American Horror Story and the Evils of the Sexual Woman

This is a guest post by Paul and Renee. Paul and Renee blog and review at Fangs for the Fantasy. We’re great lovers of the genre and consume it in all its forms – but as marginalised people we also analyse critically through a social justice lens.

This piece was originally published at Bitch Flicks

In terms of the female characters on American Horror Story there are quite a few problematic elements. There is the issue of violence and rape, but one that often gets overlooked is the treatment of sex. It is impossible to have a discussion about sex and American Horror Story without examining the character of Moira.

In many ways, Moira is defined by her sexuality, even her origin as a ghost came about through her sexuality when Constance killed her for sleeping with her husband, shooting her in the eye and burying her body in the garden.

Since that moment, her ghost has been stuck in the persona as a sexual object for the pleasure of straight men. It is expressly labelled as this by the way her body shifts form depending on who looks at her. Alone of all of the ghosts in the house, she is not stuck in the body she died in – she is not always the young, attractive woman that Constance murdered. She only ever appears as her original form when a straight man is looking at her and not only does her appearance change, but so does her demeanour, her words and her actions. Moira’s attractiveness, her body, her sexuality is only ever apparent when it is time to titillate a straight man – it’s expressly there for both straight male pleasure and to be used as a tool for power against straight men. And many of the living straight male characters recognise this: for example Ben being surprised that Vivien is happy to keep Moira on because her attractiveness and her overtly sexual and seductive demeanour is so blatantly aimed at him that he assumes Vivien must see her as a threat or problem (especially since he has cheated before).

When Moira is not around a living straight man, a target for that sexuality, she is an old woman displaying a damaged eye where she was shot. She is presented as completely lacking in sexual attractiveness – not only in appearance but in demeanour as well. Her sexual nature is reserved for straight men.

Moira’s most fascinating persona is that of an older woman played by Frances Conroy. Older Moira is virtually passive until Vivien Harmon enlists her help to scare a new family away from the murder house. This character plays upon the idea that seniors, particularly senior women are not sexual and most certainly never the object of sexual desire.This is a societal construction that’s continually reified by the media. Consider for a moment that Sean Connery and Richard Gere are most definitely senior citizens but are still constructed as sex symbols and paired with significantly younger women in movies. There is never a question that they are desirable and their age is certainly never a barrier to sex. With Moira, her advanced age makes her decidedly non-sexual and without the veneer of youth and sexuality, she is powerless and impotent.

Moira’s sexuality is also presented as dangerous. She is the temptress who leads men astray – the woman whose sexuality causes the man’s downfall. It is positively biblical with Moria representing Eve.

Be it Lilith or Eve, is seen as the enemy of harmony, well ordered life and peace. She is the source of all evils, the originator of sin in the world. This negative understanding of the woman, particularly Eve, is presented in the words of some prominent male scholars. The Jewish commentator, Cassuto, maintains that the serpent too is female and the cunning of the serpent is in reality the cunning of the woman. The German Old Testament scholar, claims that women confront the allurements and mysteries that beset our limited life more directly than men do, and therefore, woman is a temptress. Mckenzie connects woman’s moral weakness with her sexual attraction and holds that the latter ruined both the woman and the man. Thus, male interpreters understand woman as responsible not only for the origin of evil in the world, but makes female “to represent the qualities of materiality, irrationality, carnality and finitude, which debase the manly spirit and drag it down into sin and death.”

In Open House, Moira seduces Joe Escandarian when she learns that he is considering buying the house and putting a pool out back. What makes their meeting interesting is that their flirtation occurs in the presence of Vivien and Marcy, who are shocked because of course, all they can see is the older and certainly sexless Moira. Her goal is to get someone to dig up her bones, so that Constance can finally be held accountable for her murder. The next time Moira acts, she gives Joe oral sex, further enticing him to buy the house to get what she wants. In the end, Moira learns that Joe intends to tear down the house, she acts again, and this time it is to take part in Joe’s murder. She seduces him, initiates oral sex and then bites off his penis. In this we can see her constructed as Joe’s downfall. It’s not a new storyline, because women have been positioned in this manner since Eve fed Adam the apple and Delilah cut Samson’s hair. A woman’s sexuality and any power ensuing from it, is a threat to men and eventually leads to some sort of disaster. And every scene where she is young and seductive has a faintly sinister feel, the way it is presented is threatening – her overt sexuality a weapon used against the helpless man who is desperately trying to resist. In some ways, Moira is almost a Jekyl and Hyde figure – with the good, supportive elderly Moira for the living women contrasting the evil, seductive, menacing young Moira for the men.

But to look at Moira’s sexuality as purely a source of evil seduction for the poor men is to ignore the power differentials in these relationships – starting with her relationship with Constance’s husband that resulted in her death. In every case she is an employee, even with the living men who do not realise she is a ghost, she is in an inherent position of weakness to these men. We also have to ask what other tools she has? We have seen, in episode 7, Moira trying to seduce men to convince them to dig up her bones where they are buried. She wants freedom, she wants to be away from the murder house, we even see that she had family outside the murder house she wished to see and could only do so on hallowe’en. She is using the only tool she has to try to obtain freedom, to try and obtain some form of justice.

Moira does get to be seen as a tragic figure for this. We see her pain and her loss when her mother dies in a nursing home. We get to see her fear and frustration over trying to be free from the house and having her plans thwarted. We get to see her pain and anger in the face of Constance’s constant taunting and needling of her, still holding a grudge for her husband’s infidelity. But in all these instances we’re expected to sympathise with the older Moira – the good Moira, the non-threatening Moira and, tellingly, the non-sexual Moira. Sexual Moira is not a person to be pitied or a person due sympathy or who feels pain.

As with many of the prejudices that run rampant on this programme, the sexualisation of Moira is overtly displayed but poorly challenged. The depth of Moira’s character and any sympathetic characteristics are all overshadowed by the simple narrative of the dangerous, and even the evil, sexual woman. So strongly is this message carried that the writers don’t even try to make sexual Moira someone we can empathise with – only when she is stripped of all her sexuality does she get to be human.


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12 Responses to American Horror Story and the Evils of the Sexual Woman

  1. EG says:

    I strongly disagree with this reading. I found the first season of American Horror Story fascinating in part for its normalization of female sexuality: Vivien masturbates while thinking of a man who is not her husband, Jessica Lange has an affair with a man much her junior, Lange’s daughter, who has Down Syndrome, whose name I can’t remember is also portrayed as having sexual desires and being very positive about the fact that she is not a virgin, Violet is not made into a sexual object, and her loss of virginity happens off-screen; afterwards she’s clothed and we get to leer at Tate lounging around naked if that’s our thing.

    I agree that Moira’s youthful self is sexually objectified (and the husband rapes her, by the way, which is what is happening when Lange shoots her), but it’s made clear that being made into a sexual object for the titallation of men makes her suffer. It’s not what she wants, it doesn’t bring her pleasure; it’s part of the hell that being a ghost in this house is.

    • Sarah says:

      Totally agreed. I just finished watching the first season and Moira herself even says that her changeable image is really a result of certain people seeing only what they want.

      I did find her a fascinating character for a lot of reasons and she did seem down on her own past sexuality (referring to herself as a “sl*t” in one episode), which I saw as part of her ongoing torment inside the house.

    • PrettyAmiable says:

      I agree with many of your points, but I’d argue that in cases where women characters cross a certain line (compare Moira’s sexuality to Vivien’s), the characters get fucked.

      SPOILER ALERT, ETC ETC, IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THIS SEASON FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS AWESOME, GET THEE TO TV LINKS!

      Compare it to this season. You have one woman who is institutionalized because she cheated on her husband (maybe the issue is cheating?), and when her doctor fails to rape her, he literally cuts her off at the knees. Holy fuck, right?

      END OF SPOILERS!

      Notably, Vivien and Adelaide were both killed. It’s not directly tied to their sex (though I think you could make the argument that Vivien got punished for getting raped as she died while birthing the spawn of Satan).

      The issue that I have with the first season, though, is that it’s hard to explicitly link sex to “punishment” – fucking everyone but Constance and the medium (who plays Lana this season and whose name escapes me) died. I’d argue they couldn’t kill off Jessica Lange because she’s fucking fabulous, but there you go.

      • EG says:

        The thing is, I don’t think we ever actually see Moira’s sexuality; the sexpot persona isn’t her sexuality. It’s a representation of male fantasies that she’s forced to live, pretty explicitly a torture, and she’s not suffering, I would argue, any worse than any of the other ghosts, with maybe the exception of Hayden, who seems to be enjoying her self. Vivien and Adelaide do both get killed, but as you note, so does almost everybody else who isn’t already dead (does anybody but Jessica Lange and the medium make it?), including men (except for hot Morris Chestnut) and boys. Jessica Lange’s hot young boytoy gets killed, too, for instance, and I don’t see that as any kind of punishment for sexuality, even though it happens as he’s cheating on Jessica. It’s just the house claiming another victim.

        I find this season so much more appalling that I stopped watching after the second episode. What I loved about the first season (at least the first, say, six episodes) was the depth of the characterization and the plot intricacies, and this season just seems like a string of vignettes made up of somebody’s sado-masochistic masturbation fantasies. After the first two episodes I wasn’t curious or excited about finding anything out plot-wise, and all the characters seemed like cardboard cut-outs to me, just marking time until they get caned again.

        Which is a shame, because I think the show could have done a really awesome season in an asylum, with ghosts or monsters of some kind being visible only to the inmates, who could be legitimately mentally ill, and of course nobody would believe them. But American Horror Story decided to go with creepily eroticized rape/humiliation/sadism scenes. It’s a shame.

        Burnt Larry! Burnt Larry didn’t die!

      • EG says:

        Argh, I mean, Moira is suffering. That’s what I mean.

      • EG says:

        No, wait, I was right the first time. Jeez. I think I should just go to bed. Sorry about all that. She’s not suffering more than most of the other ghosts.

      • PrettyAmiable says:

        I’m actually really disturbed by how often rape has come up in this season. If you’re telling a ghost story, or a ridiculously outlandish tale involving aliens, some kind of unexorciseable demon, and a possibly immortal serial killer, why are you including rape alongside that? It’s not mystic. It happens all of the flipping time. Let’s stop acting like it’s something that only exists in a classic horror movie.

        I’m hopeful. We’ll see how it turns out, I guess.

  2. mortadella says:

    I never saw older Moira as powerless. She seemed more lucid and thoughtful than her younger incarnation. Yeah, younger Moira may be more overtly dangerous, but if the male gaze wasn’t a thing, would she in fact have the power to seduce and kill? It depends on who’s looking at her, and it’s a sad reminder that we can’t stop people from projecting their ideals (and fears) onto us.
    It’s funny that when Ben finally starts to see the truth of the house and everything around him, he sees the older version of Moira — even though in real life, she did not look like that at all. He’s finally able to see her, maybe the most important parts…though we all know sexuality isn’t a bad thing.

  3. Athenia says:

    I found young Moira’s come hither looks annoying. I think it would have been much more interesting if her looks changed, but her personality did not.

    Also, I think AHS tries to say a lot without saying anything so….

  4. Cranes says:

    I had watched (read? but actually watched) one of the” horror” aspects of American Horror Story being these oppressive stereotypes. In fact, I thought the horror aspect of the whole first season was this undercurrent of the nature of the haunting of the house being that it exacerbated the worst of the American stereotype for each character. The troubled male teen becomes an over the top bad boy. The slightly mopey teen girl becomes a needy suicidal tragedy. The cheating father becomes an aggressively dominant sexually motivated parody of masculinity. The cheated upon mother becomes obsessed with pregnancy and mommyhood. One gay dude can’t stand monogamy, the other is effeminate. The young maid becomes a slutty maid stereotype and then a stereotype of a conniving elderly maid…

    Long story short, I thought that all of the things that people are calling “problematic” on in the first season were INTENDED to be problematic as part of the story, because they are all specifically American stereotypes, and they are all horrific and damaging, and them all being trapped in the house represents their inability to escape these stereotypes.

    Kind of like how the kids in Cabin in the Woods all became more and more like their intended archetype even if they didn’t start out as extreme versions of archetypes/stereotypes, the nature of the rules of the horror universe set up for the film (and show) pushed them to an extreme stereotype. That’s part of the horror.

    • EG says:

      I agree. Part of the horror was being part of the American Family, which is why I found the ending so stupid and unsatisfying.

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