American Horror Story: Cult's Angry Women

In its seventh season, the FX show tackled a timely subject with typical incoherence.

Kai (Evan Peters) in 'American Horror Story: Cult'

This article contains spoilers through the entire seventh season of American Horror Story: Cult.

To be fair to American Horror Story: Cult, the seventh season of FX’s anthology series was conceived, written, filmed, and edited before the Harvey Weinstein revelations opened the floodgates on half a century of female fury. The show’s topical references are pink pussyhats and The Handmaid’s Tale, not New York Times exposés and Icy Uma Thurman. Still, the subject of angry women looms large over the season’s 11 episodes. “We’re sitting on the biggest bomb the universe has ever seen,” Bebe Babbitt (Frances Conroy) tells the cult leader Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) during—yes—an anger-management therapy session. “You know what that is, Mr. Anderson? Female rage.”

AHS: Cult, like so many recent cultural works of questionable merit, was themed around the 2016 election, and how demagogues and hucksters use fear as a potent political tool to gain power. It was classic American Horror Story: Take a powerful, provocative premise steeped in U.S. history, and then bury it beneath psychosexual nightmare fodder (gimps strung from hooks in the attic, three-headed clowns with dildos for noses, tutorials in how to most efficiently mutilate pregnant women). The show doesn’t want to probe the darkest recesses of America’s cultural psyche so much as lightly scratch them in close-up with a ragged fingernail. This is no place for enlightenment; it’s TV designed to trigger.

American Horror Story’s twisted frivolity is the point, at least for many of its fans. Which is fair enough—not every work of entertainment needs to make Big Points about the world today, even if the show’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, demonstrated how deftly they could do just that with American Crime Story, and (in Murphy’s case) with Feud. But building an entire series around the biggest, and strangest, story in recent history—the political ascension of Donald Trump—implies that some larger excavation will be going on. In an interview with the FX CEO John Landgraf in August, Murphy explained that the new series would explore the cults of personality that can arise when people feel most afraid. What it ultimately focused on, though, was anger, and what it exposed was its own limitations.

The issue seems to have been in the conception—Murphy and Falchuk have long wanted to structure a season around the subject of cults, and the populist movement that built around Trump seemed like a dynamite opportunity. The first episode presented the two polarized faces of America via a brother-sister pairing: Peters’s Kai, a stringy-haired alt-righter, and Winter (Billie Lourd), a Vassar student and Hillary Clinton volunteer. Adding to the stereotypes were Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison Pill), a married couple who run a farm-to-table restaurant in their (fictional) town of Brookfield Heights, Michigan. On Election Night, Ally and Ivy were horrorstruck by the incoming results. “Oh my god, Ivy,” Ally said, aghast, at yet another realization of what it all meant. “Merrick Garland. What’s going to happen to Merrick Garland?” Kai, though, was victorious, personifying liberal fear in a handful of Cheeto dust, which he rubbed all over his face in a gruesome homage to his new champion.

The first few episodes showed potential, and they were also funny—much more explicitly satirical than previous seasons. But all too soon, AHS: Cult returned to its favorite tricks, eschewing socio-cultural analysis for shock and gore. Ally’s increasingly fragile mental state, representative of so many frayed nerves after November 8, became a target of gaslighting (she was literally being stalked and terrorized in the grocery store and at home by terrifying murderous clowns, but no one believed her). Ivy’s resentment at her wife for secretly voting for Jill Stein supposedly motivated her to join the cult that was preying on Ally. And Kai, the leader of the cult, incited his crew to commit brutal murders all over town in the hope that manipulating public fear would get him elected to ... city council. (Start small, they say, but still.)

What was even more maddening than the graphic violence, and the swift diversion into the absurd, was how smart the show proved it could be in fleeting moments. When Ivy was grabbed by her genitals at a protest by one of Kai’s goons (Chaz Bono), she froze, and later reproached herself for doing so. It was the most thoughtful and realistic portrayal of assault the show has ever offered, and there have been many. Kai’s manipulation of disaffected young men, whom he love-bombed, dominated, and imbued with a sense of purpose, played sharply on the success of all kinds of modern cults, from 4chan to ISIS, bolstered by a spectacular performance by Peters.

But the show’s insight into the female cult members, by contrast, was pitiful. Meadow (Leslie Grossman) explained vaguely that she joined because her previous life of Real Housewives marathons left her feeling like a feminist failure. Beverly (Adina Porter) joined after Kai murdered her biggest rival (Emma Roberts) on-air. Ivy joined because she was jealous of her wife, who got to breastfeed their child. The lone triggers for female anger the show could imagine weren’t related to the election at all—they were other women.

In later episodes, the show considered misandrist rage instead, going back in time with an episode in which Valerie Solanas (Lena Dunham) shot Andy Warhol because he disrespected her as an artist. Then it proposed that Solanas had actually been the figurehead of a cult intent on murdering men and their complicit girlfriends, responsible for all the crimes supposedly committed by the Zodiac Killer. American Horror Story has always been fixated on serial killers from bygone days—the Season-5 episode “Devil’s Night” also featured the Zodiac Killer, as well as John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Aileen Wuornos. But Cult’s insistence that the logical extension of female anger as a political tool is mass murder was the moment when any flickers of contemporary relevance were completely extinguished.

It’s satire, of course. But it’s satire accessorized with all American Horror Story’s most tiresome predilections, including violence toward women that tends toward the pathological. In the series, it seems, no fertile woman can go un-impregnated, whether by a ghost in a black rubber fetish suit, or by a man being simultaneously penetrated by her brother. Mothers inevitably wreak horrific damage on the vulnerable psyches of their children. And rape is so repetitive a plot device on the show as to have become completely meaningless. Given such depictions, and their prevalence across culture, is it any surprise women are so mad?