By Taylor Rhodes
American Horror Story Asylum’s second episode expanded on the two major topics identified in the first episode: sexuality and religion vs. science. Two more were added: the role of women in religion and psychiatry and the use of mental health treatment as punishment. There was an exorcism, a murder and lots of abuse heaped on both patients and doctors. These big topics are going to reappear throughout the show, so I’m going to focus on one-sexuality. In particular, the characters of Lana and Dr. Arden.
Last episode, the show introduced to us to Lana, an investigative journalist who is institutionalized by her lover for being a lesbian. This episode shows her in the hospital for the first time. We are shown her trying to document her experiences, but continually losing the paper. After a confrontation with Sister Jude, she is given electroconvulsive therapy (or shock therapy, as its often known) to erase her memory. In addition, we see her attracted to another patient, the mysterious Grace. Lana’s character is a reminder that in the not too distant past, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder, and treated as such. Homosexuality was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM) in 1952 to reflect years of studies done about it. It was originally classified as a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” meaning it was a persistent part of a person’s personality that caused them to ignore the rules of society and the rights of others. By 1968, with the printing of the DSM II, homosexuality shifted to a “sexual deviance,” making it a stand-alone condition, not a symptom of another illness. It was eventually removed from the DSM entirely in 1978, as research and society began to realize that sexuality is a continuum of experiences and not a fixed personality trait. (For a great, in-depth history of homosexuality and mental health, visit http://www.aglp.org/gap/1_history/). The show is not trying to recreate the experiences of the average gay person in this time; they are showing us that confining and “treating” someone for a natural part of them is a kind of horror. Mental illnesses are defined as being disruptive to the person who has it, and as we saw last episode, Lana’s life wasn’t being disrupted by being lesbian. It was not perfect, but it was also not pathologically damaged. Still, she’s been imprisoned to “help cure her.” (We’ll have to discuss the impact of the asylum’s Catholic background in another post.) This is where the horror is, and it’s very effective in that regard.
This episode also gave us a whole lot of misogyny and sexual violence, as seen in Dr. Arden. The show has an interesting take here. The only two healthy sexual relationships, Lana and her lover and Kit and his wife, were destroyed in the first episode. Every other relationship we’ve seen so far has been dysfunctional, to put it mildly. Sister Jude’s obsession with Father Joseph Fiennes colors everything she does. This episode, we learned that Dr. Arden is attracted to Sister Eunice, to point that he makes the hooker he hires dress up like her. He’s verbally abusive and controlling. Despite the fact that this is considered normal sexual behavior (think about Mad Men’s Don Draper, which is set in around the same time period. His interactions with women are not that far from Dr. Arden’s, but they are framed very differently), it still obviously, for want of a better word, wrong. We’re given a brief look at violent pornographic pictures he has of other women dressed like Eunice. He views women in a very traditional way, often referred to as the Madonna and the whore complex (Again, those themes). This complex was originally a Freudian diagnosis, but was adopted by the feminist movement to explain how women are often viewed in society and entertainment. This dichotomy means either a woman is a pure creature who is perfect and should be on a pedestal, or she is a dirty whore who has no value, with nothing in between. This breakdown is an enormous part of horror movies, where the couple having sex gets killed first, and the final character standing is usually a virginal young woman. It appears in a lot of other entertainment as well, but it’s most pronounced in horror, where everything is exaggerated. (To learn more about this, visit http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MadonnaWhoreComplex)
We also see this in Dr. Arden’s interaction with Shelly, the character played by Chloë Sevigny. We learn that her husband had her committed for having an affair, despite his own affairs. She says wisely, “Men like sex but don’t get called whores.” She is the other end of the double standard, the woman that likes sex and is punished for it (with mental health treatment as punishment). Her character is interesting though, because her story implies that she was only committed because of her enjoyment of sex, but the character’s action seem to be pathological. Hypersexuality has been discussed its own disorder, but is generally seen as a symptom of another disorder such as bipolar or substance use (Wikipedia has a great write-up of it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypersexuality). It may be that the show is trying to highlight another case of someone being imprisoned for their natural urges, or it may be that the male doctors have stopped looking for another disorder. It could also be that the show doesn’t know what disorder that it’s trying to show. We’ll have to see what they have planned for her.
Sexuality on American Horror Story is really complex. Because it’s going to be such a big theme, we’re going to see it show up a lot on the show. I’m really interested to see if the makers are trying to make a bigger point about sexuality and its place in mental health, or are using as shorthand for character traits. Both scenarios are possible, and it will be interesting to see where we are going with them.