Thanks For No Trigger Warning, “American Horror Story!”
Noor A | On 15, Oct 2013
Trigger warning for discussions of rape, sexual assault, racist violence and imagery associated with all of the above. Spoiler alert for the first episode of American Horror Story: Coven, as well as the previous seasons.
I’ve been a fan of the American Horror Story franchise since the first episodes began airing. As the campy plotlines and serious supernatural gore of the first season continued, I found myself enthralled. Yeah, rape and sexual assault were used gratuitously, but as a fan of popular culture, I’ve become regrettably hardened to its use. As long as it was a known part of the plot, I was braced for it. The awesome character-building and portrayal of strong (and sometimes sketchy) female characters like Vivien, Violet, Moira and Constance (and weak, slimy, disgusting male characters like Tate and Ben). The rape of Vivien and the subsequent demonic child in particular seemed like an almost-relevant use of rape as a plot point. It seemed almost like the director was aiming at highlighting the horrors women go through at the hands of terrible men. Or something.
Season 2, dubbed Asylum, was unsurprisingly as rape-filled, if not more so. But, similarly to the first season, it had redeeming aspects– particularly, its focus on race and sexuality issues of the bygone era it was set in via the lesbian and interracial tragic love stories was important for representation in media. That the black wife of the white man who was committed was abducted by aliens, and that the girlfriend of the (female) journalist who became ensnared in the asylum was murdered (and the journalist subsequently raped by her murderous therapist) was, to many fans, secondary. It seemed off — all this violence against women and people of color –but not so much that I was prepared to deem the series racist and sexist and quit watching it.
Last week, all of the triggering material of the previous seasons were far from my mind as I sat in my new boyfriend’s living room with his three male roommates and watched the premiere of American Horror Story: Coven. I was excited particularly to see what Gabourey Sidibe, Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates would bring to the already amazing cast. I was not disappointed in their performances– but I was more than disappointed at the highly triggering violence present in this premiere episode.
I sat in a room full of men I don’t know that well, and within the first five minutes of the episode, Kathy Bates (portraying the infamous murderess slave owner Delphine LaLaurie) inflicted gory torture upon a black man her daughter came-on to as her other victims and, perhaps most gruesomely, her black child servant, watched on. Later, I sat in uncomfortable silence through the date rape scene of the young witch and starlet Madison (played by Emma Roberts). Multiple frat brothers raped her as she layed in a drugged haze– and she later exacted her revenge by flipping their bus using telekinesis (and the initial perpetrator murdered through sex by Taissa Farmiga’s character). I still hadn’t told my boyfriend that I’m a sexual abuse survivor. It wasn’t a happy evening.
Detractors will, of course, note that the ever-increasing offensive violence portrayed on the American Horror Story series is used to show the evils their perpetrators– a human backdrop of terror to superimpose the supernatural subject matter upon. This has been done countless times on supernatural-themed TV series and movies — from Buffy to The X-Files to Twin Peaks – showing human evil as far worse than the supernatural is a common, and powerful, dramatic tool. Indeed, Executive Producer Tim Minear stated that this season would contain oppression and race as thematic elements. That should be warning enough, right?
Wrong. There are tasteful (and non-triggering) ways to address subjects like racism, oppression, and sexual violence in entertainment– at the very least, a warning a la Law & Order: SVU would suffice. But instead of warning audiences about the violence they are only semi-knowingly subjected to, American Horror Story chooses to use depictions of this kind of violence to shock and awe. Regardless of era or context, showing rape and racist torture can be painful to audiences–and no historical portrayals or TV-Mature rating can change that.
Written by Noor Al-Sibai
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