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Ageist Tropes Taint American Horror Story: Coven

Ageist Tropes Taint <em>American Horror Story: Coven</em>

It’s rare for women over the age of 50 to find starring work in Hollywood, unless one is Meryl Streep or Judi Dench. So I was intrigued to watch American Horror Story: Coven on FX, which features not one but three stellar actresses in their 60s (and one in her 50s): Jessica Lange (Fiona), Kathy Bates (Delphine), Frances Conroy (Myrtle) and Angela Bassett (Marie). 

Each season of American Horror Story features a new plot and new characters. The most recent season, Coven revolves around a group of witches and is the first to feature so many older women in leading roles. They are magnetic, flawed, complex and villainous. It’s fantastic to finally watch a show with plot lines that focus exclusively on women, with older women central to the story. 

Or is it? 

It’s great that the series focuses on women. Fiona and Marie are both powerful witches, dripping with charisma. Watching them banter with one another is a highlight of the show. The majority of men in the series are depicted as a threat to women. The women in the coven are hunted by an organization of male witch hunters, perhaps a symbol of how misogyny oppresses women. Eventually, the women form a united front, relying on each other and themselves. 

And unlike many films and TV series, the older characters, particularly Fiona, get to embrace their sexuality in the same way as the younger women. Too often, older women are depicted as nonsexual. It’s great to see a sexy, assertive older woman flirting and seducing men, unafraid to pursue her own pleasure and gratification.

Beyond that, unfortunately, Coven lapses into ageist stereotyping. The female solidarity is quickly lost. The women battle each other more vociferously than they fight with the men. They don’t just fight amongst themselves but also in groups that divide by race and age, from the feud between Marie and Fiona’s coven (a prime example of the show’s race issues) to Fiona killing off younger women. <

The common thread woven throughout is younger women vs. older women. In Coven, women are frequently pitted against each other, including mother against daughter. Fiona tells her daughter, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), that her own powers have been fading ever since she gave birth to her: “Having a child is a constant reminder of your own mortality.” This insidious message underscores the entire season: that older women’s lives are now over because of their age. A couple of the older female characters even sacrifice their lives to allow the younger female characters the opportunity to achieve their full potential. And it’s implied that the older women should resent the younger ones, who have the youth they so desperately desire.  

Coven makes interesting yet troubling commentaries on beauty and aging. Delphine, a reprehensible racist, smears the blood from murdered and tortured slaves on her face, trying desperately to preserve her skin from aging. Marie, a powerful Voodoo queen who’s been alive for over 200 years, sacrifices babies as part of her deal with a spirit to remain ageless and immortal. Marie started off as perhaps the most righteous in her quest for justifiable revenge, but she becomes corrupted by her lust for immortality. 

But it’s really the vanity of Fiona that reveals the series’ ageism. Fiona is confident, glamorous and vivacious but also vain, selfish and cruel. She is the reigning Supreme, leader of the coven. A Supreme loses her post when a younger witch’s powers grow stronger and sap those of the older woman, creating an ageist dichotomy. A cancer patient, Fiona fears aging and getting sick. She goes to plastic surgeons, takes untested drugs that claim to reverse aging and even turns to her nemesis, Marie, in a quest for immortality. 

Fiona doesn’t want to relinquish her powers, as she and Marie are the two strongest witches in the world. Fiona is consumed by her narcissism and desire to look youthful. She eventually murders young women, potential contenders to be the next Supreme, to preserve her power and her grip on her fading youth and beauty. The crux of her desire to remain the Supreme revolves around her obsession with aging and the loss of her looks, which reinforces the notion that older women fear aging. 

Fiona encapsulates the “vain sorceress” trope in which female villains who possess magical powers are consumed by the desire to perfect their beauty. Countless films and TV series (as well as many classic fairy tales) depict this trope, including Snow White, Excalibur, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Oz the Great and Powerful. Fiona doesn’t seem to do anything with her powers beyond striving to look attractive and wreaking vengeance on those who refuse to cater to her whims. Vanity is often associated with women as a negative, stereotypical, feminine trait. Women are encouraged to attain beauty standards (youthful, thin, long hair, etc.), yet they are punished—typically portrayed as villainous in film and on TV—if they obsess about their appearance. 

Coven is also problematic in its theme that young women’s sexuality and power must be continually controlled. This isn’t surprising since the first season of American Horror Story contains troubling depictions of abortion and reproduction. The first season demonizes abortion and pregnancy, objectifies women and conflates sexualized images with rape, assault and violence. 

Yes, it’s great to see multiple older women in juicy, complex, interesting roles. But at what cost? How positive or empowering is a message that reinforces the notion that older women will be tossed aside to make room for the next generation of younger women? Or that older women and younger women must battle for power instead of seeking solidarity?

Despite Coven‘s women-centric focus, it is problematic in its depiction of race (perpetuating racist and fat-shaming stereotypes), sexuality, rape culture and violence against women. The show boasts characters who are strong older women, yet the writers still feel compelled to constrain them in ageist tropes. While the writers had the opportunity to demonstrate how women can live life to the fullest at any age, sadly that’s not the message here.

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Tags:   age and gender    media    myths and stereotypes    relationships 

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The Silver Century Foundation promotes a positive view of aging. The Foundation challenges entrenched and harmful stereotypes, encourages dialogue between generations, advocates planning for the second half of life, and raises awareness to educate and inspire everyone to live long, healthy, empowered lives.

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