I was beyond excited when I found out that season three of American Horror Story was going to be about witches in New Orleans. American Horror Story always has a lot going on – it’s twisted, disturbing, terrifying, and makes its viewers intentionally uncomfortable by approaching issues about cultural boundaries. American Horror Story: Coven doesn’t disappoint on these fronts. This season there’s a lot about race and power, but there’s also a ton about gender.
A brief overview of the premise of Coven:
Surprise – there are still witches alive and thriving in present-day New Orleans. There are two rival covens in New Orleans: the Salem witches, who migrated there to escape the Salem Witch Trials, and the coven of voodoo witches. Being a witch is passed down genetically; each generation of witches has a “Supreme,” who is the most gifted witch. The main character, Zoe, finds out that she descends from a long line of witches in the worst way possible: she’s finally ready to do the deed with her boyfriend for the first time, but simply being exposed to her nether regions causes him to die of a brain aneurysm. A serious bummer. She’s promptly sent off to Ms. Robichaux’s School for Exceptional Young Ladies, a school for witches that’s masquerading as an exclusive all girl’s boarding school.
Zoe only has three classmates: Madison (a hyper-brat ex-starlet with telekinetic powers), Queenie (a human voodoo doll), and Nan (a clairvoyant.) This eclectic group of witches is headed up by headmistress Cordelia Foxx, who wants to genuinely use her powers for good. There’s also Fiona Goode – mother of Cordelia and the Supreme of her generation – who has little discretion in using her powers for self-gain and is hell-bent on staying young. Ms. Robichaux’s is all about fostering a female community; in order for the witches to survive and remain undetected by the public, they must support one another.
There are hardly any males in Coven. Apart from Cordelia’s husband, who only makes brief appearances to encourage her to use dark magic so that she will be able to get pregnant, the only other male that gets a decent amount of screen time is Kyle. Kyle is the frat bro who Madison and Zoe accidentally kill and then resurrect from the dead – but not before they reassemble him so he has the body parts of a “perfect boyfriend.” However, this only leaves him wandering around Frankenstein-like, making him pretty bad boyfriend material anyway.
Despite this season’s focus on girl power and female agency, there’s an issue: can females only gain power through sex and violence? Yes, these witches are incredibly scary/intimidating – they can kill with their body parts as well as just their minds (look out, dudes). However, is it problematic that their power is enforced through narratives of violence? Madison uses her body and sex appeal to get what she wants; however, Madison’s power and agency over herself is compromised when she is roofied and raped by a sleezy group of fraternity brothers. The only way she can regain her power is by flipping their (random) getaway party bus with her telekinetic mind, effectively killing 2/9 of the offenders. New pal Zoe has her back though – she decides to use her deathly womanhood to kill the main offender, who survived; she goes to his hospital room, has sex with him, and effectively kills him – yikes – thus avenging Madison’s honor. (Not to mention, what does it mean that what makes Zoe a woman is able to kill a man?) Similarly, Fiona kills the scientist who isn’t able to produce the anti-aging drug that she desires (by seducing him first). Even Cordelia isn’t free from this narrative of violence through sex and vice versa: in order for her to overcome her infertility, she has to engage in dark magic that involves some violent intercourse with her husband.
So, yeah, the women in Coven have control over men through magic, sex, and violence, but is this the only way to achieve this power?