"American Horror Story" is now an iconic brand with thrills, chills and excitement that keep audiences on the edge of their seats. However there's one glaring problem in the newest installment of the terrific, yet terrifying, anthology series -- rape.
In the first episode, there was a much-talked about scene in which one character, an addict played by Max Greenfield, is raped to death by a wax monster wearing a conical drill strap-on. And in the second episode, which premiered last week, Evan Peters' character has a woman bound to a bedpost with rope while slashing her body with knives as he is having sex with her. Was it scary? Yes. But was it necessary? No.
Show creator Ryan Murphy responded to the controversial scene from the first episode, stating that it was a metaphor for dealing with the pain of addiction-- one of the major themes for this season of the show. Neither Murphy, nor series co-creator Brad Falchuk, has yet to comment on the events in the second episode.
Given the nature of the show, it's meant to have disturbing moments, but using rape as a tool to be edgy makes the show problematic and, quite frankly, boring. The "Saw" horror film franchise showed us that there are plenty of creepily ingenious ways to kill someone in a scary movie, but relying on rape is a trope that Murphy and Falchuk have used before in every incarnation of the "American Horror Story" franchise.
Spoiler Alert: In the first season, "Murder House," Connie Britton's character is raped by the "Rubber Man" character in a highly fetishized and very frightening scene. In Season 2, "Asylum," Sarah Paulson's character is raped by the serial killer "Bloody Face" and then held hostage in his basement for a full episode. But In these two earlier seasons the acts of sexual assault aren't portrayed as trivial, and the incidents have significant influence on the outcomes of major characters in the series. Both seasons explore how survivors and their attackers are affected by the event after it happens.
But later seasons mark a departure from a more sensitive treatment of sexual assault, opting instead for shock value rather than character development. In the third season, "Coven," relies on the same trope with the rape of Emma Roberts character much to the glee of Emma Roberts' haters who actually celebrated the painfully uncomfortable scene. Later in the third season, in an eye-for-an-eye rationale, Taissa Farmiga's character uses her witch powers to kill Madison's rapist by raping him. The fourth season, "Freak Show," is no different. Grace Gummer's character is raped then blackmailed by Jessica Lange's character with a sex tape, at which point Lange's character justifies the assault by saying "she liked it."
Each instance of rape from the third, fourth and fifth seasons is only talked about in one episode, and the experiences of the survivors aren't fully explored. When an assault happens it becomes a momentary ploy to make viewers cringe for a bit and then move on to the next horror. It's important for viewers to see how the character heals after this kind of event because audiences experience the act of violence along with the characters when they watch the show. What's lacking is the emotional catharsis needed to deal with such a serious issue.
But what's the big deal with the rape scenes-- it's supposed to be horror show, right? Yes the show is supposed to be frightening but the portrayal of rape in the show is cheap, and it happens so often that it now seems banal. These rape scenes subtly perpetuate rape culture with the message "eh, we know it's wrong, but it's just a thing that happens if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time." But unlike the supernatural elements of show, vampire, ghosts or monsters, rape is a very real horror that each year there are 293,066 instances of sexual assault in America according to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network.
As a fan of the show it's hard to find flaws in something that I enjoy. The show is deeply fascinating and terrifyingly entertaining. But the desensitized portrayal of rape for purpose of entertainment lacks empathy and imagination. American Horror Story is a good show, and the creators and writers could do better.