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Criticism

American Horror Story – Cult: Liberal Nihilism

You’re not a hero. You’re a symbol, one I created! Killing people doesn’t get the men hard and the ladies wet anymore. But Americans lose their ever-loving shit when you destroy their symbols – statues, flags, pledges of allegiance, $20 bills, white Jesus and Merry fucking Christmas! You come for any of that stuff, you’ve got rioting in the streets and domination of the news cycle for weeks.

-Kai Anderson, Cult.

American Horror Story: Cult felt like the lamest of the show’s iterations. I have no problem with media that wishes to tackle contemporary political issues, but Cult was both heavy-handed and inept in its attempt. I quote Ben Gazur writing for the Guardian about the season:

Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016. This was a problem for the world in general and American Horror Story in particular. Horror and satire died that day. Nothing the writers could imagine comes close to the visceral shock of that moment – but they decided to offer their hot take anyway.

I agree with the sentiment of Gazur’s point here and would expand to say that American Horror Story floundered in addressing contemporary politics precisely because the rise of Trump and the Alt-Right is a quintessential American Horror Story. Perhaps satire died or was wounded, but horror? How could horror still not be used to address the profuse evil and ugliness that was more and more visibly rearing its head? I argue that the ideology of Cult is one of liberal nihilism, it tries to contend that the Democrats and the Republicans are both cults, whilst offering only a vague mutation of both establishment groups as a way forward. There is nothing inherently profound to the idea that politics and political groups are akin to cults, read Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (more technical) or First As Tragedy, Then As Farce (more polemical), and you can understand the basic principles of belief and contradiction that make up ideology. It is not just the overall ideology of liberal nihilism which I have a problem with, but also the absence of the Left proper so to speak. In this show we get liberal small business owners, we get MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporters, and we get Alt-right basement-dwelling militias a la Fight Club. Where is the Left, I ask? Apart from a brief couple of minutes of people (readable as antifascists) protesting in the park against cult leader Kai’s speech, there is no real sense of an alternative to him, there is no opposite end of the spectrum in the show. There are only people working within the capitalist-Symbolic order as it were, who are aware there is something wrong with the society and the people around them, but are only able to address it within the very limited confines of Liberalism. I am not suggesting the show should have had Joseph Stalin burst into a scene, rifle in hand, but it could have done more with its subject matter than basic, lame caricatures from a very narrow window of American politics.

            I would say that Cult tries to address two contemporary issues that encapsulate part of America’s political landscape, one is racism and the other is sexism. Racism feels present in the first few episodes, we see Kai antagonising migrants to frame them as being violent, but then race sort of tails off from the season. Sexism is the issue given more attention throughout, and often it feels awkwardly handled. It feels like the presence of feminism within the show is of a liberal, white variety. It does not really have any interest past surface level appearances of injustice. Characters like Winter and Ivy are outraged that Hillary Clinton lost, and the show frequently, whether it agrees with this idea, frames Clinton as being a feminist, or an icon of feminism. If Clinton is viewed as a symbol for feminist change and progress, she is an empty one, she speaks only to the visibility of women within capitalist-patriarchal structures. Her politics and history are anything but feminist and the show glosses over this. In fact, I do not think the show looks at politics in any especially interesting way, no policies are mentioned, no consequences for the victims of these policies are really seen. It is all spectacle, all show – women in positions of power are good, no matter what their politics are.

There is an interesting focus on Valerie Solanas which brings with her the closest thing to a ‘radical’ opposition to sexism. I think the portrayal of Solanas by Lena Dunham is symptomatic of the show’s larger problems. Dunham is at best a problematic feminist figure and at worst an obstructive one, managing to articulate herself poorly on various issues and at times lashing out against black women. Her rejection of Aurora Perrineau’s sexual assault accusation against Murray Miller speaks to a wider problem within white feminism, a tendency to not support and extend their focus beyond the most mainstream issues and therefore leave women of colour out in the cold. The casting of Dunham and the general focus on white women within Cult leaves me disappointed. Generally, I think American Horror Story is pretty good with ethnic minority and queer representation but in the one season where both these categories are perhaps most necessary to be given voices, they occupy a very small portion of the show. Beverly is the only non-white main character whilst Ally and Ivy are at least centre stage lesbians, although sadly the perceived queerness of other characters like Kai and Samuels seems to just link homosexuality with women-hating. I’m not saying these representations alone are the problem so much as it is the fact that it is often poorer queer white and non-whites who are at risk in America be it economic instability or violence carried out by bigots and fascists.  

            Kai refers to numerous famous cult leaders within the show, including Charles Manson. He claims Manson snapped America out of the haze of the hippy movement. In False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kathleen Geier mentions that during the hippie movement Clinton spoke vocally in favour of women’s progress within society before then diverting into a more subdued, corporate legal career. Does the increasing deindustrialisation and expansion of capitalism within America spiriting Clinton away from her radical hippiness not mirror Manson’s dismantling of hippie conceptions via his race-war inspired murders? It feels like within Cult we are meant to be aware of the explicit violence within society which causes traumatic change of the political landscape e.g. terrorist attacks, school shootings, without being aware of the wider, more all-consuming powers which truly bring about ideological extremes such as Trump and the Alt-Right. When Manson spoke about his driving motivations, famously sampled by Death Grips, does he not in a sense reflect the wider powers that be?

What the hell I wanna go off into — and go to work for?

Work for what, money? I got all the money in the world

I’m the king, man

I run the underworld, guy

I decide whos does what and where they do it at

What am I, gonna run around and act like I’m some teenybopper somewhere, for somebody else’s money?

I make the money, man, I roll the nickels

The game is mine

I deal the cards

Sure, Manson spoke these words, but could we also not attribute them to politicians, to capitalists, to those in hierarchal positions of power, who in their conscious and unconscious machinations engineer the very discontent, anxieties, and hatred which fester and grow into a form which is not controllable, at least not beneath Liberalism?

            The ending of Cult felt somewhat like Liberal fantasy to me – Kai is of course written to be ridiculous and hateful (his last words being ‘make me a sandwich’), but the points he makes about symbolism chime true. I quoted them at the beginning of this essay because I feel the idea of visibility, of symbolism, is the core of Cult’s politics. It doesn’t matter really what someone like Hillary Clinton stands for, she’s a woman! It doesn’t matter what brought about the empowerment of the Alt-Right or Kai, he’s dead! Pay attention to Manson, his violence is easy to consume and understand, do not pay attention to the disarmament and absorption of the hippie movement into capitalist culture. When the show ends on that final sting of Ally in the mirror wearing the cloak of the Solanas-cum-Zodiac cult, what are we meant to make of this? It feels like a continuation of political action within the very space of Liberalism which only further breeds political discontent across all aisles. Ally and the others all miss the point again, Kai understood partly the importance of optics, the others merely operate within its regions.

Further Reading:

False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, edited by Liza Featherstone.

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, by Slavoj Žižek.

The Sublime Object of Ideology, by Slavoj Žižek.

‘When good TV goes bad: how American Horror Story got Trumped’, by Ben Gazur. Accessible at:  https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jun/04/when-good-tv-goes-bad-american-horror-story

‘Zizi Clemmons: ‘It’s Time For Women of Color…to Divest From Lena Dunham’”, by Whitney Kimball. Accessible at: https://jezebel.com/zinzi-clemmons-its-time-for-women-of-color-to-divest-1820587768

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