American Horror Story: Coven is getting race all wrong

I’ve been watching the American Horror Story series since it started. And although the show hasn’t succeeded in giving me anything close to a nightmare since it’s first season, I’ve stood by to watch the story lines play out. But I’m dreading tonight’s episode because of the show’s problematic representation of blackness. SPOILER ALERT!

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about AHS is the way they capture and incorporate significant — albeit grim — events in popular history, (i.e. the Columbine shootings in season one and the unethical Nazi experiments). The series has also been known to travel fluidly between various eras and utilize respective cultural themes to fuel the plot. Racism was a major theme in season 2, American Horror Story: Asylum, as a white Kit Walker receives backlash after being found to have taken a black wife during the segregation. However, season 3, American Horror Story: Coven, has grabbed the bull by the horns and dived deep into racial tensions in Louisiana stemming from antebellum. There are two black characters central to the plot of this season, Queenie (played by Gabourey Sidibe) and Marie Laveau (played by Angela Bassett who, at 55 still looks that damn good because black don’t crack). Oppression is the theme of this season and these two characters are at the forefront of feuds and conflicts with racial oppression at the center. But truth be told, I’m not here for it.

The overtly racist interactions between immortal, former slave torturer Madam LaLaurie (played by Kathy Bates) and only black witch in the coven, Queenie, lived up to my expectations. But at other times in the show I’ve seen Queenies blackness painfully pushed to the forefront of the show in unnecessary ways; or played out in ways that are offensive. One of such is a scene in which a former slave turned beast is attempting to breech the residence of the coven. Queenie gets the “brilliant” idea that she can connect with and calm the beast by building common ground around experiences being different and just wanting to be loved. But she takes it a step further and initiates sex with him. I found this scene to be extremely problematic. Earlier in the show, it was revealed that Queenie was a virgin; something she seemed embarrassed about. In this scene the “love” she was claimed to be missing was interpreted as sexual and necessary, even if it meant engaging in beastiality with a murderous minotaur. Her shift from virgin to lustful monster-fucker was a little too sudden for me. It was hypersexualized black girl with a cherry on top. Not to mention the fact that the interaction turned violent; so not only was she labeled as a sexual deviant, she was punished for it.

And then there’s Marie Laveau, an everlasting voodoo queen from at least the 1800′s who is represented as, essentially, a ghetto queen in current day Lousiana’s 9th ward. She owns a small hair salon that could use some serious updating.  This is a stark contrast from Fiona’s (played by Jessica Lange) lifestyle which includes designer clothing and expensive anti-aging treatments. It is revealed that Laveau’s physical location may be the result of the truce between the witches and the voodoo practitioners which involved the drawing of borders in the city. So while the show may be shedding light on the intentional disenfranchisement of black communities, I doubt it. Fiona is the “Supreme” (head witch in charge) of a coven that is dying off, while Laveau and her followers have retained their powers. The fact that Leveau still can’t seem to shake her socioeconomic status, despite potentially having the power to do so, reinforces the mainstream media’s insistence on linking and expressing blackness through poverty.

These are just a couple of the examples that caught my attention. I’m be interested to see what racial tropes are at play in tonight’s episode.
Avatar Image Sesali is willing to try her hand at fiction in order to bring more accurate portrayals of black women to television. Any takers?

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3 Comments

  1. Posted December 4, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    I interpreted the disparity in the living conditions between the coven and the voodoo practitioners as evidence that keeping a low profile looks very different for POC, especially in the South. Going unnoticed in a mansion works for the white folk, but not for an immortal voodoo queen. I get that. I think it speaks to what we expect from people based upon their race.

  2. Posted December 5, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I thought Leveau’s modest lifestyle despite her power may have been intentional. She may prefer to keep a low profile, knowing that she’s under a higher degree of scrutiny as a black person. The real world example of black folks being detained by police just for driving a nice car comes to mind.

    That scene with Queenie and the minotaur was messed up though.

  3. Posted December 6, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Those are much different takes then my own.

    Until I read this post I interpreted Leveau as trying to blend in and not get noticed. That and wanting to live with and help her friends and family. It’s obvious she has the power to be rich or pretty much do whatever she wants if she wants to. Hence it never occured to me that it was anything other then a way to blend in and not have her powers noticed. What better way then to hide in a salon with “regular” (non-magic) folks.

    As for the bestaility, that to me was her not wanting to be a virgin anymore and seeing an opportunity to lose it. I immediately connected with her in this scene b/c I remember being the same way when younger – worried I would never get laid and willing to screw anything just to lose my virginity. It was also an opportunity to show bestiality which is another classic horror theme that the show thus far hadn’t had a chance to do yet.

    Maybe your interpretations are right. I just never thought of them before. Certainly I don’t think they intended these events to be interpreted the way you did, but that doesn’t mean that unconsciously they didn’t still create this. Food for thought…

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