A great big huge enormous trigger warning for graphic discussion of sexual assault.
Last night, “American Horror Story: Hotel” premiered on FX, making a clean-sweep of the ratings with over five million viewers, as projected and in line with last year’s thunderous opening. It’s no question that the episodic drama featuring an ensemble-cast of ragtags and misfits has become the traveling caravan of late-night television: in this world, women with holes through their heads still walk about, admiring Tiffany fixtures, and vaporwave goth dream queens share needles in rundown hotel rooms. The act of putting on lipstick becomes a bloody carnage and monsters burst at the seams of mattresses and fling themselves out of elevators and sashe down the hallways in drag. In these inbetween worlds of morbidity, maids are constantly steaming the sheets, mothers and sons are in conflict, and moralistic, blind, and bloody rage rules the day.
Horror is, you know, a projection: fabulous, gutted, and raw. It is a venue for our darkest neuroses to be splayed out, mauled, and pawed at. The ultimate end of horror is catharsis, and that is its intent. At the end of the day, horror is ultimately themed around balance, about curbing excess and reigning in outsiders. Horror is the outcast pushed out the sixth-floor window by the raging mother. Horror is the heroin-addict overdosing and reanimated because his cheekbones go on “for days.” It is the gothic doctor delivering the stillborn child, butchering the model, drawing joker faces across her cheeks with a knife. There is nothing realistic about the children who clone themselves, pristinely outfitted, vanishing and reappearing at will through maze-like halls. Nor is the tropic gimp, all skin, no eyes, unseeing, and violently, vitriolically raping with a pointed strap-on and without a hint of sexual pleasure, meant to exist in any real world. It is a gollum, a foil, the reflection of the darkest parts of society that we fear, a sin-eater, the anti-us, and at the same time, the frighteningly moralistic punisher of the deemed-profane.
But this last-mentioned scene in specific, with a brutal and grotesque rape, is the one that seemed to lose critics last night. While audience appeal was widespread, few articles reviewing AHS: Hotel’s premiere managed to stay away from the moment of graphic rape. For some, it was “brutally unecessary,” something that happened and was done, shock-value at best. For others, it read like a joke, because gay rape is so funny, ha ha ha. Still more critics felt that forcing a man to choke out the words “I love you” to a “cooing” Sarah Paulson while being fucked in the ass with a strap-on transgressed the boundaries of the delicate, the sensible, and the modest.
Well, yeah. There’s nothing lovely about rape. There’s nothing sensible or quiet or beautiful or still. The action-shots, the horror, the fear, the howling, the trauma, and the death – all of this was real, as was the fact that it wasn’t about sex, it wasn’t about passion, it wasn’t about beauty or love or obsession, but it was about power and death. That is what rape is. It is an act of brutal violence. Depicting it otherwise, as if it were simply more intense sex, with heaving breasts, fetishizing and objectifying a very real crime, is unethical, unhelpful, and profane.
The rape scenes in AHS are also profane, but in a different way. They are profane in their tragedy, in their graphicness, and in their staunch insistence on something bordering realism. Rape begins in American Horror Story in season one, episode one, with a character dressing up in a gimp suit and pretending to be a woman’s husband in order to impregnate her. It continues as that same character murders a man and defiles him with a fireplace poker. In AHS: Asylum, a sneering, ex-Nazi doctor implies that a woman, a nymphomaniac played by Chloe Sevigny, is unrapeable because she experiences excesses of desire. He then mutilates her beyond recognition, until death becomes reprieve. AHS: Coven’s premiere continued the tradition of graphic rape when Madison Montgomery, played by Emma Roberts, is gang-raped by a group of fraternity boys after being roofied. All of these depictions of attitudes toward women – as vehicles for children, as bodies for men to project their fantasies onto, but never to feel on their own, or as unvaluable, unworthy of protection, of respect, or of agency over her own body, are mirrors to society. This is the embodied experience of a rape victim as represented on the small screen. The attitudes toward the men who are raped is less clear; the intent seems to be to punish, but the punisher is neither good nor evil, rather, he/she/it is a vessel of an inbetween-world, seeking to restore order.
All of this informs the way we speak and think of rape. It is no longer a closeted and private thing that happens in secret bedrooms, a primordial but all-too-common violation. Now rape is front and center in the entertainment world, shocking the shit out of everyone. But all this metaphorical pearl-clutching seems a little dramatic, a little made-up, a little sanctimonious in its side-eye. HOW DARE YOU DEPICT RAPE ON A SCREEN? Vanity Fair’s recent article seems to howl. Another, similar article (“American Horror Story Will Make You Want to Vom!)” focuses on the same theme. The rape was unnecessary. It was gratuitious. It was violent. It failed to meaningfully progress the plot. And you couldn’t look away.
Well, isn’t that the point? Rape is pretty damn pointless. But maybe it’s fucking right that you can’t look away. Maybe rape victims are tired of society closeting and cloistering them. Maybe the narratives of rape on the silver screen are taxing: of heaving breasts or revenge fantasies. But these nihilistic, futile, violent scenes in AHS are entirely in place. They are reasonable. They are correct. They are good. They depict violence without focusing on the male gaze or filtering the victim’s suffering through the eyes of another. The suffering is entirely their own, and it is real.
This doesn’t mean all depictions of rape on screen are helpful. Too often, they fetishize or spin the narrative away from the woman (or other pronoun) being harmed, and onto a more decidedly male gaze. The rape of Sansa Stark in Season 5 of Game of Thrones is an example of this. While her trauma was entirely her own, the camera focused on Theon Greyjoy’s eyes, showing the horror as filtered through his perspective. She was no longer herself, but herself in-relation-to.
It may not always be helpful, then, to depict rape graphically. But it may still serve an important purpose. As futile as it was to filter Sansa’s rape through Theon’s eyes, the scene raised important awareness of the fact that marital rape, in fact, occurs. “But everyone knows that,” you may say.. No, actually, not everyone knows that. That’s why it’s still somewhat-legal in eight states, and was only criminalized in 1993. Yeah. So.
I think it is wrong to act like rape is the sacred cow of the arts and entertainment world. There is nothing sacred about rape. Pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t helping anyone either. Representation of brutal violence on screen can be re-traumatizing and triggering to survivors, which is why I advocate for trigger warnings, but it can also be empowering to see your lived experience given space to breathe and exist. Our stories may be dark, and infinitely foul, but they are our own, and we are entitled to them.