It's fairly easy to tell that American Horror Story: Coven was a clear attempt to squash the complaints about earlier AHS seasons being terrible to women. The series set up shop with a practically all-woman cast and left all of the juicy roles and scenes to folks like Jessica Lange, Lily Rabe, Angela Bassett, Sarah Paulson, and Emma Roberts. It certainly sounds like a feminist paradise on television, complete with troves of powerful women, but it's not. In fact, AHS: Coven's brand of feminism is rather atrocious.
Producers teased early on that AHS: Coven would be laced with feminism and sure, the set-up seems friendly enough: the story focuses on witches, whose superiority and powers strike such fear in others — mostly men — that they're hunted down and threatened with eradication. When Misty Day is burned at the stake, it's by a throng of Southern fried men yelling at her and calling her "bitch" and the same thing happens when she's attacked later in the swamp. In addition, the order of witch hunters chasing Fiona and her coven are also all men who've carried the tradition of witch hunting down through a strong patriarchy hell-bent on domination over these scarily powerful women.
But there's more. Zoe's sexual education supports the theme as well: When the series begins, she's punished for having sex with her boyfriend because her vagina literally kills him. Later, she takes control of her sexual power and takes out an aggressor with it. Finally, when she and Kyle come together, she's finally learned to harness and own her sexuality in a healthy, pleasurable way.
Then there's the way in which Jessica Lange fights the ageist standards of the entertainment industry throughout AHS: Coven, especially when her character Fiona finds passionate, romantic love with the New Orleans Ax Man. AHS is certainly working on its feminism, albeit in a rather paint-by-numbers fashion.
And while the "feminist victories" on AHS are numerous, they're not enough to save the show from its more problematic displays, the worst of which (by far) was the explosion of feminine strength in Wednesday night's episode "Go To Hell." Nearing the end of their witchy journey, the ladies of the coven are faced with grim news: the Ax Man has killed Fiona in crime of passion and his second target is his dead lover's coven. He arrives, ax in hand just as Misty Day is fighting Madison for trying to kill her. "You walked into the wrong house," taunts Roberts' Madison moments before Misty calls Kyle off of the Ax Man because "We don't need a man to protect us." Alright, we see your angle here, AHS.
The ensuing scene is a violent expression of literal girl power — girls with multitudes of power over this intruder — but it's not necessarily a feminism-friendly message. Somewhere along the line, pop culture determined that feminism is nothing more than a more articulate Xena: Warrior Princess battle cry and AHS is a clear recipient of that message. Here, we're supposed to hear the cry "We don't need a man!" and then rally behind these women as they outnumber one mentally ill man and stab him until he's mushier than a Walking Dead zombie.
Blood spatters all over their faces and they look at this man who had little capacity to actually harm them with immeasurable rage. There was no way he could take them all down and aside from murdering the woman who had designs of her own to murder each and every one of them until she found the next supreme, he's not an actual threat. While the Ax Man certainly deserves a gruesome end for murdering witches in his past life, the coven witches go overboard. They pour all of their inner rage out into his beyond mutilated body. This man is made to suffer the worst of the fates laid on the witches' male oppressors: Misty's were eaten by alligators, Hank's head was blown clear off, and now the Ax Man is stabbed until he's a pile of jelly. These women aren't leveling the gender playing field, they're taking over it in its entirety.
Yes, it's an example of women prevailing spectacularly against male aggressors, but at what cost? This problematic representation of women with power plays into the negative stereotypes of feminists as overly aggressive, myopic warriors with a blanketed agenda that reads "Men bad, Women best ever." There's little subtlety or ownership in the AHS witches' feminism; instead, the movement is reduced to little more than selfish power play, which is where the second glaring issue comes along.
These women are consistently participating in what might be described as cat-fighting (Nan making Madison put a cigarette in her vagina, for one of many examples) and trampling each other for a shot at becoming the top witch. Fiona is willing to kill them all, Madison is willing to kill her should-be allies, and all those wronged by these two are willing to strike back with equal amounts of emotion where thought should prevail. They are reduced to selfish, irrational time bombs — something that hinders, rather than helps a pro-feminist agenda. What's more is that at least half of the women on this show view success as only being accomplished once they take down other women. Last time we checked, the movement was not about stomping on your fellow feminists to get to the top.
So while AHS: Coven would pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors and a handful of gold stars for being comprised almost completely of women who talk to each other about power and history rather than a man or men, that's not enough to declare the show a feminist victory.
There's a chance that Coven's final episode, "The Seven Wonders," will aim to find the new Supreme and might remedy some of these ailments, but one episode can't undo everything. The fact of the matter is that AHS has a shaky hold on what it means to be a feminist, so while it's a juicy, titillating television romp, it's important that we take its content with a grain of salt — and based on the amount of hot pokers shoved in orifices and blood-curdling murders in Wednesday's penultimate episode, maybe a shot of tequila, too.