The Cult chapter of the American Horror Story anthology series, released in 2017 as a response to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, is a look into how anyone could come to the point of joining a cult. The season follows Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) as he gains a following and ultimately forms a cult to carry out murders in a fictional Michigan suburb, where he ends up being elected to local office. This plot essentially mirrors the process that led to Trump’s election as president, attributing his followers to a cult mentality. Along with Kai, the season focuses on the couple of Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison Pill), feminist activists who are wholly distraught after Hillary Clinton’s loss in the election.
While this season does a fantastic job of laying out what qualities would make someone susceptible to joining a cult, the season falls flat in its attempt at a “feminist” message.
Upon the season’s release, Hollywood Reporter wrote that “American Horror Story creator and showrunner Ryan Murphy had explained that the intent was to explore ‘female rage then and in the country now.’” But what Murphy does not understand is the difference between female rage and making a statement that reads as if Murphy believes it is feminist for women to be murderers too. There is definitely nuance to be found in these ideas, but this is completely absent from Cult, leaving a very cut and dry narrative.
For example, American Horror Story: Hotel featured historical figure Aileen Wuornos, a queer sex worker who killed seven men who had or attempted to rape or harm her and was sentenced to death in the state of Florida. What makes Aileen’s story so fit to explore this in-between space of female rage and unjustified violence is that Aileen was labeled a serial killer, but she acted out of self-defense and was subject to a massive amount of violence throughout her lifetime. This portrayal of her is not accurate in Hotel, but nonetheless, Aileen’s story provokes empathy for her, and we can understand why she killed. Cult offers a different narrative that labels the murder of random community members as acts of female rage, which only reinforces the demonization of women and the idea that women are “too emotional” to hold positions of power. This is not exactly the message to be conveying when the season itself is in response to the 2016 election.
Cult includes a subplot that features the fictionalization of real-life historical figures. In this case, Murphy chooses to highlight Valerie Solanas (played by problematic figure Lena Dunham): author of The SCUM Manifesto (1967), and the infamous woman who attempted to assassinate Andy Warhol. Though while writing this portion of The SCUM Manifesto, Valerie Solanas was approaching the main thesis of her piece: men are preventing the improvement of society. This same sentiment can be used to describe central themes in American Horror Story: Cult. These points are shown in Cult, but Murphy also decides to fictionalize the rest of her life to the point where it is irresponsible and harmful to the legacy of who she really was. In the series, flashbacks are created to show a SCUM cult formed by this fictional version of Valerie, who ends up becoming the Zodiac Killer. In reality, SCUM was only a written piece of theory with no murderous cult behind it, and Valerie was certainly not responsible for the Zodiac killings. Attributing the Zodiac murders, which were all killings of people at random, to Valerie’s specific philosophy does not line up logically and creates this idea that women who were enraged by the violence caused by men would kill at random due to their rage. In attempting to convey a story about female rage, Murphy has rewritten history and pushes forward a cause-and-effect system that remains consistent throughout the season. Through this, the audience comes to associate female rage with random acts of violence that have no justification behind them, which is not the feminist message I think Murphy was aiming for.
Solanas’s story becomes important in the present-day when a past lover, Bebe Babbitt (who was invented for the show and played by Lyla Porter-Follows as a young Bebe and Frances Conroy as the older version), actively wants to radicalize Kai and participate in the cult.
As for the feminist activist couple, Ally’s wife Ivy feels betrayed because of Ally’s vote for Jill Stein in the 2016 election, which leads Ivy to blame her for contributing to Hillary Clinton’s loss. Ivy becomes involved in Kai’s cult because she feels like she does not belong in their community. Ivy hides her involvement in the cult and doesn’t tell Ally about her involvement in the home invasions and murders that are taking place in their own neighborhood. Ivy lets Ally believe that every horrifying attack that she has seen in public was part of a hallucination all in her head. She gaslights her own wife and puts their son’s life at risk to feel accepted in a murderous cult. There is no wonder that Ally goes investigating on her own to prove that what she saw was real. The season ends with Ally killing her own wife, now a member of Kai’s cult, and joining the group of SCUM murderers.
Ally kills Ivy because of the actions Ivy takes out of rage rather than trying to fix the trust issues that were clearly a problem in their relationship. The female rage that Murphy conveys here is not one that has roots in the violence being caused by white supremacist patriarchal cults, and that’s where he misses his own point. Ally’s rage is the result of a problem in her marriage; it ultimately has nothing to do with Kai or his cult. And Valerie Solanas’s made-up cult has nothing to do with these ideas either. It feels as if Murphy sets up a series of events where women will act out in extreme measures to deal with their issues rather than doing any interpersonal mediation in between those steps. Cult represents an issue that is then solved by a murder assembly line of sorts, which is exactly the mentality that was used as propaganda against Clinton in 2016. There is no in-between measure for women in this sense and their actions only exist in extremes.
It is not feminist to demonize women and turn them into murderers without a connection to a story’s thesis. Murphy had the tools to carry out his plot while still allowing his women the agency to defend themselves and act out of rage in a manner that does not convey the message that “women can murder too.” He just chose not to.
Strause, J. (October 18, 2017). How Lena Dunham and ‘American Horror Story’ Delivered a Timely Look at Feminism. Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/american-horror-story-cult-story-beheind-lena-dunhams-episode-1050134
Taylor Hunsberger is a pop culture writer who largely focuses on the representation of violence against women in film and television. She’s written for The Validation Project, Buzzfeed, and others. She also writes children’s theater and poetry. Visit her website taylorhunsberger.com.