One of Us: On ‘American Horror Story’ We’re All Freaks
Ryan Murphy—creator of the television shows Glee and The New Normal and director of the recent Emmy-winning TV movie The Normal Heart—is clearly driven to make art for and about underdogs, the marginalized, and the powerless. Though often criticized for his high concepts as well as his love of camp, snark, and sentimentality, Murphy has done more on his programs for the visibility of gay, disabled, and nontraditionally beautiful characters than perhaps any other showrunner in modern TV history. Glee alone (before it went off the rails, plot-wise) hired actors with Down syndrome, used overweight performers for romantic arcs, featured a cast diverse in ethnicity and sexual orientation (including the trans character Unique Adams), and focused on the scourge of bullying on a regular basis.
That the latest season of Murphy’s horror anthology American Horror Story is set at a freak show would seem to be the final logical extension of the writer-director’s obsession with outcasts. Freak shows, which were mostly popular in America from the 19th century through the mid-20th century, were displays of otherness in which members of the public paid to gawk at those with physical disabilities or differences. Set in Jupiter, Fla., in 1952, AHS: Freak Show revolves around a “Cabinet of Curiosities” run by Jessica Lange’s German chanteuse, Elsa Mars, that includes Kathy Bates’ Bearded Lady, Sarah Paulson’s conjoined twins, Evan Peters’ Lobster Boy, and Michael Chiklis’ Strong Man. Rounding out the cast of Murphy’s regular AHS collaborators are performers born with physical differences: Jyoti Amge, the smallest woman in the world; Ben Woolf, an actor who has pituitary dwarfism; and Mat Fraser, a performer with phocomelia, a congenital disorder that causes shortened limbs.
The so-called freaks—Elsa calls them, in a nod perhaps to Lady Gaga, her “monsters”—are rejected and feared by the local townspeople. (In this past week’s episode, they were asked to leave a diner because their appearance was upsetting the customers.) Because a serial killer is on the loose in Jupiter, the troupe is also more pointedly persecuted because of their physical differences for suspicion of having something to do with the crimes. Though in a heavy-handed way, Murphy seems to enjoy using the outcasts as a metaphor for all marginalized people, telling us over and over that the real freaks are the callous townspeople who judge based on looks. Not one for subtlety or relying on the audience to pick up cues on their own, Murphy has Elsa say in the premiere “I’ll tell you who the monsters are: the people outside in this town.”
While some feel that AHS: Freak Show is exploiting those with physical differences or misrepresenting the life experiences of such people for the entertainment of the able-bodied, it’s refreshing that the show’s casting directors are offering these actors work—not just hiring starlets and putting them in prostheses—and that the writers are creating interesting characters for those actors to play. You may not like the show—and if you have a fear of clowns, it is the stuff of your nightmares—but you can’t honestly accuse it of having the gaze of an old-fashioned freak-show audience. The “freaks” are our protagonists; we empathize with them, not the bigoted world outside their tent.
Murphy’s strength is his casting. For the three previous seasons of AHS he has written juicy parts for women over 50, two of whom (Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange) have won Emmys for their work on his shows. By creating rich roles—witches, nuns, cabaret singers, unhinged mothers, racist pre–Civil War society mavens—he is speaking for another invisible other in Hollywood: the sexy, vital, powerful, damaged, interesting women who have outgrown ingenue roles. It’s no wonder that Broadway diva Patti LuPone, Oscar-winners Lange and Bates, and musical superstar Patti LaBelle (who made her AHS debut this week) have lined up to work with him. His unhinged older women represent a much more delicious acting challenge than the dowdy mothers and grandmothers they must get asked to play all the time, and instead of being peripheral to the main story—usually a man’s—they drive the drama.
This season AHS has presented viewers with different dimensions of womanhood. The Oct. 15 episode introduced Angela Bassett’s Desiree Dupree, who, in her own words, has “three titties, proper girl parts, and a ding-a-ling.” (I’m not sure hermaphroditism has ever been such an overt characteristic of cable drama before.) Transgender actor Erika Ervin plays the character of Amazon Eve, a role originally written for a man. Even Bates’ Bearded Lady is gender nonconforming in her own way.
There is a lot going on in this baroque show already, and we are only two episodes into the season. We haven’t even talked about the killer clown, perhaps one of AHS’ scariest creations, or the spoiled, petulant man-boy who drinks his liquor from a crystal baby bottle. But beneath its high theatricality, which includes 1950s performers singing Fiona Apple and David Bowie songs in their campy acts, is some real heart and a desire to give voice to the voiceless.