The Vagenda

American Horror Story and Rape: Don’t Make Me Root for Abusers


You expect a certain number of terrible things to happen when you watch a show with a title like “American Horror Story: Freakshow”. The murderous clown is certainly fair game. The calculating show mistress makes sense. Both provide commentary on what it means to be “a freak.” I have to be honest though, I didn’t expect there to be a gang rape scene presented with virtually no comment, and, what’s more, it was never named as such. Even Jezebel’s write up failed to acknowledge that what took place on screen was rape, opting instead to call it “carny porn.”

All four seasons of “American Horror Story” have featured rape, both casually and as part of important plotlines. The three preceding seasons could stand for some scrutiny themselves. This season premier dove straight in.

Elsa, played by Jessica Lange, is the one who orchestrates the chillingly deliberate scene. It’s implied that she encourages a young woman named Penny to smoke opium, and then films her having sex — but really, being raped — with several major and secondary characters, all of them the eponymous “freaks” of the show. Penny sees the video, and tearfully declares she must have liked it, though she can’t remember a thing.

What’s important here, and what distinguishes this rape scene from many others on television, is the way it so casually involves the characters we are expected to sympathise with. Only one episode in, and we’re being asked to side with abusers. They are victims of abuse themselves, and that’s significant, but it doesn’t erase this scene.

Numerous current popular shows feature main characters with major flaws, and we are encouraged to both vilify and sympathise with them. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men are just three examples of shows with amoral characters. There are major characters in all these shows who are rapists, and yet as the show unfolds further, the viewer is encouraged to believe in them. To judge them but to forgive as well.

Rape is not a tool to make a character more “complex”. Yes, people have their flaws. They have their demons. But the kinds of things that make a character more interesting are the kinds of things that can eventually be forgiven, if they try hard enough. We want to see ourselves in characters, but that doesn’t mean forgiving every mistake either. Some things shouldn’t be forgiven in a four-episode story arc.

TV is relevant to people’s real lives in ways we don’t always realise. The characters of a show are fictional, but that doesn’t mean we don’t connect with them. Who can’t identify with being rejected at some point? Many people have experienced being a “freak” during their life, whether from a physical difference, a mental one, or something that no one noticed at all, but which has affected how they saw the world. In our very real world, victims of rape, especially rape which occurs while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are instant outcasts. In “American Horror Story” this rape is offered up as part of a commentary on how pathetic and futile average, American, suburban life is. As an overarching theme, this is utterly compelling. Elsa points out how maybe being a “freak” on the outside doesn’t mean you are one on the inside, and vice versa. But the message is marred with the cheap, unnecessary use of indicting a woman for her own rape. Granted, it’s a good plot device to help us see how awful and self-serving Elsa can be, but it doesn’t end with her. Every character in that scene is committing rape.

In episode two, the rape is not alluded to. Penny is gone (though her character will return at some point, according to the cast listing). Ultimately, she was just a plot point.

- Indigo Trigg-Hauger

14 thoughts on “American Horror Story and Rape: Don’t Make Me Root for Abusers

  1. I don’t see how rape is any worse than murder (eg Walter White from Breaking Bad).
    I think you need to reevaluate how you consider fictional characters in fictional shows.

    • Murder and rape are treated very differently in society and in media, no one is talking about one being “worse” than the other, there is simply a problem with how rape is depicted in media.

    • Unless there is a world where between 1 in 3 and 1 in 5 people are murdered and a tiny proportion of people are brought to justice for it, your point is moot.

  2. Last season they had a girl rape a guy in a coma until he died. The guy was a rapist himself and the girl was taking revenge and had the magic power of killing people with her bajingo… whatever, it was still incredibly awful. Also never mentioned again and the girl was treated like a hero all the way through the show.

  3. I haven’t seen American Horror Story, but I remember the last season of Misfits was very blasé about rape. There was a scene where one of the main characters raped his unconscious friend and it was presented as comedy. It always made me rather uncomfortable. Sorry, a bit off topic, but supporting your idea that rape in TV dramas can be portrayed very badly.

  4. The rape that goes on in Game of Thrones is also shown a lot, it always makes me so uncomfortable. There’s a bit where this man owns a home in the middle of nowhere and all the women there are his daughters (he not only rapes them he is also their father!). When they kill the father, the soldiers just go on raping all the women, but its just done so casually, not portraying the albeit fictional but trauma these women must have gone through!

  5. I actually remember thinking this throughout Gossip Girl- in the very first episode, where Chuck attempts to rape Jenny, who is 14, saved only by the intervention of the gang. At the time, another girl asks if she’s ok and she says yes, her brother punches the assailant out, they all go on to have a magical night of young love and dreams. What I found really troubling is exactly what is described in this article, a) that this is used as a plot point to kick off a big honour-based feud between Chuck and Dan, Jenny and her experiences no longer come into the equation, b) that the show then goes on to portray Chuck as COMPLEX with DARK FEELINGS and he’s supposed to be like a wounded animal that women are drawn to, and his and Blair’s love story is the greatest romance of our times. NO, HE’S AN ATTEMPTED RAPIST. The stupidest bit is that this event is mentioned one more time, when for some reason the gang all need to pull together to sort out some trouble, and Chuck says to Jenny like ‘oh sorry about what I did and stuff’ and she’s like ‘yeah ok’. The whole thing was unnecessary in the first place and then poorly handled all round.

  6. I don’t understand why the scene between Tate and Vivian is referred to as rape later on. If two consenting adults have sex, how does it change into rape only in hindsight?

    • She only consented to sex with someone she believed was her husband. She didn’t consent to sex with Tate. The false terms of her consent – and Tate’s deceptive manipulation of Vivian in general – are what make it so understandably traumatic for her.

  7. This is pathetic. How can you compare Breaking Bad to AHS in sympathizing with rapists or whatever, when the actual THEME of Breaking Bad is to show the unhappy end that amorality can lead you to?

  8. I’ve often found in books that rape is romanticized and made glamorous I hate it when the guy saves the girl and she’s so eternally grateful and the guy beats up the other guy. Like why can’t the girl figure out a way out not that it’s shameful to be raped like why can’t she press charges and get him eight years in prison or something why is it a tool to make her desirable or the absolute worst thing is when they fall on love with their rapist it makes me want to become a hermit.

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