Kayla Upadhyaya: 'Coven' cursed with confusing racial politics

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published December 4, 2013

A lot of critics and pop culture dissectors have been trying to make sense of the racial themes in FX’s “American Horror Story: Coven.” When I went to jot down my own thoughts, I was left with a jumbled mess.

Set in present-day New Orleans and peppered with flashbacks to antebellum New Orleans, race has been a part of the show’s thematic fabric since the pilot’s harrowing opening scene. Kathy Bates’s Madame LaLaurie, a fictionalized rendering of the real-life serial killer who tortured and killed her slaves, brutalizes a Black man she suspects of sleeping with her daughter. We’re shown gratuitous shots of deformed and bloodied victims — her seemingly boundaryless barbarity. It’s slavery as torture-porn. It’s fucked up. A few weeks after I saw the premiere, “12 Years a Slave” brought me face-to-face with the depth of those indelible lacerations against Black bodies. “Coven” doesn’t confront that depth or evoke the realness of slavery’s violence. Ryan Murphy just wants to scare you.

Soon, we jump to the present and meet Fiona Goode, the Supreme (Jessica Lange, in all her glory,) aka the Head Witch In Charge of a powerful, albeit dwindling, coven of witches. We also meet voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett, in all her glory), an immortal witch leader of a separate tribe. With the exception of Queenie, a young witch played by Gabourey Sidibe, Fiona’s coven is entirely white, while Laveau belongs to a long-standing line of Black witches. “Coven,” it would seem, is Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk’s attempt at tackling race.

But what is “Coven” trying to say about race? With its paradoxical messages and straight-up misguided convictions, figuring that out is about as easy as diffusing a bomb while blindfolded … on rollerblades.

Ryan Murphy has always been fascinated by oppressed groups. “Glee” began as a series for outcasts. The last “AHS” chapter, “Asylum,” doled out a searing critique of the Catholic Church and a horrifying glimpse at the violence of homophobia. On “Coven,” the witches are women, and themes of power, sexism and ageism ooze throughout. The show wants so desperately to comment on race and subjugation and privilege, but it seems like no one in the writers room really thought beyond “let’s place white witches and Black witches in opposition to each other and stir it all up with some magic and awesome ladies.”

“Coven” has been lauded for its diversity, something previous “AHS” tales lacked. Sidibe and Bassett — though both unfortunately only billed as “special guest stars” — have been given a space on a network with glaring racial imbalance. Representations of women of color on television are on the rise, but most scripted television is still overwhelmingly white. As sad as this statement is, it’s remarkable to be able to tune in every week and see Bassett — a woman who mainstream television would typically sideline due to her race and age — give a hell of a performance.

Representation is important, but at what cost? Look no further than Laveau’s “voodoo queen” epithet, and it’s clear that “Coven” ’s representations of Black women aren’t without problems.

What exactly are the roots of the ongoing war between Laveau and Fiona? For Laveau, they’re undeniably founded in race and privilege. In her eyes, the white witches have co-opted and appropriated her community’s magic. They have wielded their privilege for centuries, helping no one but their own. Where were they when Laveau was witnessing Black families torn apart and tormented by anti-integration violence and lynchings? Laveau is right to guard her coven’s secrets, right to deny Fiona the answer to her relentless hunt for eternal life. Fiona and her coven have done nothing to help her or earn her trust over the years. Why should she give them anything?

Fiona, on the other hand, frames her rivalry with Laveau in a way that obscures racial difference. She throws insults at Laveau entrenched in class. “Maybe in another century,” she jeers, “you could have two shithole salons.” The writers seem to be under the impression that, if Fiona never explicitly calls attention to Laveau’s Blackness, she isn’t a racist. She’s instead just the Witty-Bitchy Diva Goddess, a character Murphy loves to write and Lange perfectly plays.

What Murphy and Co. forget is that classism and racism go hand in hand, and Fiona can preach all the euphemisms she wants by saying Laveau is inferior because of her primitive magic or job as a hairdresser or what have you. What she’s really saying is perfectly clear: You’re the lesser; you’re the Other. Fiona calls herself the hammer, Marie the nail. That’s racist rhetoric, plain and simple. Fiona touts the fact that she voted for Obama twice and that there’s nothing she hates more than a racist. It all sounds so much like the classic language employed by white people who aren’t aware of their own racism — people who start sentences with “I’m not racist, but …” — that I wouldn’t be surprised if Fiona started referring to Queenie as her “one Black friend” who somehow serves as her Get Out of Racism Free Card.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the show’s Black characters are underdeveloped. What do we really know about Queenie other than the fact that she likes fried chicken? Even Marie isn’t all that well-defined; she’s a caricature who Murphy brings out every once in a while to spit a sassy one-liner or look awesome while performing a spell (admittedly, Basset does look fabulous all the time always.) While we’ve seen a whole range of emotions from Fiona, Laveau wears the same expression in every scene: anger. She has plenty to be angry about. She has lived for hundreds of years, has seen one system of oppression replace another: slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and now she lives in the present day where, despite decades of change, systemic racism persists. And here comes Fiona Goode, waltzing into her salon, talking about the preservation of “her own kind” and the continued suppression of Laveau’s “people,” and it all sounds pretty damn close to the preachings of white supremacy. (I mean, come on, she’s called The Supreme.)

Most problematically, “Coven” attempts to humanize LaLaurie. We’ve seen her bloody past. LaLaurie isn’t just a racist, as Fiona calls her. She’s sadistic and heartless. She murders, maims and humiliates her slaves, denying Black humanity.

And yet, when Fiona pulls her out of her grave where she has been left alone with her nightmares and suffering for all of eternity (a punishment doled out by Laveau), LaLaurie turns into a comical device. By overplaying her foolishness and even urging viewers to sympathize with her, the writers are stepping too far into “she’s just a product of her time” territory. Almost all of LaLaurie’s scenes in the present timeline are with Queenie, and these moments aren’t there to develop Queenie; they instead show LaLaurie developing a more tolerant outlook … out of absolutely nowhere. Even if we’re not being asked to all-out root for her, the fact that the writers want me to accept that LaLaurie is a changed woman after a few weeks of one-on-one time as Queenie’s slave (yep, that’s the Band-Aid Fiona — and really, Murphy — offers for her past wickedness) makes me queasy. And it doesn’t help that an actress known for her comedy was cast in the role, or that Bates plays the part a tad heavy on the theatrics.

The season isn’t over yet, but I have a hard time believing Murphy and his team can make sense of the chaotic shit-show they’ve mashed together. When “Coven” ends and we’re back to a blank page for the next “AHS” installment, I have a feeling the series will never have touched on the probing, vital conversations about racial politics buried under all the spectacle and camp.