American Horror Story is a show that loves to push boundaries. Sometimes it does this with some terribly emotional, painful and dramatic scenes that are incredible to watch. Sometimes it does this by invoking and presenting a horrendously hard to watch issue, realistically and with no sugar-coating as it did in American Horror Story: Asylum, with the painful depictions of ex-gay “therapy” inflicted on Lana. And sometimes it does this by deciding to have Anne Frank run around in an act of line crossing that left us stunned.
In it’s urge to shock, American Horror Story loves to leap across lines it should hesitate to cross, and rarely have we seen this more evident than with the constant depiction of rape through these 2 seasons.
Rape was a consistent theme throughout American Horror Story: Asylum. In many cases, it was absolutely brutal and painful to watch. In the media, it is not uncommon to see violence aimed at women but the degree to which American Horror Story: Asylum included rape in its storyline this year was absolutely gratuitous. One cannot even reasonably argue that the rape occurred to move the plot along - it was inserted for shock value, nothing more. Leigh didn’t need to try and rape Jude to have his revenge with her, any more than in America Horror Story: Murder House, Tate had to rape Patrick to murder him. The point of American Horror Story: Asylum, was for the viewer to be horrified by the conditions of the inmates and this most certainly could have been done without the continual rape of women. Rape became a facet of entertainment, a tool for setting the theme.
All of the rapists were clearly to be understood as evil and in particular Dr. Thredson played by Zachary Quinto. It is good that rape is understood as a terrible violation; however, American Horror Story: Asylum made it seem as though all rape occurs because of psychopaths. Even though the rape itself was intimate because all of the victims knew their attacker in someway, the attacks still occurred within a framework of the rapist being psychologically damaged in some way, as a way of explaining his actions. The true motivation for rape is power, not psychosis, as American Horror Story: Asylum would have us believe. It doesn’t take a mental illness to make a rapist, nor can we attempt to excuse or distance ourselves from the horrors of rape, by presenting the perpetrators as always as these evil, mentally damaged people, rather than, as is often the case, the normal man in the street, the neighbour, the friend - even the loved one. This is a trope which was continued on from American Horror Story: Murder House, where the rapist of Vivien and Patrick was Tate, a mass murderer and someone who was again presented to be insane. This approach servers to pathologize the mentally ill and establish mental illness as a threat to the safety and society.
With the exception of the rape of Monsignor Timothy Howard by Sister Mary Eunice McKee, all of the rapes on American Horror Story: Asylum were absolutely violent. In the case of the Monsignor, he clearly said no, and so there can be question about whether or not he was raped; however, in comparison to the rape of the female characters, it was much less violent. There was a notable difference in how the rape was treated - not just by Sister Mary Eunice and Monsignor Timothy but also by Jude - and this goes beyond the fact that the lack of violence meant the rape was treated less as rape (as we discuss below). The rape was, in some ways, depersonalised - it was more about the demon (in the form of the evil, sexual, female temptress as possessed Sister Mary Eunice had been presented) assaulting the sanctity of the priest. Indeed, Timothy’s protests are not expressing his personal refusal, but expressing defence of his vows. His vow of celibacy. It is this loss of sanctity that Jude also attacks him with after the rape and it was this loss of sanctity that lead him to finally kill Sister Mary Eunice. Even this rape seemed more a comment on the evil sinfulness of the female temptress - the unholiness of Sister Mary Eunice - than on violent victimisation.
Another problematic element of American Horror Story: Asylum, is that of the many rapes that are presented, it was only the violent rapes that were presented as rape. Thredson’s rape of Lana, Leigh’s attempted rape of Jude and Arden’s attempted rape of Shelly for example, were clearly presented undoubtedly as rape. But Sister Mary Eunice’s rape of the Monsignor is referred to as if it were consensual sex; Jude treated him with almost jealousy and mocked him for not coming to her. Similarly, in American Horror Story: Murder House, when Vivien was raped by Tate, the fact that Tate raped her by pretending to be Ben in the rubber suit, rather than using violence again lead to doubt and questioning as to whether it even was rape. On top of this, in American Horror Story: Asylum, we have Shelly repeatedly having sex with the asylum guards and orderlies. While she is a definite instigator of sex, they have an incredible amount of power over her; even more so when we consider that she has to trade sexual favours for attempts to escape. The power differential between the parties defeats the idea of informed consent.
Rape is one of the greatest violations that can be inflicted on a person. But despite the extreme severity of it, it’s also something that is far too often casually inserted into our culture. There is always an excuse for rape, always an attempt to distract, deviate or, above all, blame the victim. There is a constant downplay of the severity and the commonness of rape in our culture. There is, even, a casualness about rape - it has entered our language far too often as a slang term for defeating or beating something, it has entered far too many people’s stock of “humour” and it has been far too often used as a hyperbolic comparison for the various minor, bad things that happen to us.
We have become casual about rape and that is something we have to fight. The casual depiction of rape in media - the gratuitous depiction, even when presented as brutally as American Horror Story often does, does not help reduce this casual nature. Nor does using rape for casual shock value, crossing that line yet again, respect the severity of this crime or the effect it has on its victims - and the survivors watching this show. Rape is not a tool, not a plot device and certainly not a spectacle for shock value.