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'American Horror Story' Review - Powerful Women, Strong Female Characters

Subverting Stereotypes of Female Horror Victims, It's Women Who are in Control

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In a fall TV premiere season which heavily hyped "woman power" in the form of two retro-styled shows -- (The Playboy Club cancelled after three episodes) and Pan-Am (more eye candy than brain food) -- bunnies and stewardesses didn't make the list of television's most powerful female characters, but somehow ghosts did.

The biggest surprise this season, FX's haunted house series American Horror Story upends the usual horror film trope of female victimization by giving us women and girls who not only refuse to scream (or expire) at the hands of homicidal maniacs but unflinchingly do some of the killing themselves.

This is not a series for the faint-hearted, but if you want to see strong characterizations of steely, biting, smartly-drawn females of all ages and stages (from leading and supporting roles down to the one-time guest appearance), a little bloodletting is worth the price of admission.

The Women of 'American Horror Story'

Ostensibly the show centers around Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), a troubled psychiatrist who has an affair with a student shortly after his wife miscarries late in her pregnancy and delivers a stillborn son. To start afresh and rebuild their lives, Ben uproots his cellist wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and terminally angry teen daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) from their Boston home for a move to Los Angeles and a house purchased sight-unseen except for pictures on the internet.

As they soon discover, although the house is a gorgeous Gothic gem it comes with a lot of baggage -- a history of murders, ghosts who appear as flesh-and-blood people, intrusive neighbors and all-too-frequent visitors harboring hidden but ill intent. Said baggage includes a red-haired maid who's worked for the previous owners and is intent on staying on, and the aging Southern beauty who lives next door and also has a history with the house.

The maid literally appears to be two different women -- and talk about gender bias. The elder version (Frances Conroy) -- a pinch-faced fiftysomething with a blind eye and a prim white-lace-collared black uniform -- is what other females see. The younger version (Alexandra Breckenridge) -- a lush pouty-faced twentysomething in a porno-ready low-cut and ultra-short outfit complete with stockings and garter belt -- is only visible to men.

The next-door neighbor, Constance, is also not what she appears to be. She holds some sort of power over Moira and a number of other characters who enter into the Harmons' lives and who may or may not be dead. Superbly played by Jessica Lange in a stunning late-career role, Constance is a failed movie actress who resents her daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer) who has Down Syndrome and finds solace in alcohol, younger men, and introducing mayhem into the lives of the Harmon family.

Man of the House But Not in Control

Although it's Ben's life choices that propel the action, we quickly see that in many ways he is powerless and emasculated by the women around him: the wife he's terrified of losing and therefore continues to hide secrets from; the daughter who despises him for his unfaithfulness and goes behind his back to become involved with a teenage boy who is Ben's patient; the maid who constantly tempts him with sexually charged comments and come-ons in an attempt to debase him; the neighbor who controls him as he unwittingly sleepwalks and attempts to do himself harm; the neighbor's daughter who mysteriously appears in his house at all hours despite door locks and alarm systems; even the student he slept with who reappears in his life and threatens to destroy his marriage and his future.

Horror's Victims...or Survivors?

The second episode of American Horror Story hammers home the message that neither Vivien nor Violet Harmon are victims. In a flashback, we see the stabbing and drowning deaths of two previous residents of the house -- nursing students killed by a random stranger -- and then we're returned to the present where three true-crime obsessed fans intent on reenacting those murders break into the Harmon home and overpower Vivien and Violet. Unlike the standard horror film female victims who face their deaths with tears, fears, and pleas for their lives, both Vivien and Violet are defiant, unyielding, and end up outwitting the killers and sending them to their deaths.

By the third episode Vivien declares she won't stay in the house and goes in search of an apartment for the family. Yet Violet reiterates the survivor meme, telling her mother, "I love our house....it's where we kicked some ass. You say we were victims of something bad there. I say that's the place where we survived."

Both the major and minor female characters of American Horror Story have survived (or continue to endure in the face of) tragedy and loss. Vivien survives a devastating miscarriage and a cheating husband; Violet survives bullying at school, teen angst and her parents' deteriorating marriage; like Vivien, Constance survives a cheating husband and the deaths of one or more of her children, along with the loss of her dreams; Moira survives rape, murder, and what we later learn are decades of servitude trapped within the house as a spirit unable to rest; and Adelaide survives taunts from peers because she's different and abuse from Constance who sees her daughter as ugly and something to be ashamed of.

More Than 'Murder House'

To describe American Horror Story as a series about the inexplicable goings-on at what locals call "Murder House" is to ignore the larger context. It's also a look at the horrors of everyday life -- infidelity, pregnancy and abortion, miscarriage, the death of a child, murder, rape, violence and assault, troubled marriages, hormone replacement therapy, bullying, domesticity, career loss, aging, disability, sexual dissatisfaction -- many of which touch upon female-centric concerns.

In creating juicy female roles for teenagers up through women of a certain age (Lange, Conroy) and challenging the stereotypes of horror film females as terrified victims or hard-eyed weapon-wielding avengers, American Horror Story has pulled a bait-and-switch. It's tricked audiences eager for kinky twists and spurting gore by slipping in a handful of female empowerment themes played out through the lives and deaths of multilayered women we want to know more about. One man's trick is every woman's treat.

As I write this four episodes in, I have the feeling that the last man standing will be a woman. But what I'm not sure about is this -- will she be alive...or dead?

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