Broom for improvement: TV’s gender balance is still an American Horror Story
Thirty years since high school, and nothing much has changed: All the cool kids are wondering who’s going to win the Super Bowl, and all I can think about is who’s going to win American Horror Story.
The storyline for this season (subtitled Coven) has a bunch of New Orleans witches impatiently awaiting the emergence of their new leader, or “Supreme.” We’ve met a whole bunch of young contenders, including a Lohan-esque Hollywood party girl (Emma Roberts) and a Louisiana swamp rat (Lily Rabe) who’s hilariously taken with Stevie Nicks. In the season finale (airing at 10 p.m. this Wednesday, Jan. 29, on FX), we’ll find out which of these spell-casting up-and-comers was destined by birth to rule the roost. At this point, there doesn’t appear to be a clear favorite. But if we aren’t sure who’s going to win, I already know which side has lost: the cause of women on TV.
There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether Coven is actually a “feminist” piece of work, as co-creator Ryan Murphy claims was his intent, or if watching a bunch of campy neo-Sabrinas casting runes at one another is just the supernatural equivalent of mud wrestling. Last week, Orlando writer-performer Logan Donahoo posted to Facebook a very thoughtful essay in which he located Coven* within a genre he termed “Grand Dame Guignol” or “hagsploitation” – a category defined by “one aging female lead ready to destroy everyone and everything that’s ever crossed her.” In this case, the lead would be series regular Jessica Lange, whose portrayal of an outgoing Supreme determined to preserve her hold on power and stick the next generation falls well within the Baby Jane/Sweet Charlotte paradigm Donahoo delimits so persuasively.
To Donahoo, that sort of material doesn’t lend itself very easily to “feminism,” and he makes a good point that neither do the antics of the younger witches Lange’s Fiona Good is out to destroy. In his view, “Every character is solely motivated by either vanity, power, or obsession with a man.” But while Coven may or may not be “feminist” as a narrative, I would argue that it is quite demonstrably feminist as an undertaking: The main cast is not only predominantly female, but a collection of female talent so pedigreed that having it all together under one bayou roof has been simply historic.
Now if only someone would notice. Thus far, the award acknowledgements garnered by Coven have been disappointing at best, infuriating at worst. Lange got her traditional Golden Globe and SAG nominations (she didn’t win either this time), but the entire rest of the cast was snubbed by everybody. That’s a cast, mind you, that includes Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Patti LuPone, Gabourey Sidibe, Frances Conroy and Sarah Paulson — many (if not most) of them doing standout work, no matter what one might think of the actual material.
Yet thus far, only Lange has been named on an awards ballot, and I wouldn’t count on the Primetime Emmys to bravely buck the trend. Perhaps the “supporting” players so canceled each other out that they didn’t even make it to the nomination stage, let alone having to duke it out in actual competition. But there’s no such excuse in the case of the SAG Awards, which have a relevant “best ensemble” category in which Coven could easily have placed, yet didn’t.
Why not? Maybe because the industry’s perception of what constitutes an “ensemble” is more antiquated than we’d like to think. All of the programs that were nominated in the category “Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series” are either male-dominated or have some sort of parity between males and females. Confront voters – even those who are working actors themselves – with an ensemble that’s made up largely of women, with just a few men around to provide color and plot points, and said voters won’t know what to think of it. They’ll think of it as a stunt or a fluke, not a legitimate collection of thespians deserving honest consideration. Throw in the genre stigma, and the patina of a freak show becomes an all but insurmountable obstacle.
We always hear that the entertainment business is crying out for more roles for women. Apparently, though, that didn’t mean more than one at a time.
The whole thing has me so discouraged that I’m starting to wonder if the show’s Wednesday wrap-up will play right into the hands of those who deride and dismiss it. While I was watching last week’s episode, it struck me that just about the only character whose revelation as the Supreme would surprise anybody in particular happens to be one of the few males: Evan Peters’ Kyle, a kind-hearted frat boy who got offed in the first episode and spent the rest of the season lurching around as a stitched-together himbo Frankenstein. The show has already explored the possibility of each of the young women taking control of the coven, to the point that anointing any of them would a big “so what?” on some basic level. Meanwhile, the writer in me is starting to ask why else Kyle is even on the show: Thus far, he’s been the narrative equivalent of the gun that was placed on stage in Act one and has yet to go off (Freudian symbolism wholly intended).
Are Murphy and co. so devoted to water-cooler domination that they’d upend the entire gender foundation of their program for the sake of a cheap gotcha? (And if you feel that putting Peters’ character in charge is out of the question because it would violate every ground rule we’ve had hammered into our heads throughout the course of the season, YOU CLEARLY DO NOT WATCH THIS SHOW.)
I dunno; maybe watching a bunch of talented actresses get ignored makes me paranoid. But I wish I lived in a world in which revealing Peters as the stealth star of Coven would be off the table not because it’s ridiculous artistically, but because everybody knows the important roles always go to girls.
Days without a response from the publication that plagiarized from me and won’t come clean: 222.
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