Despite the mass amount of medial attention that American Horror Story has accrued for itself throughout its past seven season, my anxious excitement for its return earlier this month felt somewhat of a guilty indiscretion. Less so because of the shows (somewhat) artistic decline since its stronger series premiere, though I will admit I have continued to be disappointed with the production value; rather, my shame resonates from a slow but stark realization that Ryan Murphy has subscripted his once praiseworthy brainchild to a troublesome fate.
It is undeniable that the effects of the 2016 election still weigh heavily on a varied many people both within and outside of our country. Indeed, it is this very emotional state of America that American Horror Story: Cult aims to examine. The season premiere, after commencing with a montage of Trump/Hillary campaign footage, opens its narrative minutes before the official announcement of a Trump victory.
A few weeks prior to the premiere, a trailer was released, revealing the political theme of this season, as well as introducing viewers to the reign of murderous clowns that would thrive in this almost apocalyptic intensification of national fear. This trailer, in my mind, situated only two outcomes for the season seven.
The first, American Horror Story: Cult would be a successful and provocative political commentary that engages with one of the most tangible trepidations present throughout the nation. The second then would only be the opposite; that Ryan Murphy, much like other white American film and television writers, would produce a jaded appraisal of a situation that he doesn’t quite fully understand, causing the season to flop.
Unfortunately, and I say that both for personal and impersonal reasons, I would have to say the show falls more in line with the latter. To begin, Ryan Murphy produced a tired narrative. That’s not to say that much television focuses on coulrophobics being violently harassed by that which scares them most. I only mean that there is a white, upper-middle class family clumsily attempting to fight the transgressions of the bigots around them. Sure, the protagonists are two married women; but throwing in a queer relationship doesn’t automatically situate the winning side as “liberal.” This white-washing begins to unravel and only further problematize the series as it progresses.
Shortly after Hillary’s concession, Sarah Paulson’s character screams at the television and begins to cry while her wife consoles her and encourages her to do her “cookie breathing.” The other folks in the scene, notably the people of color, are merely there to support Paulson’s emotional upheaval. Their housekeeper, a latinx woman, immediately goes to console their son while their neighbors, racially Asian, begin to argue about how one of them neglecting to vote sacrificed the rights of Paulson as a lesbian woman.
The irony of the situation grows rapidly as the rest of the premiere carries out. It is Paulson, the white heroine, who the viewer must root for as the horror soon ensues. Even in her large home, cushioned thoroughly by white privilege and self-interest, to not root for her would, in a sense, be equivalent to rooting for Trump. Afterall, it is Paulson who seems to be one of the only people in her small michigan town to comprehend that racism exists and has detrimental affects on people of color. My argument, however, is that that isn’t enough.
There is no doubt that Paulson and her fictional spouse were at some risk for alienation. Sexual orientation is still a pillar of society largely correlated to discriminatory attitudes. However it is the neglect toward the other various pillars with which that one intersects, namely race.
Trump’s most dangerous rhetoric specifically targeted various minority groups of color, and the general ideology he represents further legitimizes that rhetoric through normalization of racism. It is for this reason that the dimensions of fear being felt in the current national climate will never be captured through a narrative that excludes those most at risk.
I fully appreciate Ryan Murphy’s attempt to use his nationally grossing project toward a productive form of commentary and allyship. Yet it is his ignorance that removes him from various cruxes of the Trump problem that also serves to limit his artistic vision. This makes starkly clear the value of black inclusion in artistic spaces.
Liberal white Hollywood continues to take stances in favor of social equality, yet their actions fall short of wholly supporting their words. Screens continue to be flooded with white narratives, often oversimplifying, if not outright butchering, so many of the nuances faced by people of color. This only makes other white liberals feel satisfied with their social justice efforts while igniting chastising by those more conservatives folks who already think of liberals as snowflakes.
If American Horror Story: Cult were really committed to encapsulating the panic of a nation in distress, it should work on dealing with America as it’s experienced by the other half of the country. The same could be said to any Hollywood writer and hold equal importance. Allyship is not a checklist; it is not a script to adhere to when talking about life to appear as though you are enacting change. Instead it is an ongoing and arduous process that can only fully begin when you start to deeply investigate and understand the lives of people that don’t look like you.