younger is juxtaposed with scenes of the slave-torturing Delphine LaLaurie daubing her face with a mixture of blood and pancreas that she believes will keep her face youthful—vanity, and more specifically the abject fear of aging, is a woman’s sin that has been the basis for more than a few horror movies. And now that Fiona has actually made the acquaintance of two immortal people—the damned-to-eternal-life LaLaurie, and Marie Laveau, the voodoo priestess responsible for said damning—we’re presumably about to see her pay a price for that vanity.
Point: If you like X-Men, you might like this season. The us-versus-them premise that undergirds AHS:Coven is that witches can and do live quietly among the citizenry, but when she shit comes down they need to make themselves scarce. Zoe’s parents never told her about the witch blood that runs through her family line; they simply hoped those powers would never manifest in her. Cordelia is the Professor X of the school, content to mix potions and murmur spells in her garden while the world goes on around her. Her mother, however, has her inner Magneto summoned by televised footage of a witch-burning, and decides that she’s tired of spell casters playing by the rules of a society that would destroy them given the smallest chance. (For True Blood fans, this makes her the Russell Edgington of AHS, and the fact that Denis O’Hare plays the mute butler of Miss R.’s is just gravy.)
Counterpoint: You might also like this season if you like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. O’Hare’s character is essentially Riff Raff. And when witches Madison and Zoe try to reassemble/reanimate Zoe’s dead crush, Kyle, from a series of disembodied arms and legs, it’s just a gorier version of Rocky rising from the table in a gold-lamé bikini to monosyllabically thrash around. It’s cheesy, is what I’m saying, as will be the subsequent scenes of Zoe trying to access the former sweetness in the grunting monster she’s created.
(Side note: During the reassembly process, I’m pretty sure the lower torso the women found for FrankenKyle was…Ken-doll style. Did anyone else notice this? Is the idea that since Zoe can’t have sex with her formerly-dead crush without re-killing him anyway, he might as well be penis-free? Or is there something more complex and beyond gender going on here?)
Point: If you like second-wave feminist history, you also might like this season. The interactions between Cordelia and Fiona at Miss Robichaux’s are something of a distillation of the tension inherent in many social movements—the inclination to assimilate, to blend in, to go along to get along versus the drive to demand visibility on your own terms, to not demand your own plate of equality but instead smash the whole dinner service. Cordelia purports to be running a tidy haven of would-be assimilation, but in fact, she’s just hiding her students away. (And there seems to be a definite lack of structure, what with the girls’ extended trips to the morgue for reanimation purposes and her own midday snake-and-fire sex rituals.) And Fiona is determined to break the girls out and put their powers in public view; in encouraging the girls to wear black and hone their skills, she’s spoiling for a showdown with a world of adversaries. It’s liberal witching against radical witching, and, as with feminism, it almost doesn’t matter which one prevails—because, to their as-yet-unseen opponents, they’re all the same.
Counterpoint: Like second-wave feminist history, AHS: Coven is also pretty white. And its attempts at diversity are… well, I’m sure someone involved in the show would probably claim something like “irony” to describe them, as this isn’t the first time the show has let the casual racism fly. There’s Queenie, of course, whose character has been fleshed out only inasmuch as we know she really likes fried chicken. And there’s Marie Laveau, whom we met in the first episode as a powerful New Orleans voodoo priestess, and who in her current, immortal incarnation, runs a weave-and-braids shop in the 9th Ward called Cornrow City, where Fiona tracks her down.
That Fiona feels comfortable with white supremacy is clear, because she wastes no time in insulting Laveau while the woman is literally holding a hot flatiron next to her head. The two are clearly equally powerful—and Laveau has the immortality Fiona desperately craves—so what gives, Fiona? Oh, yes. Racism. With the unapologetic LaLaurie on the scene, and with both Laveau and Queenie invoking the name Tituba to cement their lineage in historic witchcraft, hopefully AHS can find ways to make the racial dimensions of witchcraft something other than a side note.
Point: Misty Day, the bird-reviving witch, has regenerated herself after being burned at the stake by her own church congregation and now lives in a swamp shack, enacting vengeance on alligator poachers, helping Zoe out with her Frankenboyfriend problems, and listening to Stevie Nicks.
Counterpoint: None. This is unassailably great. You do you, Misty. I’ll be watching.
Five Theories For What ‘American Horror Story: Coven’ Was Actually About
Five Theories For What ‘American Horror Story: Coven’ Was Actually About
The article below contains spoilers through the “American Horror Story: Coven” season.
“Asylum,” the last season of Ryan Murphy’s anthology series “American Horror Story,” was some kind of schlock masterpiece. A patchwork of violence, gleeful camp and every trope and monster the genre had to offer, from alien abductions to demonic possession to legendary serial killers, the 13-episode formed a startling larger portrait of institutionalized oppression, beginning with scenes of sex and dismemberment and ending with a moving exploration of forgiveness and trauma. It brought out the best of Murphy’s talents for crafting provocative, viscerally memorable scenes while minimizing his maddening tendencies to care nothing about character consistency or continuity from episode to episode.
“Coven,” the latest season of the show that came to a close last night, has been less magical (heh) a combination of the high and the low. It did have Jessica Lange, Murphy’s vamping muse, once again divinely devouring the scenery as Fiona Goode, the powerful, narcissistic Supreme witch of a dwindling New Orleans coven, and with her were the fantastic Angela Bassett as voodoo queen Marie Laveau and Kathy Bates as Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a real life socialite infamous for torturing and killing her slaves. “Coven” boldly staked out territory of race by establishing the historical enmity between its two factions of magic-wielding women and opening with a credits sequence rife with imagery recalling lynching and the Klan, only to back away from the topic after one genuinely crazy sequence involving an immortal, racist severed head and a beauty shop massacre. Mostly, “Coven” has been felt like a messy, witchcraft fueled-version of “The Real World,” with endless backstabbings, murders and resurrections going on daily in the halls of Miss Robichaux’s Academy. With the finale over and the new Supreme named, here’s a look back at some possible themes for the season.
1. Bitches be crazy.
Murphy’s had accusations of misogyny lobbed his way before for “AHS” and its cartoonish portrayals of its female characters, though his male characters have usually been just as heightened. But “Coven” has been explicitly about women, women who are literally empowered, and its focus on their continual alliances with and subsequent betrayals of one another suggests an unpleasant underlying belief that strong females in close quarters can’t help but tear each other to bits, with the title of Supreme there as a stand-in for queen bee. Fiona was the ultimate self-interested tyrant, and poised to inherit her throne was Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), the starlet with substance abuse problems who settled on the meeker Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga) as the sidekick who wasn’t meant to ever outshine her, a relationship that echoed the one between grownups Fiona and her daughter Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson). Robichaux’s was a place of constant competition, in which the witches were always taking each out — Fiona killed Madison, Madison was brought back and murdered Misty (Lily Rabe), Queenie befriended and then turned on Delphine, Marie and Fiona sacrificed Nan, and there were countless catfights in between. This series has always loved its formidable women, but this season it became a near-parodic, frequently off-putting series of diva cage matches.
2. Bitches be a result of a toxic environment.
“Coven” spent 12 episodes in turmoil, thanks to the presence of Fiona, who swept in to overwhelm Cordelia and fulfill her cannibalistic desire to find and murder the next Supreme before her own powers could diminish. Fiona wasn’t entirely a monster — she just placed her own needs high above those of everyone else, and had no problem using people (like former ghost lover the Axeman of New Orleans, played by Danny Huston). It was Fiona’s influence — along with the seeming lack of permanent consequences even for killing one’s compatriots — that upped the house shenanigans to such dire levels. It took Cordelia embracing her own powers and potential and becoming a kinder, gentler Supreme to change the toxic environment in the coven. The finale, “The Seven Wonders,” essentially pulled a “Mean Girls,” with Cordelia diffusing a last attempt at taking back power by Fiona and outing witches to the world, welcoming everyone with powers to the Academy and lifting Zoe and Queenie to her side as her council — no more Plastics! Everyone is happier now! Madison, however, just had to go — some people are just too awful to save, especially when they use TMZ as a threat.
3. Fear of aging and mortality.
When “Coven” began, it was with witchcraft at an all-time low. There was almost no one left at the once-bustling Academy, and the girls who were there were essentially in hiding after having manifested their powers in ways that hurt people. In addition to witches having been hunted and driven to secrecy, there was a suggestion that Fiona’s negligence as a Supreme and egoism have hurt the ecosystem — her shirking of responsibility in pursuit of her own whims had gone against how things should and have worked, and her hunger to remain the Supreme after her time has passed, like her less than maternal treatment of her daughter, was unnatural. Fiona’s wish to somehow step outside the process of aging and death were the main throughline of the series — an example of how she chose herself over the larger group — and she admitted to Cordelia that she could only see reminders of the eventual end of her own life in the face of her child. Fiona was not alone in this willingness to destroy others to prolong her own life. Marie also offered up her own daughter (and centuries of other infant sacrifices) along with her soul in exchange for immortality from Papa Legba — and Delphine harvested the organs of her slaves to craft a gruesome facial moisturizer, the most literal and repulsive image of being willing to do anything for self-preservation. In contrast, the reanimated Myrtle (Frances Conroy) willingly offered herself up on the pyre after helping out Cordelia in a sort of cleansing gesture, in doing so proving herself to be the mother figure Fiona never was. “Coven” had some very harsh ideas about overstaying one’s welcome.
4. Power as a corrupting force.
Few of the characters in “Coven” wore power well — Fiona was the worst example, but Marie also never managed to balance the good she did for her community with the babies she stole over the years to maintain her immortality, and wasn’t above turning to the witch hunters to hurt her enemies in a time of supposed truce. And given power of life or death over her slaves, Delphine discovered her psychopath side, indulging in impulses toward horrific torture and murder that she’d always been harboring inside. Madison, used to getting her way already as an actress, only became more awful with the ability to move things with her mind, set fires and bring people back to life. In the primary echo of the themes of “Asylum,” “Coven” in the end looked at how the characters who weren’t accustomed to being in charge handled power — and with Cordelia in charge, it provided an argument for them as the better leaders.
5. It was all just Stevie Nicks fan fiction.
The most likely explanation for the season.
5 Ways ‘American Horror Story: Coven’ Both Conforms to and Challenges Misogynistic Tropes
By Francesca Lewis
To say that American Horror Story (AHS) is controversial is a laughable understatement. When I discovered the show – an early fan, I was on board from episode 1:1 – I thought to myself, “This will never be popular, never break the mainstream – too freaky/shocking/ambiguous.” I was pleasantly surprised to see the fan base grow in season two, but still, it was a show that weirdos (like me) were into. However, what I could not have predicted (though I certainly hoped for it) is the revival of feminism, which rushed back into the popular consciousness last year, its bright, beautiful rays of enlightenment lighting up almost every corner of the internet. When the showrunners announced that the third season of AHS would have an entirely female core cast, “a feminist theme throughout” and a focus on witchcraft, the feminist blogosphere – now more accurately called Pretty Much The Entire Internet – lit up with AHS: Coven hype.
However, the millions of viewers were not prepared for what they saw. While some took to Tumblr after the première to post gifs of Jessica Lange drunkenly dancing in a black lace negligée, many an outraged blog post was also written. Still, since the show passed the Bechdel test with flying colors and had the rare distinction of featuring Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates and Frances Conroy, the feminists kept on watching.
Anne Helen Petersen of L.A. Review of Books wrote in her essay “The Exquisite Repulsion of American Horror Story: An Essay on Abjection,” that“American Horror Story treads the knife-edge between feminism and misogyny.” Such is the curse of anything worth watching in the horror genre. You have to show oppression, brutality and misogyny if you want to comment upon it. It is how artfully, cleverly and respectfully one treads that knife-edge that matters. So without further ado, let us look at ways in which AHS: Coven conforms to misogynistic tropes and the ways it attempts to challenge them.
Just how well do they tread that knife-edge?
1. Vagina Dentata
This is the oldest one in the book, quite literally, if that book is the bible. For thousands of years, women’s sexuality has been demonized and controlled by The Patriarchy. The horror genre has put this issue front and center, mostly relying upon the tired “woman have sex, woman bad, woman die” trope. Another more specific and primal trope, however, made more fascinating by the abject horror it inspires, is vagina dentata. A folk myth that has endured into the modern day, it refers to toothed female genitalia, and shows up in Maori, Japanese, Norwegian, African and Native American mythology, not to mention a number of popular science fiction movies (I’m looking at you, sarlacc demon). Obviously the result of male castration anxiety, the trope has been invoked in recent years, most famously in the movie Teeth, as a feminist tool to punish evil men.
AHS: Coven conforms to this trope by giving the seemingly young and innocent Zoe a magical witchy cooch that will kill you to death. While she may not have teeth down there, something about penetrative sex with her makes boys go bye-bye. Having been revealed early in the first episode, this was one of the biggest bones of contention circling the internet after the première aired. If this was a feminist show, why was the seeming protagonist the very embodiment of one of the greatest myths of the monstrous feminine – the deadly, all-consuming vagina? And why was she using it to rape a rapist?
However, AHS: Coven challenges this trope by refusing to let Zoe’s killer vag’ define her. In fact, since the first episode, it has literally never been mentioned again. Zoe has gone from strength to strength, showing herself to be intelligent, resilient, nurturing and resourceful. She also has a range of new powers, including the ability to summon really powerful spells from nowhere. Hell, she may just be the next Supreme. This is certainly not what we expect from a character who has been set up to be an all-consuming man-eater. It’s almost as if they are making some kind of a point about the unfair demonization of female sexuality…
2. Vain Sorceress
You only have to look at any product or publication aimed at women to see that the idea that beauty is the cornerstone of femininity is all-pervading and poisonous. Every public figure who happens to be female is judged upon her apparent possession or lack of this most coveted quality, even if her fame is completely unrelated to her looks. One especially toxic part of the insanely strict and unfair beauty standard imposed upon women is the idea that youth equals beauty. Age is seen as the antithesis of attractiveness and if your age is showing, you are not beautiful. In countless fairytales, the vain sorceress character imprisons, poisons and otherwise messes with some unsuspecting youthful beauty in order to steal her priceless prettiness for herself.
AHS: Coven conforms to this trope with Fiona Goode’s vanity. She may be the Supreme of the coven and brimming with power and talent and sass and, y’know, insane hotness, but sadly, she is also aging, a fate worse than death as far as she is concerned. She will cheat and lie and kill, just to slow, stop or reverse the inevitable process. Many feminist viewers felt that Fiona’s impressive power was somewhat undermined by this tragic flaw, which seemed to pander to popular notions about beauty and age.
However, AHS: Coven challenges this trope by exploring many of the reasons behind Fiona’s seeming vanity. As a young woman, she was sexualized by men around her, including Spalding, who cut out his own tongue rather than betray her. She learned at an early age that men’s desire of her was a useful, helpful tool, one that could help her get what she wanted. We also see that Fiona’s fear of aging has much more to do with her waning powers than being afraid of a few wrinkles. She does not want to give up her crown and be replaced by the next generation of powerful witches. Ultimately, as Fiona begins to lose her fight against cancer, we find that what she fears most is dying alone.
3. Rape Culture & Slut Shaming
Rape culture – that is to say, the tendency to normalize, excuse, tolerate and condone rape – is everywhere, and has been for a very long time. One of the key successes of 2013’s resurgence in feminist thought was that it highlighted just how pervasive and harmful this attitude had become. It also linked rape culture to the idea of slut shaming – which can be defined broadly as making someone feel guilty for deviating from traditional gender roles by wearing provocative clothing or enjoying their sexuality.
AHS: Coven conforms to this trope by its arguably problematic depiction of rape. In perhaps the most shocking scene of the première, Madison, the resident Lohan-alike, is gang raped at a party. She is dressed in a silky, slinky dress and glitter high heels, she is displaying a rude sense of entitlement and she is drinking. The boys drug and rape her, filming it all in a very on-the-nose reference to the extremely recent Steubenville incident. Feminist viewers were outraged, calling the scene gratuitous and needlessly graphic, while also pointing to the slut shaming implications of having a sexy, aggressive and drunk woman be raped.
However, AHS: Coven challenges this trope by not glamorizing Madison’s rape. Alison Herman said, in her Flavorwire article “American Horror Story Finally Perfects Its Twisted Brand of Feminism in Coven” that “writing female characters into situations where they’re brutalized isn’t sexist in and of itself; it’s often an opportunity to comment on the systems that brutalize them.” This is not always easy to remember when confronted with a repulsive, sensory overload scene like this. It feels like they should have been more sensitive, should have shown less, made us feel less. Yet, if the scene were less graphic, wouldn’t it then feel voyeuristic and glamorizing?
4. Male Gaze
First discussed by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the concept of the male gaze suggests that, since films are created for and by the heterosexual male (remember, this was the ’70s) we tend to see them from a male perspective. Therefore, the female characters in a film are sexualized and objectified, in order to appeal to the audience. Unfortunately, despite the fact that almost forty years have passed since Mulvey wrote her essay, the media – movies, advertising, television – is still dominated by the male gaze.
AHS: Coven conforms to this trope with the very different ways that Madison and Queenie are portrayed. Madison, a former movie star, is blonde and thin and wears expensive, flattering outfits. Queenie, a former Chicken Shack manager, is black and fat and wears cheap, unflattering outfits. Of course, to anyone with a brain, being black or fat is not inherently unattractive and tight clothing on a fat body is not inherently unflattering, but by objectifying Madison and abjectifying (devaluing that which is not pleasing to the male gaze) Queenie, the show conforms to the misogynistic rulebook of the male gaze.
However, AHS: Coven challenges this trope lampshading it. When Spalding steals Madison’s corpse in order to add to his collection of dolls, the message is clear – women are not objects, no matter how much you may want them to be, and no matter how pure your intentions. As Madison’s body begins to rot and stink and be super, super gross, the point is further driven home – she is not a doll, you fool, she’s human, like you. When Queenie offers herself up to the minotaur, it is also being somewhat less subtly implied that seeing her as an unlovable monster is an unfair assumption, and while this is not entirely successful and in some ways problematic from a racial insensitivity stand point, it does appear to be a genuine attempt to address the issue. It is also worth pointing out that, while the show’s attention to style and fashion could be mistaken for the male gaze, horny dudes don’t care much for billowy black dresses and statement hats.
5. Mommy Issues
Feminism has a long-standing feud with Freud, particularly in regard to his concept of the Oedipus complex. The actual details of Oedipal desire are way more complex than can be adequately described here and, like many other complicated theories, have been reduced down and misinterpreted in the popular consciousness into something that barely resembles them. What we tend to think of now, when we think of Freud and his Oedipus complex, is sexual tension/conduct between mother and son – whether implied or actual. The idea of a mother-son Oedipal relationship has invaded popular culture – from myth, to literature, to modern-day television and it has certainly been present in every season of American Horror Story.
AHS: Coven conforms to this trope with its endless parade of bad, bad, horrible mothers. Zoe’s mother sends her away to witch school at the first sign of trouble, Cordelia’s mother is Fiona (need I say more?), Madame La Laurie mistreats her daughters terribly and the only two young males, Kyle and Luke, are both severely abused by their mothers. In fact, AHS has a bad track record when it comes to blaming mothers for their son’s actions – who can forget serial killer Bloody Face’s murderous son and his penchant for hooker’s breast milk. Since motherhood is so emblematic of femininity, especially in the collective patriarchal hive mind, American Horror Story‘s obsession with equating motherhood to horror has some real anti-woman implications.
However, AHS: Coven challenges this trope by not allowing characters to use their mommy issues to excuse bad behaviour. Unlike iconic pop culture figures such as Norman Bates, the two young men of AHS: Coven are kind, honest and self-sacrificing. Both Luke and Kyle could easily have been used as yet another example of “mommy made me do it” misogyny. The fact that they are both so nice cannot be overlooked because the Freudian Excuse trope is so ubiquitous in our culture that going against it has to be a deliberate and meaningful decision.
It is very easy to read AHS: Coven as a thoughtless, careless and disrespectful romp through the fevered imagination of the patriarchal male. However, to do so is to forget what the horror genre is all about. People watch scary things to be confronted with the shocking, grotesque and terrifying aspects of both society and themselves. A horror narrative that takes place in a politically correct utopia wouldn’t be very cathartic.
Whether AHS: Coven is feminist or not is hard to answer – but it is certainly intended to be and it is certainly raising feminist questions. In her fascinating post, “Exploring Bodily Autonomy on American Horror Story: Coven,” BitchFlicks guest blogger Gaayathri Nair stated that “a pro-woman intention has tangled with the male gaze to create a product that both supports and subverts misogyny and is as objectifying as it is empowering.” She may be right, since the show is definitely somewhat clouded by the male gaze and constrained by the tropes of its genre, but it does make some real attempts to subvert and critique the tropes it relies upon. Have the human experiences of the showrunners created a tension between intent and product? Maybe – and that is completely natural. Have the showrunners tried to address this in their pursuit of what they truly think is a feminist message? Yes, I believe they have.
History of the witches
Witches are humans gifted with the power to affect change by supernatural or paranormal means, a practice known as “witchcraft“. Witches are generally female, though there are a few male witches, referred to as “warlocks“. Because of their unnatural abilities and supposed connections with dark forces, witches have historically been feared, persecuted, and hunted. Many escaped the Salem witch trials and sought refuge in New Orleans. Among the population of witches, there is always one witch per generation who possesses a class of seven powers considered to be advanced acts of magic. This witch is known as the “Supreme”. As the witches settled in their new territory, a rivalry between them and the native Voodoo practitioners arose. The feud is still ongoing in present day New Orleans. A group of witches are the focus of Coven, in which magic is a genetic heredity that connects a person to the elements and forces of nature in order to practice witchcraft.
It has been attested that the witches of Salem received their power from the Voodoo slave girl Tituba, though evidently, their abilities stem from a geneticaffliction that is passed down through bloodlines. During the Salem witch trials in 1692, witches faced persecution and decided to flee south in the midst of the hysteria. However, their ailing Supreme, Prudence Mather, was unable to make the journey and decided to take her own life in a ritual known as the Sacred Taking. This selfless act allowed a new Supreme to take power and lead the Coven to safety, where they eventually settled in New Orleans. The generations of witches to follow would become known as the “Salem descendants”.
The governing body of the witches and warlocks, depicted as elders and known as the “Council of Wichcraft”, are very old fashioned as they still use typewriters in modern times. They are responsible for policing witch crimes, the concealment of witchcraft to the uninitiated, and for the welcoming of potential students to Miss Robichaux’s Academy. The council only visits the Coven on very important cases, such as the death of another witch.
The Supreme Witch, known more colloquially as the Supreme, is a worldwide recognized status among the witches descending from the Salem witch trials. While most witches possess only a handful of gifts, the Supreme is said to embody multiple, if not all, gifts. Historically, there is said to be only one Supreme per generation (approximately 30–50 years). Part of being a Supreme means no ailments or diseases would harm them. The Supreme role comes with the responsibility of the entire Coven as a leader of the new generation. One of the most important tasks of the Supreme is to identify her successor, a task that wasn’t accomplished by former Supreme Fiona Goode, and, as a consequence, multiple girls were tested and one of them died trying to perform the Seven Wonders.
As a new Supreme flowers, the life force of the current regnant gradually fades, which manifests as multiple organ failures, disease, and cancer due to the crippled immune system. In the cases where a new Supreme must rise before the natural death of the incumbent, a ritual known as “The Sacred Taking” is employed; it is a stylized suicide blessed by Coven members. It was developed when the ailing Prudence Mather was not able to make the journey to relocate the Coven to New Orleans during the Salem Witch Trials, and allowed a potential to ascend to Supremacy. Fiona inherited her powers earlier than most Supremes (she was in her late teens to early twenties at the time) because she killed her generation’s Supreme and self-ascended. Fiona lived for a while after Cordelia became the Supreme, but had already become very weak and sickly.
According to Ryan Murphy, the original Supreme is Scáthach, from Roanoke.Scáthach is an immortal English woman descending from the Druids and their Roman conqueror, and is a practitioner of prehistoric Celtic religion and a worshipper of the Old Gods. She was a stowaway on a British voyage destined for the colonies, but the ship’s occupants all died. The colonists discovered her upon landfall and blamed her presence for enraging the sea gods. She was subsequently imprisoned and sentenced to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. Using her darker powers, she massacred the soldiers. This was later blamed on Natives, and Scáthach escaped into the wild. Prudence Mather was the Supreme of Salem. Marion Warton, the purchaser of Miss Robichaux’s Academy and the predecessor of Mimi DeLongpre, was followed by Anna-Leigh Leighton, Fiona Goode and the current Supreme, Cordelia Foxx.
A number of magical powers and abilities have been showcased in Coven. Some abilities are inherent or reflexive to certain witches, that is they do not need to focus or concentrate. It is not rare for a witch to manifest more than three powers, though a Supreme is required to have at least seven (the Seven Wonders), though not necessarily all possible powers. It is said that the reason that a Supreme is so powerful is because she is the physical embodiment of many and or all powers. Witches are shown to be able to use their powers collectively.Certain abilities can also be triggered by certain events and substances. Voodoo and witchcraft practitioners share certain powers.
The Seven Wonders
All Supremes are assumed to have demonstrated these abilities during their ascension to Supremacy, despite not necessarily being depicted. The explicit depictions of the seven gifts are:
- Telekinesis: The ability to manipulate objects with the power of the mind. This is the most commonly seen power, displayed by many witches.
- Concilium: Imposition of one’s will onto another. It can be resisted, though doing so causes increasing intracranial pressure to the point of explosion. If exercised, it can bend the strongest of wills. It is also known as coercion and mind control.
- Pyrokinesis: The ability to control and conjure fire with the power of the mind.
- Divination: The ability to obtain direct knowledge about an object, person, location or physical event through means other than the user’s physical senses. This can be activated by just being around a person, focusing on specific tasks, searching for information, and touching objects.
- Transmutation: The ability to move instantaneously from one location to another without physically occupying the space in between, also known as teleportation.
- Vitalum Vitalis: The balancing of the scales between one life force and another. Witches can transfer their own life force to dead or nearly dead people in order to heal them. Commonly seen side effects are fainting and dizziness due to the strain. Can also be used to drain life force as well.
- Descensum: Perilous descent into the nether worlds of afterlife. Witches are able to project themselves directly into hell, which takes the form of their worst fears. If a witch is stuck for a certain amount of time, they will never be able to leave and their body disintegrates into dust. To use this power, they commonly chant an incantation.
- Immortality: The ability to live forever and never age. It allow user to immune to aging, diseases, and even death.
- Resurgence: Returning oneself or others from the dead to full life. It is powerful enough to heal the skin of burnt corpses and even fuse limbs not previously attached to the body. The power is useless if the body is in too many pieces. Not to be confused with the Resurrection Spell which can be done by any witch that performs the ritual and incantation, often with undesirable results in accordance with the witches power and adherence to the spell. Nor is it the same as the Voodoo power of Necromancy which creates mindless zombies.
- Injury Transference: Traumatic physical injuries sustained can be sympathetically transmuted to the body of another, chosen by the caster, along with the pain of the injury. Also referred to as “human voodoo doll“.
- Black Widow: The ability to cause fatal hemorrhage by coitus. Also referred to as “killer vagina”. More like a congenital curse than a power.
- Power Negation: Cancelling out someone else’s magic or voodoo curse. Zoe was able to use this power when Marie Laveau sent evil undead creatures (zombies) to Miss Robichaux’s Academy, although she had no prior knowledge that she possessed the ability before-hand and it was activated out of sheer panic and alarm.
- The Sight: The ability to see significant visions of the past and future through touch. It applies to people and materials in a series of visions or premonitions. Also referred to as “Second Sight”, it is described as the greatest ability to have and the most painful to live with.
- Clairvoyance: An ability that can manifest as the power to read the minds of others, commonly known as telepathy.