Sarah Paulson leans over the bed and whispers, “The more you scream, the more he likes it.” She’s speaking to a young junkie being violently, viciously raped by a demon. You can’t look away because all angles are covered, all sections revealed, and all vulnerabilities taken advantage of.
The premier of American Horror Story: Hotel brought with it the usual suspects: cinematic allusions, actresses spitting venomous lines of dialogue, hot men that are just there, and, well, rape. It’s the third time in Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s anthology series that the pilot episode has used rape as both a plot point and a provocation. Game of Thrones, another show widely criticized for its depiction of rape and sexual violence, could be argued to portray those scenes with more “taste” in comparison. But at the core of AHS’s sexual violence, which has been employed at least twice every season, is not only lazy provocation, but a deep cynicism for human relationships as a whole.
The show’s ruminations on the frailty and unreliability of human relationships reaches melodramatic heights the most in Murder House. The Rubber Man suit became a piece of iconography for the show early on, the focal point of the show’s melodrama, and for its sexual violence. The “satirically written” gay couple Chad (Zachary Quinto) and Patrick (Teddy Sears) are as dysfunctional as any straight couple, but with more camp. Both are murdered by the Rubber Man, but what they have in common is the sexual connotation of the scene that leads to their death. Patrick, specifically, is sodomized to death with a fire poker. Later, we meet the new owners of the house, Vivien (Connie Britton) and Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), whose marriage is dissolving. Though it was young sociopath Tate (Evan Peters) in the Rubber Man suit, Vivien thinks it’s her husband who assaults her. In Asylum, the Devil, in the form of Lily Rabe, assaults Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes), a Killer Santa (Ian McShane) tries to rape Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), Arden (James Cromwell) attempts to rape Shelley (Chloe Sevigny), and Dr. Thresdon (Quinto) continuously rapes Lana (Paulson). In Coven, Madison (Emma Roberts) is gang raped at a frat party, and, upon his return from the dead, Alicia Spencers (Mare Winningham) resumes her abuse of her son Kyle (Peters). In Freak Show, Penny (Grace Gummer) is filmed being raped by the sideshow performers at the carnival. Elsa Mars (Lange) is subjected to being in a snuff film where her legs are severed. And in the premier of Hotel, Gabriel (Max Greenfield) is raped by a demon with a drill bit dildo.
This last scene goes on for minutes at a time, and it’s so in your face about it, it feels like it will never end. But what does the sexual violence mean for the show? What does the show want to say, if anything? And what does it say about the show?
Regardless of the change in locale and specific issues each season wants to tackle, most of American Horror Story remains the same from season to season, at least thematically. It’s a show about power and how people take advantage of different avenues and use different methods in order to gain it, whether it be familial (Murder House), ideological (Asylum), structural (Coven and Freak Show), or physiological (Freak Show and Hotel). The rape in the series tends to be a stand in or metaphor for something else, but what’s bothersome about this is that it’s so mishandled. The search for complexity through assault and sexual violence is a debate that doesn’t need to be had because we should know by now that using rape as a plot point does not make a show, or a character, in and of itself more complex or interesting. Rape as metaphor is tricky, and even then yields to some hard conversations about the privilege of being able to tell that story, and to what degree rape is best way to articulate that metaphor.
While the human relationships on the show are always precarious, there’s a constant shift in power within those dynamics. From the unfaithful to the pregnant, the Hellish and the Holy, the secular and the Divine, from patriarchy to matriarchy, etc. The individual human relationships don’t last, and they are, as much as the sexual violence, representative of larger groups, microcosms in their own being. She Wants Revenge’s “Tear You Apart” bleeds across the screen, and though the track centers on a foursome with Lady Gaga, Matt Bomer, and an unlucky couple they met during a screening of Nosferatu, it’s as if Murphy predicts that we’re all going to tear each other apart.
Intriguingly, the sex on the show is almost never pleasurable, and the few times that it is, it’s only ironically, with the Sword of Damocles hanging above the characters’ heads. The show proclaims itself as sexy and edgy, but the presentation of sexuality in any form doesn’t make the show’s sex inherently pleasurable. Instead, sex is mired in misery, such as Zoe’s (Taissa Farmiga) killer libido in Coven, Jimmy’s (Peters) deformed hands in Freak Show, and Patrick’s interest in BDSM in Murder House. They’re all strangely sex negative, and it’s hard to think of an instance where a character on the show embraces their sex or sexuality and uses it as a form of agency or autonomy. It’s used as power, certainly. But as the show continually suggests, power corrupts.
The Hotel scene stands out in terms of how rape functions as a statement about human relationships precisely because it is, in comparison to the rest of the series, an isolated incident. Gabriel check into the hotel alone, his mind only on the heroin he plans to use. Hypodermic Sally (Paulson) and the Demon are rather bluntly illustrated manifestations of addiction, and therefore the isolatory nature of this scene seems to be most emblematic of the series’ cynicism.
The last couple of seasons were built upon communal efforts, where structural hierarchy existed. Familial hierarchies and ideological ones permeated the first two seasons. And AHS’s intent is to say that these things will collapse. Everything will collapse.
That the show decides to articulate these ideas through assault and sexual violence, though, is indactive of where Murphy and Falchuk fall within intersectional circles.. The intent behind these scenes, watching power being shifted, exchanged, or outright taken, is obfuscated by the exploitative nature of the execution. The found footage of Penny’s filmed rape is grainy, mired in the artifice of old timey movie footage; Madison’s rape is edited in a way that follows the hallucinatory beat of the club music; and Shelley’s assault is fragmented to create a bunch of puzzle pieces to be put back together. This over indulgence undermines what the show wants to say about the institutional aspects of rape both as an act in and of itself and as a metaphor for larger ideas. Murphy discussed the metaphor in Hotel’s premiere, stating:
“He is a representation of that and what people go through fighting addiction. It’s not done lightly or blithely. I think it’s very powerful and strong.”
Teased Max Greenfield, “Ryan gets real pleasure out of how far, I think, he can push it. And when we were doing that stuff, he was happy and he was scared. We all were. And it was a good vibe on set because of that. I think we were like, ‘F— yeah, man. Let’s push this and let’s see how far we can go.’”
There’s a sharp binary that exists between intention and execution, and Murphy and Falchuk’s desire to shock is the driving force, rather than careful consideration on how something could or should be handled. And, let’s face it, it represents a certain kind of privilege where these showrunners only think of the consequences of these actions inasmuch as “it’ll get people talking about the show” rather than “what we talk about when we talk about rape in mainstream media”. The litany of issues the show has peaks with how it approaches sex, devoid of pleasure, and sexual violence. The ends don’t justify the means. These concepts can be manifested without the use of rape. The deconstruction of power structures, cynical or otherwise, is not all that noble, more a manipulative device than something necessarily intellectually stimulating. It’s just a power play.