To me, the most fascinating aspect of Ryan Murphy’s FX show American Horror Story is the way that its actors change characters with each season.
It leads to a strange viewing experience. On the one hand, each new season of AHS offers the same faces that made the previous one interesting. However, as viewers we must consciously adjust ourselves to the fact that these actors are completely different from season to season, unsettling our expectations and forcing us to see the show in a new light each time.
It is my theory that certain actors are chosen to embody themes that enforce themselves over the course of the show. This is a particularly fascinating concept. It’s one thing to see the same character in a typical drama regularly demonstrate certain thematic elements; it’s much more powerful to see an actor accomplish this through several different incarnations that differ radically yet still subtly suggest a greater theme. This challenges us to see past the outer layer represented by each actor each season and understand the common pressures that create a genuine experience of “horror” for these characters.
This study of character works particularly well for the characters embodied by the exquisite Jessica Lange. Through her characters of Constance Langdon, Sister Jude, and Fiona Goode, Lange skillfully weaves together a cohesive theme of horror for these characters: the societal expectations and stereotypes that limit women in American culture.
1. Season 1: Constance Langdon
In the first season of AHS, the setting is a haunted house. Since this is a home setting, it follows that Jessica Lange’s character would be struggling with all the horrors that confront women in the domestic realm. Lange plays Constance Langdon, a Virginian native who lives next door to the haunted house in LA. In the Pilot episode, Constance describes her past goal of becoming an actress as “a butterfly of a dream” that she had to put into a jar on the shelf for two reasons: Hollywood’s exploitation of women’s bodies and her sudden role as a mother. As an aspiring actress in LA, she was expected to take roles in which she was nude, which she was not comfortable with. Shortly thereafter, the birth of her first child forced her to retire her dreams forever, to become enmeshed in a domestic life with no escape.
She also struggles with the infidelity of her husband, who is unfaithful to her with someone younger and prettier. The ultimate horror is that, even though she murders her husband and the woman he cheated on her with, she is forced to to live with their ghosts (literally) forever.
This season explores the horror of the domestic in amazing ways, demonstrating the way that women who are expected to fulfill the role as faithful wife and mother are often undervalued and betrayed by husbands who cannot imagine the sacrifice their wives go through. Constance is forced to give up her dreams because the cultural stereotypes of motherhood compel her to remain home with her children and with her unfaithful husband.
Constance is a victim of the misogynistic forces at work that cause a truly “horrific” situation of domestic entrapment for women in the first season of AHS.
2. Season 2: Sister Jude
The second installment of AHS takes place in a Catholic asylum run by the Monsignor, the deranged Dr. Arden, and the troubled Sister Jude, played of course by Jessica Lange. Since this season takes place in a religious setting, it makes sense that Sister Jude struggles with the issues of misogyny present in the Christian faith.
Throughout the season, we see Sister Jude struggling to gain recognition and support in the church hierarchy, and we repeatedly see that the church’s hierarchy has no place for women at the top. As the Monsignor is corrupted by the devil in Mary Eunice’s body, Sister Jude is helpless to intercede because of her place as a woman. She cannot rise up in the ranks merely because of her gender, and this creates one of the major conflicts in her characterization.
Another interesting aspect of her characterization is the way that the Christian setting oppresses her sexuality. She often dreams of herself in a red dress. In reality, as a Sister in the church, any expression of sexuality would be considered sinful. Although most viewers will agree that at the beginning of this show, Sister Jude is not a character that could be considered “good,” it’s impossible not to empathize with her as the show progresses, as we see the way that the patriarchal foundation of the church, one of the true “horrors” of this season, oppresses her at every step of the way.
3. Season 3: Fiona Goode
Fiona is undeniably a deranged, ultimately “soul-less” character in Season Three of AHS, called “Coven.” This season is set in a coven of all-female witches, and so it follows that this season confronts the ways in which women are pitted against one another in American culture.
Fiona, as the “Supreme” of the coven she leads, begins to wilt in power as the upcoming female Supreme grows in power. This leads Fiona to turn to murder and lies in desperation as she seeks to avoid the inevitable death that comes with another female rising in power.
This is a more subtle, yet in many ways a more powerfully relevant, critique of American cultural oppression of women. The power play between Fiona and her coven emphasizes that, in our culture, a woman who is aging, who is losing her youth and beauty, is considered to be markedly less valuable than her younger, sexier counterparts. Fiona struggles with the realization that, despite her greater experience and knowledge, it is inevitable that she will be usurped by a younger woman. Why? Because our culture undervalues older women to an alarming extent and instead places emphasis on the young and pretty.
Fiona’s struggle, though of course exaggerated and supernatural, outlines the horror inherent in a cultural system which values women solely through their most sexual and beautiful years, eventually casting them aside to wither away in anonymity the moment they reach advanced age.
Yes, Jessica Lange plays a different character with each season of American Horror Story. However, the beauty and artistry of the show is in the way that, through her various characterizations, Lange explores different shades of the same horror. In different settings, with different names, Lange explores the various ways in which American culture (from the past to the present) harms women through misogynistic practices and beliefs. And that, to me, is the true American Horror Story.