How American Horror Story: Cult is a mirror to Political America
Spoiler Alert: If you have not watched the first two episodes of American Horror Story: Cult, I reveal lots of details below.
American Horror Story has for years illustrated the horror behind common scenarios that tend to make our lives difficult under the guise of archetypal gore. Season 1, Murder House, was about the devastating reality of infidelity and the consequences of vengeance. Season 3, Freak Show, was about being the other in society and the consequences and fragility of identity. Last season, Roanoke, was primarily about the cost of fame and the dangers of mob think. This season is obviously, so far, about fear.
But as usual there is a depth to it just under the surface, as there always is. And this season has, in two episodes, become a fascinating window into political fear and prejudice I had not fully considered. AHS tends to be very on-the-nose with its storytelling. Season 2, Asylum, was about a literal asylum and the horror of being falsely accused. The season’s theme was trust and betrayal, but the majority of it took place within a physical asylum. In this season the political narrative is almost obnoxiously obvious and it is easy to miss the darker and more relevant aspects.
I walked into the season with the expectation of an anti-Trump, anti-Republican/conservative narrative portraying the Right as a violent, bigoted, hive-mind and all the other stereotypes the Left projects onto us. The promos were all focused on evil clowns, the title is ‘Cult’ and the scenes all depicted a ‘think like us’ vibe. I knew the season was going to take on the 2016 election and the ‘horror’ surrounding it, which was pretty transparent. Finally, the first 5 minutes of the first episode featured Donald Trump saying awful scary things with Hillary Clinton lecturing us all on why he is an idiot and a menace. I was pretty prepared to be annoyed.
And boy was I ever.
The first episode began on election night with Sarah Paulson, playing a lesbian named Ally, her wife, and her friends watching the final hours of the countdown. Ally says ridiculous things like ‘I’m waiting for Rachel Maddow. She’s the only one I trust!’ and ‘Damn you Huffington Post!’ and when the election is called she bursts into uncontrollable screaming and sobbing. Meanwhile the assumed pro-Trump character Kai, played by Evan Peters, has blue-dyed hair, spouts what could only be viewed as Alt-Right parody and incites a mob of migrant workers to beat him up by taunting them with a racist display and tossing a condom filled with pee at them.
You know, just like real life.
I noticed, however, that throughout the episode the liberal characters were almost too perfect. If you were to read a story about how liberals reacted to the election on a conservative website, it would be nearly identical. Why were they portraying liberals as irrationally crazy, paranoid and emotional? I expected them to portray Trump supporters exactly as they are doing. But to make liberals appear insane too?
I saw a few opinion articles pointing out the shared recognition that the episode appeared to be mocking Left-leaning stereotypes. From TV Guide: American Horror Story: Cult Brilliantly Mocks Left-Wing Hysteria. The Left making fun of itself? The Left isn’t self-aware enough for that. They always think they are the brave, correct and righteous ones. This would require them to consider their views and emotional responses in some context outside of their own self-preservation.
The second episode, which I just finished, was equally as puzzling. Kai is growing more into his Alt-Right persona, flinging Right-wing-stereotypical buzzwords around and carefully articulating words like illegal immigrant. But this episode shifted gears some. Ally (Sarah Paulson), so far the main character (when is she not of course), begins moving through several layers of fear, insanity, self-righteousness and irrational focus.
So far she is the only adult who has seen the apparently magical killer clowns that only appear around her and disappear before she can get help. Her son sees them too, but never with her or anyone else either. Her wife believes she is going insane and right as she begins to accept this to be true, she stumbles onto a dead body in the restaurant they own. The experience shakes her dramatically, naturally, but also validates in her mind that she has been right all along to be afraid of this new and scary world.
New neighbors arrive as well with almost intentionally bad-acting skills. The man is gay and the woman is afraid of the sun because she got cancer before. They are married because they made a pact that if they were single by age 35 they would marry each other (what gay hasn’t made that promise to his girlfriend right?) They flow between absurd W.A.S.Py stereotypes like the ditsy wife in oversized sunglasses commenting on the beneficial nature of lesbians as neighbors, in front of actual lesbians and using liberal buzzwords like blaming her cancer on global warming. A bit later we find the gay husband is an avid gun collector, triggered by Obama threatening to take his 2nd Amendment rights away.
Ally reacts to the guns as one would expect from a proper liberal but warms up to the idea of being able to protect herself. But she refuses to tell her wife and when a surprise visit from her therapist upsets her, she confesses her secret. He reacts negatively and she accuses him of having a ‘knee-jerk liberal’ reaction. (Interesting note here, liberals rarely refer to themselves or anyone else as liberals). Naturally she ends up using the gun to kill an innocent Hispanic employee during a power outage moments after he expresses to her wife that being ‘brown’ is scary in America now.
There is also a scene between her and Kai where he is running for city council and is asking for her vote. In the first episode he intentionally spills coffee on her and her wife on a street corner. She remembers him and although he apologizes and assures her it was an accident, she accuses him of doing it on purpose. The two have a tense back and forth where he cites immigration crime statistics to which she challenges his sources and he sputters out ‘facebook’ with almost a question mark. At least he didn’t say ‘Fox News.’ He is menacing and she is afraid, of course.
During the power outage the gay husband neighbor rushes over, absurdly yelling out ‘LESBIANS!’ to get their attention and then rambles off a monologue about Russia or North Korea or terrorists shutting down the power in several states and to prepare for rioting which sends Ally into an emotional spiral where she calls her wife and declares Russia or ISIS has attacked. Its all just so…silly.
But there is something more interesting at play here. As Vulture described the scene between Ally and Kai, “The two of them also find a way to revert to the stereotypes that the other expected all along: Ally is the petrified liberal snowflake to a hilt and Kai is the alt-right boogeyman…”
It occurred to me that I am watching what a liberal and a ‘Right-winger’ look like to people who are not political. I am political and I align with one side of the spectrum and am accustomed to defending my views and even my own character from attacks from the Left. But if I were to witness an interaction between myself and a liberal from the outside I imagine it would be fairly ridiculous. I believe I am fighting for a just cause, but so do they.
It is also a display of how we instantly stereotype our political opponents. During the first episode Ally goes to a grocery store, engages with the cashier as though he would obviously be as disgusted with Trump speaking on the TV as she is only to be horrified to see him pull out a MAGA hat and comment that Trump is ‘finally the leader we need.’ When Kai attempts to apologize for what Ally feels was an intentional and bigoted attack with the coffee spill, he momentarily pleads with her to consider him as a human being capable of mistakes and she momentarily does. But before either can entertain the emotion, they revert back to their opposing positions.
The show may very well be attempting to aim a mirror back at the political Left and Right and show us how absurd our various fears and hostilities really are.
I often find myself mentally prepared to deal with the liberals I encounter, primarily on Twitter. I have been engaging with them for 7 years or so and have become very well versed in their language, tactics and reasoning. But the consequence of this is I sometimes act too quickly and respond a bit too sharply to people who I might otherwise have enjoyed a conversation with. In truth they do the same to me and every once in a while after the first punches reveal accidental mutual interest, we find it too late to really converse on anything solid.
I like to imagine I could have a real conversation with a political opponent without resorting to the eye-rolling, sarcastic bantering that seems inevitable but that experience has been exceedingly rare. When someone on the Left engages with me it is with confirmation bias and assumptions in hand. Recognizing a familiar jab or argument I launch into my standard response which, while satisfying, never persuades them to my reasoning. We only see each other as a cartoon version of what we expect the other to be.
I am intellectually aware that they are individuals with full and complex lives just as I am, but I can only ever see the stereotype they present and validate. Despite my stereotype-breaking persona (gay Jew), I find whatever they assumed about me to begin with they will find a way to validate before they leave, regardless of what I do or say.
I enjoy watching the absurdity of liberal paranoia (evil clowns, ie: racists, homophobes, Nazis everywhere!) and irrational tantrums in the context of a show about how fear destroys reason. I roll my eyes every time Kai walks on screen because I know whatever he does will cause the liberals watching to nod in recognition of a stereotype they cherish and assume about me. But I find it fascinating that I can step back just enough to see how both sides are not getting a full picture of what they are looking at.
I rarely get to experience a new perspective.
As the season evolves, more of the intention will be revealed and while I doubt I will ever be satisfied with the portrayal of a Republican or conservative on TV (although this might be the first gay Right-winger to be featured), it is comforting to know that even the Left is beginning to recognize how political identity leads to prejudice, paranoia and irrational thinking.