The Lesbians of American Horror Story: For Us, The Scary Parts Are Real

I watched the first season of American Horror Story with giddy abandon. I’m a fan of the horror genre’s ability to subvert certain themes and deal with subjects that other genres do not, and I was excited by what I saw. Tropes were played out, familiar elements were gutted or bloated to the point of camp, and it was beautiful in a gory, ridiculous way. Everyone was eerily gorgeous, and nothing hurt. Actually, a lot of it looked very painful, but you know, horror. Also, things like this happened:

You’re welcome. Anyway.

If you continued watching until the finale, you know that the show took an express train to What-In-The-Fuck-Is-Going-On-Ville towards the end of the season. I don’t want to spoil anyone who hasn’t finished, but let’s just say that the finale left us in a place where it would be impossible to continue the storyline with the same set of characters. When the show was renewed for a second season, I was confused as to who would be populating the narrative. Cue the show’s new premise that the series will move locations and characters with each season as a way of more thoroughly exploring horror tropes. Awesome!

if you squint, you can see the lesbians cuddling

This season takes place in an asylum, which horror fans know as a favorite backdrop for super creepy narratives. The fictional Briarcliff is famous because in the 1960s, it was home to a famous serial killer named Bloody Face. Bloody Face is a real charmer who likes to skin women and use their inside-out flesh to make masks and household items. You know, just normal everyday stuff. Briarcliff is also host to mutant flesheaters, conniving nuns, aliens, and even Anne Frank. Despite what sounds like an open call for a hilariously bad slasher film, the most horrifying part of the show is what “sane” humans are capable of doing to each other in the name of medicine and morality. While some of the residents are clearly disturbed, others are prey to the disturbing mental health treatments that were considered completely acceptable as recently as the 1980s. Housewives were committed by bored husbands, women were committed for being sexually active, and of course, homosexuals were committed for deviant sexuality. Enter the lesbians.

If you’ve read any of my other media opinions, you know I will watch pretty much anything that has lesbians in it, including toothpaste commercials in languages that I don’t understand. It’s a treat for me when the aforementioned content is not terrible, so it’s been a treat to have lesbians on a show I was going to watch anyway.

Briarcliff’s resident lesbian is Lana Winters, played by Sarah Paulson, who is gay in real life! In case my exclamation point wasn’t a tip-off, this is a huge deal. The fact that they cast an actual queer person to play a queer character is something we very rarely see in television and film, so this is a refreshing step in the right direction.  Secondly, Lana’s partner is played by Clea Duvall, a Lesbian Household Name. They are equally adorable and gay in real life, in case you were wondering.

After witnessing Glee, I would probably prefer wrestling a rhino to allowing Ryan Murphy anywhere near lesbian narratives again, so my expectations for any portrayal of the lady-loving ladies is pretty low. When I see Ryan Murphy’s name attached to something, I take it as a warning sign that I will probably be offended and/or angered by its contents.

me too, bb

This show has turned out to be a pleasant surprise in those regards, if only because the lesbian narrative has become a sort of queered version of horror that is specific to the gay experience. The horrors that Lana and her partner undergo come as a result of their sexuality, and those horrors are, for the most part, historically accurate.

Lana Winters first arrives at Briarcliff not as a resident but as a journalist looking to uncover the less savory practices of the asylum. Since it’s the 1960s and they both have careers that would be particularly unfriendly to their sexualities, Lana and her partner Wendy, a schoolteacher, are living as “roommates” in order to keep their identities safe. When Sister Jude finds out that Lana has been snooping, she blackmails Wendy into committing Lana to Briarcliff. It’s a sad nod to the conditions of our recent past that the risk of being outed to the community was that dangerous.

At Briarcliff, Lana undergoes a series of horrifying treatments for her “deviant sexuality.” The aversion therapy is particularly disturbing. Lana is hooked up to a vomit-inducing serum while being shown pictures of sexualized women, and then forced to masturbate while touching a naked man. It’s an extremely hard thing to watch, especially when you realize that it’s almost identical to actual medically santioned practices for “curing” homosexuality.

What is so difficult and simultaneously interesting about this narrative is that it is not a far-fetched horror story. It is drawn directly from the actual experiences of homosexuals in the not-so-distant past, painting a realistic picture of a highly homophobic society and the high stakes of living such an environment produces. This is the worst nightmare of a queer person: betrayed by the person they love in an environment where their love is already shamed, told their sexuality is a sin and disease, forced through a series of horrifying cures for said disease, and have society sanction this as medically and morally appropriate. It’s our worst nightmare because we know it was a very real possibility as of forty years ago, and that it’s a level of persecution many of our fellow queer people are still experiencing today. We are still murdered, assaulted, and tortured for our identities. To have such practices fully supported by society is a horror story we don’t need to call inventive or fantastic, because we know the line between our stories and a story like Lana Winters is still too thin.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the conditions have gotten much, much worse for Lana. I will be frank: in comparison to most television shows, the violence is brutal and often sexualized. There are times when I have to turn it off or skip ahead because this season is triggering in a way that even last season didn’t touch, and I’m absolutely terrified for where Lana’s story is going. I’m not actually sure if I will be able to watch for much longer because the sexual violence has become so much more intense in the last few episodes, and I can already see that it’s going to continue to heighten from here on out. If you’re not a fan of the horror genre, or if you find sexualized violence (I say sexualized because not only is there sexual violence, but brutality and gore are sometimes eroticized here in a way you might be familiar with if you’ve seen enough horror) triggering, I would stay away for now. And for queer audiences, we have the added element of horror in knowing that cinematics and staging aside, none of these horrors are really too far-fetched.

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Hard-lovin' butch made of tears, sweat, and spit, in that order. Professional lonesome polecat. Kate is living proof that you can take the hillperson out of the mountains, but she's still probably going to run back to the mountains anyway. Kate prefers the trashy to the classy, and the tender to everything else. Full-time writer, part-time lover. Heart got so big and soggy that she had to cut off all her sleeves.

Kate has written 124 articles for us.

38 Comments

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    I remember seeing a documentary with John Waters in it once where he said (please forgive the paraphrasing) he tries to depict his gay characters having a good time, not having to face a load of trouble. In a way I can see his point, just like it’s refreshing to see couples of different ethnic backgrounds portrayed without there being any hoo-ha about it, because that’s how it *should* be. But at the same time there are hard things, especially as you said- historically, so I DUNNO.

    In other news, how weird is it that I heard of this show through a friend of a friend exactly today and had planned on watching it AND NOW I SEE AN AUTOSTRADDLE ARTICLE ABOUT IT. I must be psychic. And now I have even more reason to watch it.

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    “Briarcliff’s resident lesbian is Lana Winters, played by Sarah Paulson, who is gay in real life! In case my exclamation point wasn’t a tip-off, this is a huge deal. The fact that they cast an actual queer person to play a queer character is something we very rarely see in television and film, so this is a refreshing step in the right direction.”

    I love Sarah Paulson. I love American Horror Story. And I love that a queer woman is portraying a queer character during a period in history where being queer was basically a punishable offence. That being said (and perhaps this has more to do with my own research than this show specifically) I’m wondering why we think it is so important that Paulson is gay in real life. I’m reading a lot about gay theatre companies in Britain during the late 60’s/early 70’s that demanded that everyone in their company be queer. Actors, directors, technicians, everyone! It was like a pre-requisite. There was this kind of narrow belief that in order to have an authentic performance of queer lived experience that queer people must be involved in every step of the performance/representation process. When I read things like that it seems very limiting and it seems to ignore the idea of human compassion and empathy. One of the big issues in Hollywood for queer actors is the fear that once they are “out” that they will only be cast in gay roles. We’ve seen that’s not true in most cases and that queer actors perform heterosexual roles frequently. This AHS situation just makes me wonder about our larger opinions on the matter of representation. I know that it is important to me that Paulson is queer and that she is portraying a queer woman, but that’s not to say I don’t think a heterosexual actress couldn’t do an equally impressive job with this material. Is this pairing by Ryan Murphy important to us because it serves as a sign of progress or do we believe that only a queer person can reach in and find the heart truth of the queer experience? I really enjoyed this article and this comment may just be me trying to make sense of my own thoughts, but I thought I’d share!

    Thanks!
    Chelsea

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      I know this is tangential, but please could you pass on some sources for info on 60s/70s gay theatre? I love learning about the histories of marginalised groups and theatre is also fascinating, so I’d really appreciate moar books/websites/anything.

      <3

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        I’m currently researching queer post-war British performance and I’m reading a lot about a company called ‘Gay Sweatshop.’ I’m reading a book now that just came out in June of 2012 called “Contemporary British Queer Performance” and it gives a nice history and talks more about the theatre scene now. I highly recommend it. Fascinating stuff!

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      super interesting point, chelsea!

      this is a complex issue, absolutely, but i think first of all, straight actors can play gay characters without blinking an eye. their careers will not be in jeopardy, they will not be pigeonholed into gay roles, they will likely be showered with praise for how amazing it was to see them “queen it up,” etc. i think of eric stonestreet on modern family, who was the member of the male cast who won the emmy, despite there being great performances by the entire cast of that show. eric stonestreet will always get that emmy over his character’s partner, jesse tyler ferguson, who is gay in real life and doesn’t play the character as an over the top queen.

      sure, queer actors don’t want to be put into boxes anymore than actors of color, etc, but to me, the fact that we do have “out” actors and actresses and that it is NOT as stigmatized a deal anymore to have gay characters portrayed in a realistic light (when the gay character was the campy token queen or super dyke, of course a straight person had to play that role because it was more “funny” to see that stretch and that exaggeration) means to me that we should be seeing queer actors be able to play queer. it seems to be on the same level as non-disabled actors playing disabled parts, or people of color being smushed together and considered interchangeable when playing non-white roles. there’s something just every so slightly off and uncomfortable to me about that, and i feel the same way about never seeing gays play gay.

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        Thanks for the response, Kate!

        Bringing in that Modern Family reference was spot on! I’m not sure if you’ve seen “The Celluloid Closet” but there’s a huge discussion of how the ‘sissy’ or the ‘queen’ as a gay stock character was always good for a laugh because they occupy the space in between, making women feel more feminine and men feel more masculine. I enjoy watching Modern Family, but it does have some interesting/problematic stereotypes on its hands!

        It’s nice to be able to see a queer woman portraying a queer character for a lot of reasons. I guess my question (again, just mixing this with my area of research) is about whether or not we are able to relate to this character and the horrors she faces more because the woman playing her is actually openly queer in her own life? Do the sickening yet historically accurate and realistic therapies and treatments Lana is exposed to take on a more intense and frightening element for a queer audience when we see one of our own going through it all? I think it’s just a matter of who tells our stories and what that means to us and it might just come down to the excellent performance Paulson is giving this season. I LOVE Jessica Capshaw’s portrayal of a lesbian woman on Grey’s Anatomy even though I know she is married to a man. I think with AHS maybe there’s just more at stake because the plot is addressing the horrifying corrective treatment that existed in the not too distant past. Maybe we needed someone queer to play this role because perhaps a heterosexual female could not connect with or understand the reality of this experience in the same way?

        I have a lot of questions and no answers. I just think it’s interesting to think about our own opinions on issues of representation.

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        Yes. I feel like it’s hardly a problem that gays are pigeonholed into gay roles – instead, I feel like straight actors just get most of the work. (Honestly, I feel like I notice more straight actors that end up “typically” playing gay roles.) There are those who argue that gays can’t play straight because it’s not believable. Then gays also can’t play gay because of a host of reasons – it will make the film/show too gay or too much for a niche audience, it will make the actor seem “too gay,” it will pigeonhole their career, there are bigger stars among the straight actors. Then they don’t get to become the bigger stars who will draw more of an audience, and don’t get to play Harvey Milk, or the leads in Brokeback Mountain, or A Single Man.

        Someone even once compared straight actors playing gay to white actors in blackface, and while I don’t think I’d make a statement like that myself, I will say that because it’s not something you can tell by looking at someone (necessarily), it makes it easier to give that work to straight actors. I say giving queer roles to queer actors, or even the all-gay theater companies that Chelsea was describing, are wonderful things in that they are giving work to queer actors, to a marginalized group. In the same vein, I’d be in support of an all-female (including writers, directors, etc) theater company, etc. It doesn’t have to be one’s entire career, but it could at least give one a start where it might otherwise be hard to start getting experience / break in.

        It’s not fair that on the one hand we get the stereotype that gays are theatrical and a career in performance is for gay people, but on the other hand being out can be seriously complicated to having a career in film.

        I think that it is really important to let queer actors have queer roles. (And straight roles, and gay roles for straight actors, but for goodness’ sake, let gay people play gay people. I hate the idea that it can be more stigmatizing for an actual gay person to play a gay character.)

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    THIS. I am terrified of this show, but I can’t stop watching. Lana’s character is really well-done, and it is terrifying that the torture she faces was once called “treatment.”
    Really well-done piece. My thoughts exactly. So anxious about where this season is going!

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    Thank you for a very articulate response to the way I felt watching the first few episodes. I enjoyed the first season of American Horror Story because it felt more creepy/scary/intriguing/suspenseful/mysterious than the typical gore=scary trope. I am disappointed that this has turned into something that resembles Saw :( I don’t consider myself a prude, and I’ve watched my fair share of slasher films, but this season really has gone past my personal line from horrifically entertaining to traumatizing.

    I am a huge horror fan, but not a fan of gruesome torture route. Add in lesbian torture and amputations and I’m out. I agree that the icing on the cake for me was the “conversion therapy” episode that made me feel physically ill. I unfortunately can’t stomach watching anymore episodes. I will, however, continue reading recaps because I’m interested in the story lines…just not the intense visuals that go along with each episode.

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    I’m obsessed with this show and all it’s ridiculousness. Besides Lesbians, it really does have everything. Mutants. Aliens. Nazis. Serial Killers. Lily Rabe playing the Devil, who dances around in red lingerie. What’s not to love?

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    Kate, you really just put words to my feelings on this one! My partner and I have been glued to this show since the very first episode last year and I was so unprepared for this twist. Last season was scary in a “monsters under the bed” sort of way, but this…this has choked me up, twisted my guts inside of me, and left me curled up into a ball of empathetic terror. I constantly feel a heartbeat away from this depravity. Had I been born a few generations ago, I could’ve been reduced to nothing more than a lab rat, and the historical reality of what this show is portraying has had a bigger impact on my psyche than any demonic possession or flesh eating killer! I loved reading this because it helps to categorize all the feelings before tomorrow’s inevitably nightmarish episode.

    On a lighter note, I couldn’t help but get excited about the fact that real lesbians are playing the lesbians. Despite the fact that Clea Duvall is perhaps the most typecast actress ever, I love the authenticity they bring to the screen. Their attraction is palpable and their reactions are the product of a genuine fear that a heterosexual actor would be hard pressed to replicate. I’m hoping for a halfway decent ending…..though I’m sure it isn’t in the cards.

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    Thanks, Kate. It’s nice to see someone engaging (critically and articulately) with AHS as a pop culture phenomenon, and you consistently hit the nail on the head.

    What I found most interesting- and keep in mind that as a non-American I may be a bit behind the times here- is not so much that the show features queer characters in lead roles but instead the relationship it establishes between a ‘queer’ positionality and a normative one. The characters who shatter social standards of the period, specifically Kit Walker and his wife Alma’s interracial love affair and the Lana/Kelly partnership,are the most human,the most fucntional and in a way the most ‘normal’of the bunch. AHS, although it may well conform to so many of the cliched tropes of the horror genre (eroticized violence, for example) is still doing something fairly exciting there…

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    I don’t understand why I should be thankful for that first gif. It’s basically “lesbian” porn to appeal to a straight male audience. The implication that women’s sexuality is always ~fluid and they’re willing to have sex with other women for the benefit of men is not exactly a good thing.

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    I saw an American Horror Story: Asylum commercial a while ago that made me want to watch it until I realized (at the end, when they displayed the title) what show it was. It was dark/vintage looking/set in an asylum/ looked like it had lesbians, which was all appealing, but I just can’t handle horror movies/shows. If I watched it I would probably never sleep again. Hearing about how gruesome it’s gotten has confirmed this. But I am curious about what was going on in the show, so I was glad to read this article.

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    I’m so glad you guys finally wrote about this!! I just started watching American Horror Story this season and what I time to do it!
    This season is truly frightening. Like many have said before, I’m glad I wasn’t born in that time period.
    To see all the “treatments,” it makes me happy I’m a lesbian (and someone with mood disorders) in this day and age.

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    Oh my gosh, you read my mind with this article! I watched American Horror Story: Asylum, not that long ago and ended up writing a whole essay about it. Most of the essay I wrote discussed the parts of the show that horrified/stood out to me the most (and which, unsurprisingly, were very much related to my sexuality/queerness) I also wrote about one of the themes I noticed, which was punishing women for their sexuality (the lesbians, the nymphomaniac, that girl who gets sterilized, basically the women who express their sexuality all seem to end up being tortured the most.) I also compared it to Greek tragedy and the idea of “purging” (seeing your own horrors/sorrows reflected through others and therefore being able to “purge” yourself of them and find a sort of temporary relief).

    Most of the above is pretty standard stuff in the horror genre but I think what compelled me to write about it, is just how disturbed I was by the fact that women and gays actually went through some of those gruesome things not that long ago (i.e. being put in asylums by their husbands, that terrible “cure” Lana was subjected to) Like you said Kate, “for us, the scary parts are real.” Not to mention, I’ve always had this fascination with being queer in the 50’s/60’s. I guess because it seems so frightening to me and it’s hard to believe it wasn’t that long ago.

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    I’m glad this show made it to Autostraddle! I have very mixed feelings about it, much for the same reasons you outline in this article. Season 1 was creepy, dark, and frightening. But I’m starting to dislike Season 2 because of the sexualized violence towards women by men. I find it not just very uncomfortable to watch and as you mentioned, triggering. It is very disappointing to see a smart show being taken down this route when I know it has the potential to be different. The narratives that are in this show are smart and important and run a lot deeper than a simple slasher flick, but the violence against women is very hard to watch.

    That being said, I think that it is important that we see these stories about queer women. We all know, logically, that terrible things happened to queer people in asylums not that long ago, but we don’t really KNOW what happened. There aren’t many narratives that actually show us what queer women experienced in these places and for that reason, I will continue watching for now…

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    I was a fan of season 1, but this season seems to be all over the place. It’s too much shit going on to form a cohesive plot. In S1, the main focus was the Harmon’s haunted house. The opening was always interesting because it led to a new ghost’s background story. This season, the alien story line is just messing up the vibe for me. It just doesn’t seem to fit. I think it would’ve been cool if they would’ve just expanded the Bloody Face story line and focused on that or some kind of serial killer, but they’ve gone and spoiled the suspense of Bloody Face now. I am curious to know who’s present day Bloody Face, because there’s no way it’s the same one form the 60’s. He’d be way too old for that. I’m wondering if Lana is pregnant by him and now the child has grown up to be the “new” Bloody Face. Idk? I love Jessica Lange on this show. Her presence might be this season’s saving grace. If renewed for a S3, I hope she comes back. And even though I like s1 as a whole better, I do like Lily Rabe and Tate’s character better this season. They have better roles imo. I couldn’t stand Tate in S1, but I can deal with Kit. I hope he proves his innocence, but with Lily Rabe being Satan, there’s no way she’d rat Bloody Face out. She’s loving this too much. lol I saw the preview for next week’s episode, and they’re gonna have a psycho Santa running around the asylum. lol They’re about to get too silly and ruin the horror feel for me. I don’t mind campy horror-comedies at times, but I wish this show would stay pure horror.

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    I completely agree with this! I was skeptical when I started watching AHS because of Ryan Murphy and the terror that is Glee, but Asylum is actually amazing in my opinion. It’s definitely way more graphic than the first season and some scenes can be too much for me, but the overall story lines are awesome. I love Lana’s portrayal and the fact that her partner signed her away to Briarcliff was so scary because it was accurate for the time period. However, I think there’s so much more there to discuss than just the lesbian characters like Sister Jude’s struggle with her faith and Shelley’s institutionalization based on her desire for “too much sex”. This show is excellent because it makes you think rather than just attempts to scare you, although I still wish they would tone down the gore.

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    1) Alexandra Breckenridge as Young Moira is so incredibly hott, I literally. can’t. take. it. and makes me think naughty… thoughts.

    2)The conversion therapy scene in AHS was so… perverted. And it kills me that her sexuality was considered perverse, while the treatment was down right sadistic. Kills me even more that treatments of the like happened frequently. *flips through Foucault and Butler for answers*

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    All the slut shaming and victim blaming of women for professing their sexualities is so hard to watch. the purity bs that the nazi scientist goes on about is so misogynistic. I know that these things were super prevalent then, and still now, but I feel like they almost make the men too evil ,just for the sake of more misogyny and sexualized violence.

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