Sunday, March 15, 2015

Revolutionaries in box braids, stilettos & layers of grunge: Older women in AHSCoven and the Walking Dead

Warning: Lots of spoilers

I write fiction of monsters and dystopias; of the darkly fantastical just a couple of shades removed from horror. So it will surprise no one that in my television viewing, I gravitate to shows that juggle the same elements. While I’ve long been a Walking Dead fan, I only recently started watching American Horror Story, specifically season three — Coven — which revolves around witches and includes a good number of women in its ensemble cast.

Even before I watched Coven, I had heard about Jessica Lange’s tour de force performances during AHS’s previous seasons, and understood I would be seeing a mighty unusual thing — a middle-aged woman at the center of a television horror narrative. To my delight, the 65-year-old Lange was soon joined by Angela Bassett (56), and together they were sexy, powerful, complicated and compelling. And scary. Damn scary.

In oddly appropriate timing, I watched the last episode of Coven on Netflix last Sunday, mere hours before that evening’s episode of The Walking Dead (TWD) which focused some attention on the character, Carol (Melissa McBride, 49), the only middle-aged woman in the large ensemble cast and one of my favorites. The resilient character has worked her way from mousy to powerful during her story arc, and is often described as a “badass” by the fandom. But Sunday’s episode tipped her deep into scary for most fans, and soon enough the nickname “Scarol” was trending on Twitter.

I’ll get into specifics about each narrative a little later, but let me start by saying that all three portrayals are headily transgressive. These middle-aged women are not primarily mothers or grandmothers. They are sexually assertive. They are brazen enough to take on whole towns and corporations. And powerful enough to bring them down.

Watch it, kid

In a brilliant move on TWD writers’ part, Carol, in the past couple of episodes, has overtly referenced the default invisibility of middle-aged women. Regardless of who she is out in the wilds, as soon as she reenters “society” (Alexandria), she becomes insignificant, and formulates her strategy predicated on that. She wears fussy flowered sweater-sets, mom-jeans and allows herself to be notable only for her cookie recipe. Even her crop of grey hair — edgy and sexy when she is herself — becomes an insignia of the practical (and practically asexual) older woman who is a threat to no one. McBride brings a fierce intelligence and self-awareness to this re-submersion into the norm.

I recently read that TWD writers had determined to kill off the Carol character several seasons ago (in the comic book she commits suicide fairly early, I am told) but that McBride convinced them the character had unexplored depths. I’m deeply grateful that they listened, not only because I enjoy watching the unfolding characterization but because of who this particular actor is and who she represents — vividly and uncompromisingly — week after week.

The moment that scared the pants off TWD fandom this past week, involved Carol deliberately terrifying a child. In our society, this is perhaps the most transgressive action a woman of any age can take. But more so if it is a woman who has given birth, been a mother, cared for other children ... that woman in particular should put the well-being of a child before any other consideration.

Not so fast, says Carol, who even before this last episode aired, had shot a child to death. Yes, she did it regretfully. Yes, she did it because the child was so wholly deranged she seemed a threat to herself and anyone younger or smaller than herself. Yes, she did it because no one else was willing to do so. But the fact the character has killed a child in the past gives the recent episode’s threat of harming another child real teeth.

Both Bassett’s character (Marie Laveau) and Lange’s (Fiona Goode) in Coven, are transgressive in this same way. There are certainly inklings of maternal feeling in each, but neither shies away from threatening (or handing into harm, or killing) their own daughters and the young people society expects them to protect.

In fact, they team up to kill one of the series’ more sympathetic characters, the developmentally challenged young witch Nan (Jamie Brewer). Yes, Marie does it so she doesn’t have to hand over an infant she’s kidnapped to Papa Legba (her yearly tithe in a deal she struck for immortality). Yes, Fiona does it because she thinks Nan might be the new Supreme leader of the coven and therefore responsible for her rapidly declining health and power. But no rationale obscures the fact it is a death, deliberately and cooly dealt.

Let’s be clear that in both series, younger women also display moments of ruthlessness, and are also deadly. But it is the older ones, the ones who society insists should be self-sacrificing mothers or grandmothers, in whom we note those qualities with especial horror and disgust. We want them to be selfless, and they’re having none of it.

Are you seeing through me? 

The certainty of self is at the heart of another transgressive aspect of all three of these incredible middle-aged characters: they are unrepentantly sexual. Goode has a steamy affair with an axe murderer; Laveau puts the moves on her partner, minotaur head be damned; Carol propositions her pal (and fan favorite) Daryl — half in jest, half in earnest.

Even when married or partnered, television doesn’t much like (or even allow) middle-aged women to act sexual ... and turns it into a full-on joke when women get to be Betty White’s age. The usual distaste is mitigated in these shows, somewhat, because Lange and Bassett are gorgeous, and McBride, while less stunning, has a sinewy, tough sexiness about her.

The writers of each show allow their middle-aged women to think of themselves as sexual and to act on that, but they also smack them down to remind them that the rest of society doesn’t agree with them.

For Lange’s Fiona character, it happens most evidently when she is at a bar and feeling very alone. A man at the bar starts, she thinks, flirting with her. Then, poignantly, she realizes that she is invisible to him and he is flirting through her, directing his attention to the younger woman beside her. When the camera cuts away from Fiona, we understand that even this undeniably self-aware woman is devastated by this.

As I said, the moment is poignant, but it is also annoying. It arrogantly pities its older woman in a way that betrays the youth of its writer. To the young, these moments of realization are imagined as flat tragedy — oh, my lost youth! — while for those of us who’ve actually lived them, they are a far more interesting mix of recollection, chagrin and amusement. For a character like Fiona, the sting of rejection should have been no more than a momentary blip, followed by a far more lengthy settling back to observe the incipient bar hook-up — for its entertainment value, its 50/50 chance of publicly enacted fiasco. Pro tip: If an older woman is crying, don’t assume it isn’t with laughter.

It remains to be seen whether the writers of TWD allow Carol to find physical expression for her sexuality, but you can bet that if it is with Daryl, half the fandom will be tweeting their protests. It is in the twitterverse where an adversarial sort of competition for Daryl’s affections has been contrived between Carol and the much younger and sweeter Beth (who has since died), and some of the battle lines were drawn on the basis of Carol’s age.

Revolutionaries in box braids, stilettos and layers of grunge

If these transgressive women love anything it is their communities (as they define them), and they go out of their way to protect and avenge them.

The best moments of Coven are those in which Marie and Fiona team up to do a working to drive the corporation of witch-hunters (who have killed all of Marie’s magical community and threatened Fiona’s) into bankruptcy. And subsequently, the scene where the two middle-aged women walk into the corporate boardroom where the witch-hunters want to negotiate a truce.

The two of them face down some 10 or 12 men who are plotting to trick and then kill them because of who they are and what they (and their communities) represent — the ungovernable, the peskily resilient resistance to hegemony.

In that horrifically satisfying scene, the witches cooly sip their drinks at the conference table as their best-defense-is-a-strong-offense plan unfolds before them and their adversaries are reduced to blood spatter. Fiona deals the killing blow to the head honcho herself — at least in part for the sin of so grievously underestimating her and Marie.

TWD’s Carol doesn’t take down a corporation but a town full of cannibals where her fellow survivors are being held as livestock. She, like Marie and Fiona, has a plan. She, like them as well, fights for the survival of her community by ruthlessly and methodically annihilating the greater community that holds power over hers.

They are fearsome women. Revolutionaries in box braids, stilettos and layers of grunge.

But revolutions almost always prove puritan, and once the fighting part is over, those who are transgressive are perceived as dangerous for the new order as they were for the old. In fiction as in history, they don’t fare well.

I hold out hope that TWD writers will chose to let Carol’s story arc conclude in something other than moralistic punishment, but it is unlikely. Coven’s writers did not. The show ultimately betrayed all of its ungovernable women characters, reserving the ugliest of punishments for the older and most transgressive. So, lusty and power-hungry Fiona is condemned for all eternity to a hell where she’ll be sexually subjugated and have no power to block the fists of the man spoiling to govern her.

Hell is the writers’ prescriptive for those who would think to answer power with power, but the “reap what you sow” moralism is reserved only for women. Fiona’s hell is the Axeman’s heaven, even though they’ve each done equally despicable things.

Marie ends up condemned to the same hell as the virulently cruel and racist Madame LaLaurie (played by 66-year-old Kathy Bates), and is given no choice but to turn eternal torturer — not of LaLaurie but of her callow but innocent daughter who is also stuck there. In an especially telling detail for the middle-aged viewer, Papa Legba lets Marie know she is in hell because she has outlived her usefulness to him ... she can no longer provide a yearly tithe of children. Nothing subtle about that, eh?

Not even the endearingly goofy witch, Myrtle Snow (portrayed by 61-year-old Francis Conroy), who feels normatively maternal toward Fiona’s daughter Cordelia and is grandmotherly enough to advise one of the younger witches to eschew power for love, escapes the punishment wielded so heavy-handedly at the end of this show. If she is not also condemned to hell for the effrontery of being both too old and too powerful, it is because — unlike her transgressive counterparts — Myrtle is self-sacrificing and offers herself up to be burnt at the stake.

After the fail

For all its fails, Coven had four, formidable middle-aged women actors in central roles, and that is remarkable. Neither show is free from criticism about representation along other axes either. I expected more African-American cast members in central roles for this show set in New Orleans, and I craved a magic more specifically tied to the locale. As for TWD, it is impossible to ignore that every African-American male cast member in the core group has either been killed off or disappeared (Seth Gilliam must be counting his days), and that the one Latina cast member in the core group is a cardboard cut-out every bit as generic as her name.

Along all axes of representation, I wish television shows like these — fantasy and horror set in real world locales — better reflected the demographic composition of our nation. 16.4 percent of us are Latino; 12.2 percent of us are Black; 4.7 percent of us are Asian. There are 158.6 million women in the U.S., more of us in the 45-49 and 50-54 age groups than any other.

It is interesting to note that the audience for both TWD and AHS is solidly in the 18-49 age group (TWD viewer’s average age is 33). Both are ratings juggernauts. The season that AHS Coven aired, TWD was the highest rated show on TV and Coven was the fifth. Which suggests that casting middle-aged women in shows that mostly appeal to millennials isn’t quite as risky a proposition as it might seem at first blush.

The fourth season of AHS, Freakshow (which I have not watched yet) had the best ratings yet for the horror anthology show, and once more Lange and Bates were primary characters, and Bassett and Conroy secondary ones. TWD has introduced middle-aged actor Tovah Feldshuh as a secondary character, and although it remains to be seen whether they get rid of her as quickly as they did Denise Crosby’s Terminus Mary, this too is promising for those of us who like to see women of our age represented on screen in our favorite shows.

Next up: Game of Thrones. God help us. ;)

• "Melissa McBride 2014 San Diego Comic Con International" by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons 
• "Jessica Lange at PaleyFest 2013" by iDominick - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons 
• "Angela Bassett at PaleyFest 2014 - 13491748704" by iDominick - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons