American Horror Story: Holding a Mirror Up to Society

American Horror Story: Coven. Above: Madison Montgomery, played by Emma Roberts

**Spoiler Alert: Details from the season 3 premiere of AHS: Coven ahead***

AHS, or American Horror Story, Season 3 has a lot of self-proclaimed “feminist themes” contained within it, and after finally watching the season 3 opener the other night I can totally see what they mean.

Some of the real horror in the show is not so much exhibited via witchcraft or black magic, but rather, by way of the racism and sexism demonstrated throughout the series. Already, in this powerful first episode, the character of Madison Montgomery (played by Emma Roberts, pictured above) and her new witch cohort, Zoe, go to a frat party where Madison is drugged and raped by multiple frat brothers.


I think the following quote sums this up best:

“Madison is brutally date raped by several of the frat brothers, and we were forced to witness most of it from her drugged-out perspective. This is Horror Story. Any other series would have had Zoe bursting through the doors in the nick of time. Nope, not on Coven.”


I’m not gonna lie, it’s a pretty disturbing scene, and while it induced some serious cringing and nausea, I also couldn’t help but think of how trite this plot detail could sound to some. You know the story: Girl goes to frat party, girl gets roofied, girl gets raped. It’s disgusting how trite this sounds. Yet it’s trite because this shit actually happens. It’s not just a scene out of a show, or a movie— it’s Steubenville, Ohio, it’s Richmond, California, it’s the reality of many girls and women— it’s real life. Yet the show did such an amazing job of visually representing something that could sound so trite as so disgustingly, nauseatingly, horrific, I felt a deep sense of gratitude at the portrayal of it. It took something that could sound trite and made you see it for what it really is: appalling, sickening, gruesome, horrific.

It’s actually a positively galvanizing scene.

When I was 15, I was one of the weird goth/punk girls in high school and I was roofied and sexually assaulted by a football player. It sounds so cliche, right? Yeah, I know. Yet it actually happened. And it was anything but cliche. I was drugged. We were out and about in an outdoor mall and I woke up with kids just a couple years younger than me (around 13) slapping me awake, trying to feed me coffee, asking “Hey, are you okay? No, no, don’t close your eyes, keep em open, okay, stay awake. Are you okay?”

This shit happens.

And it’s not okay.

Perhaps we need a show like American Horror Story, holding up a mirror to our collective face in order to make us so violently repulsed by what we see so that we can begin to change it…

So once again, I, for one, am really glad that AHS put this scene in it’s show. It’s a shockingly powerful way to represent something very real that may end up seeming [sadly] cliched and commonplace due to it’s regrettable ubiquity. When representing rape within popular media there is a fine line between gratuitous content and content that serves a purpose, and I truly think that the galvanizing nature of this scene and it’s context was well-employed. If you’re not already watching this show, you totally should— especially if you’re a feminist. It’s some of the best subversive feminism out there in the mainstream media (not that there’s much to choose from).

PLAN B (a.k.a. “Hussy Pills”)

plan b

Big news this past week:

Plan B, also known as the “morning after pill,” (or in the words of pseudo-conservative, Stephen Colbert, “hussy pills”) will now be made available over the counter—no prescription required—for girls and women, ages 15 and up.

Naturally, according to conservatives, this just means society is practically pushing young girls into having sex.

Ok, first of all, if anything in society is pushing young girls into having sex, it’s the media and our visual culture’s sexualization of girls and women. Moreover, this line of thinking fails to acknowledge that a young woman may actually be capable of possessing her own sexual agency. I know teenagers are crazy, with their hormones flying all over the place, and they often think they know everything, when as we all clearly know from hindsight, they don’t…. However, it is a point in time during which many are figuring out their own sexuality, and learning to be their own sexual agents (God willing!). So, with that kind of thinking in mind, the old “this is encouraging promiscuous behavior!” rhetoric is really rather patronizing. Plan B isn’t going to “encourage” unprotected promiscuity any more than abortion “encourages” unplanned pregnancies.

Not to mention, this brings up the most glaringly contradictory flaw contained within any and all Republican/conservative, pro-life arguments against contraception:

If you’re so anti-abortion, you should love contraception. You should want more of, and increased access to, contraception. It actually prevents abortions. Guess what, conservatives and Republicans— it’s thanks to Planned Parenthood that I, and many other girls and women out there in the U.S., have never even had to consider abortion. Thanks to Planned Parenthood, and access to contraception. It will never cease to amaze me how pro-life/anti-abortion politicians seem to conveniently leave out of their arguments the fact that contraception is actually essential to their cause. (That and sexual education, which is another thing they are often illogically against.)

And if they want to argue for abstinence or some other such farce, well, that leads to the biggest caveat of all:

TEENAGERS HAVE SEX. Overwhelmingly, regardless of your opinion, or your morals, or what you choose to believe, the fact of the matter is: TEENAGERS HAVE SEX.

A few facts, taken from the Guttmacher Institute website:

  • Although only 13% of teens have had sex by age 15, most initiate sex in their later teen years. By their 19th birthday, seven in 10 female and male teens have had intercourse.
  • On average, young people have sex for the first time at about age 17
  • A woman who is sexually active and not using contraception has an 85% chance of becoming pregnant within a year.
  • Each year, almost 750,000 U.S. women aged 15–19 become pregnant. Two-thirds of all teen pregnancies occur among 18–19-year-olds.
  • Overall, 68 pregnancies occurred per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2008. The 2008 rate was a record low and represented a 42% decline from the peak rate of 117 per 1,000, which occurred in 1990.
  • The majority of the decline in teen pregnancy rates in the United States (86%) is due to teens’ improved contraceptive use; the rest is due to increased proportions of teens choosing to delay sexual activity.
  • Despite having declined, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate continues to be one of the highest in the developed world. It is more than twice as high as rates in Canada (28 per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2006) and Sweden (31 per 1,000).
  • Eighty-two percent of teen pregnancies are unplanned; teens account for about one-fifth of all unintended pregnancies annually.

[Read more from the Guttmacher Institute’s Fact Sheet on American Teens’ Sexual and Reproductive Health Here.]

Finally, I heard a new one here:

According to Conservative Columnist, Francesca Chambers, “Repealing the age restriction to buy the morning after pill will encourage young women who are too embarrassed or afraid to talk about sexual abuse to bypass the authorities. Terrible men who deserve to go to prison could never face charges, allowing them the opportunity to continue feeding their sexual addiction. Despite the way many pro-choice advocates are attempting to frame the issue, this is not a women’s health or a women’s rights issue.”

Wow. I have never heard of access to contraception as something that could, or would, “encourage young women…to bypass the authorities” when it comes to rape. Once again, I am encountered with ill logic. Have we ever relied on pregnancy as an indicator of sexual abuse? Moreover, she is either unaware of the conditions that actually do engender girls and women keeping quiet about rape, or she is aware, but chooses not to disclose that information. Let’s see: Threat of death, humiliation, no one believing you, ostracization, and now, apparently you could get kicked out of school… And then there’s this:

Why Will Only 3 Out of Every 100 Rapists Serve Time?

And ultimately, Ms. Chambers, this IS a women’s health AND a women’s rights issue. It has to do with our—specifically, women’s—sexual and reproductive health. It doesn’t get any more logical than that. (Maybe she’s never heard of a uterus or a vagina? Then again, if she’s a conservative, probably not- those words are dirty!) To try and argue otherwise is like trying to argue that contraception and unplanned pregnancies have nothing to do with each other.

Survival of the Most Confident

Virginia Woolf knew it. Maria from The Sound of Music knew it.

Confidence is everything.

Confidence is how one succeeds. Confidence is what fuels persistence and determination. Confidence is that little voice in your head that tells you that you are good enough, that you are worthy, that you will be safe, that you will survive.

It’s assurance, whether of the self or otherwise. It’s trust, whether of the self or otherwise. It is to a certain extent, in my humble opinion, one of the most indispensable tools for social survival.

Virgina Woolf once stated the following:

Life for both sexes- and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the pavement- is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority– it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney-for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination- over other people. (A Room of One’s Own, bold added for emphasis)

According to Woolf, confidence was essential to succeeding in life, but this leads me to ask: What is confidence? What does confidence mean?

Does it mean expressing an inner essence through one’s demeanor? Or performing a certain set of actions? Is it intangible? Or is it physically recognizable? Is it secured through inner strength, yoga, plastic surgery, meditation, speech classes, a haircut? Is it still attainable for those who have gone through traumatic instances of rape and domestic violence? Or rather, what is its importance to young girls and women who must “shoulder their way along the pavement” in a world rife with sexism?

I suppose my inquiry is this:

In today’s pervasively sexist and uber-misogynistic environment, what is confidence to a young girl or woman? What does it mean in this context? Especially when, as both Woolf and I suggest, it is imperative to survival…

After all, young girls and women are barraged on a daily basis with sexism- in popular music, television, magazines, advertising, and elsewhere. Domestic violence, rape, and other forms of abuse are overwhelmingly directed at women at girls; and females young and old must deal with the consequences of sexism and sexual trauma (both direct and indirect, i.e. that which is socially accepted and therefore normalized) more often than not. This is demonstrated in statistics regarding rape as well as the high incidences of depression and eating disorders found among women.

According to 2008 CDC statistics, “20-25% of women in college reported experiencing an attempted or a completed rape in college.”

A 2010 New York Times article reported that, “40% of girls in first through fifth grades surveyed in 2003 reported they were trying to lose weight.”

And twice as many women than men experience depression (approximately one in four women).

Due to unrealistic and homogeneous representations of feminine beauty in films, fashion, and advertising, women and girls turn to anorexia, bulimia, and other methods to achieve the “ideal.” And who knows why rape occurs, especially with the frequency that it does. Perhaps a lack of respectful representations of females and female sexuality in the dominant media? Perhaps due to a subtle, yet powerfully pervasive misogynist ideology within our male/masculine culture? I cannot claim to know the real cause of this problem, but I do know that my first impulse for a solution would be to educate people-  about respecting one another as human beings, respecting one another as sexual actors, respecting multiple gender identities (*to assuage sexual violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people), and making sure that everyone knows no one ever “asks for it.”

With such an environment, I cannot help but think that it is probably hard for a lot of women and girls to find confidence. Actually, I know for a fact that it is.

That is not to say that every man is born with an intrinsic sense of confidence, but suffice it to say that in a world where women are constantly portrayed as inferior, as the helpmate, as the sexual object, as something to be won, taken, or possessed, it is much easier for men to be the confident ones, or at least to gain confidence, than it is for women. (Perhaps it should be here noted that men are just as much a part of this power structure as well- in that they, too, are subject to upholding notions of masculinity and a male ideal- only their role in this power structure is of a dominant nature, as opposed to the female’s “submissive object” role)

I suppose my point is really just to shine a light on how very vital confidence actually is to one’s existence. It is so easy for it to be shaken, or taken away, or for it to not even materialize in the first place- especially for young girls and women. And I only emphasize the female persuasion here because that is who I am, that has been my experience, and my perspective is “refracted through the prism” of gender (to borrow an apt phrase/concept from Maxine Baca Zinn, Pierette Hondagneu-Sotelo, and Michael Messner). I cannot claim to speak for all women and girls, but I know that I speak for many of them. For me, the recognition of various forms of subjugation (via studying feminist theory) has meant freedom, the ability to see through these cultural patterns and influences and actively resist them. It has meant the ability to become self-definitional, if that is even possible. It has meant finding confidence.