Spoilers aplenty, folks. You've been warned.
In a recent episode of American Horror Story: Asylum, Lana (played by Sarah Paulson) lies in a hospital bed after going through hell. Wrongfully committed to the mental institution Briarcliff Manor, Lana, a lesbian, has been subjected to electroconvulsive and conversion therapy, was kidnapped by a mass murderer (who also killed her girlfriend), raped, and — as a finishing touch — had botched wire hanger abortion. After reluctantly giving birth to the child conceived via the aforementioned rape, Lana never wants to see the infant again — but, because this is American Horror Story, she won't be afforded that comfort. In a scene that is stark and terrible, the baby refuses to take formula; his cries claw at the ears of both Lana and the viewer. Finally, eyes full of tears and revulsion, Lana silences the infant by bringing it to her breast. Seeing this all play out from the comfort of my couch, I finally had to ask myself, "How the hell am I watching this?"
While season one of American Horror Story had its fair share of unsettling moments — two children maimed to death in a basement, a school shooting and the bloodiest childbirth that I've ever seen on television — it was a veritable chucklefest compared to season two, which takes us into the cold and gritty world of a 1960s mental asylum where canings, hydrotherapy and electroshock are all still common practice, and serial killers run rampant amongst both the patients and staff. While no one has it easy at Briarcliff, the women have it particularly bad, with the show's writers taking intense care to relentlessly beat the shit out of them mentally and physically. Usually, I hate this sort of thing. I refuse to watch the Saw movies or Hostel because, to me, these movies are nothing more than misogynistic gore porn and yet, for some reason, I'm glued to my TV every Wednesday night, watching with morbid fascination as Lana and her female companions repeatedly go through the worst possible scenarios imaginable.
So what makes American Horror Story okay for a feminist like me to watch? I have a theory: The women of AHS are strong as hell. They are the kinds of women who, when punched in the face, will spit out a bloody tooth then throw a punch of their own. I'm not watching because I like to see them brutalized. I am watching because I like to see them fight back.
Take Lana, for example. She has everything taken away from her — her freedom, her dearest loved one and her claim to sanity — but rather than crumble or give into her circumstances, she keeps fighting tooth and nail, never giving up on her own right to existence. She, in the words of Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto), the therapist/secret serial killer who kidnaps her, has "pluck." Eventually, when Lana escapes to freedom, a police officer tells her she's a tough cookie. "I am tough," Lana replies. "But I'm no cookie."
Then there's Sister Jude, played with austere resoluteness by the incomparable Jessica Lange. A hardened New England nun with a wild past, Jude runs Briarcliff with a cruel edge, often committing inhumane acts for what she believes is the greater good. She is smart, maybe the most intelligent individual in the institution, and yet she is cowed because of her gender. At one point, Satan (yes, literally The Devil — he's got a recurring role) taunts her: "It drives you cra-a-azy. To be the smartest person in the room, with no real pow-w-wer. Because of that smelly clam between your legs." Gross clam remark aside (granted, it's the Devil talking here so it should come as no surprise that he's impolite), this line could be applied to all of the women in American Horror Story: Asylum. They are all brighter than their male peers, but they are deprived of the systemic power that could help them to better their situations. Nevertheless, even when it's hopeless, they continue to fight back. As poor Jude eventually slips into madness, she continues to remain as headstrong and obstinate as ever.
Compare Lana and Sister Jude to AHS: A's male protagonist Kit (Evan Peters). Kind and simple, Kit, who has been accused of heinous crimes, lets his heart, not his head, guide his actions. While this is admirable in its own way, it leaves him suggestible and considerably less capable than his female cohorts. Rarely does he ask why and most of his actions are based on the suggestions of others. At various points, he is tricked, blackmailed, victimized, and always left to clean up the mess.
Even the female villains are more capable and exceptional than their male counterparts. Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), once a sugar sweet nun, becomes the walking incarnate of evil; she's sadistic, cruel — and almost constantly level-headed, never losing control of the situation around her. Contrast that to the institution's villainous doctor in residence, Dr. Arden (James Cromwell), an actual Nazi who performs revolting and cold blooded experiments on Briarcliff's patients and yet, at the same time, seems forever hovering on the brink of his own mental collapse. Not a fighter, Dr. Arden cowardly commits suicide; Sister Mary Eunice, however, must be murdered in order to be stopped. While the female villain had to be forced out of this world, the male villain goes voluntarily, weak and sniveling.
In a way, I've almost come to appreciate American Horror Story's treatment of its female characters because they rarely try to make it sexy. When Lana is raped, it's heartbreaking and blunt. Another depiction of sexual assault is scary and violent. (An aside: Almost as many male characters have been victims of sexual violence on AHS as women.) And I don't want pop culture to deny that things like rape and battery exist — in the end, that serves no one. What I do want is more characters like Lana and Sister Jude — characters who, rather than being crushed or objectified by their experiences, brush themselves off, take a deep breath and then threaten to bash in their abusers' brains with an ashtray. Extra points for when they actually do it.