Lana Winters, Liz Taylor, and the Unrepentant Queerness of American Horror Story

Curator's Note

American Horror Story is one of the queerest shows on television. Characters on the show regularly exhibit sexual fluidity, whether they were introduced as straight, gay, or neither. Unlike many shows that have cast a mostly heterosexual ensemble to play the queer characters (see Queer as Folk), AHS continually features LGBTQ actors playing queer roles.

Things keep getting queerer. Season 5’s Hotel brought the first major trans character to the show, Liz Taylor, played by gay actor Denis O’Hare. Taylor is arguably one of the most popular characters from any season. Straight characters continually gender her accurately even though she’s baldheaded and doesn’t “pass,” but that’s part of the point. Taylor is also an essential agent of the ensemble, unlike the exploitative minor trans characters on other shows. Penny Dreadful’s Angelique comes to mind as ultimately more of a plot device than a person. Trans actor Chaz Bono has now been featured much more prominently in Season 7’s Cult, playing an ostensibly cisgender character. Cult also features five gay or bisexual main characters and a host of minor LGBTQ characters, including, for some reason, Andy Warhol and Valerie Solanas.

One character who keeps coming back across wildly disparate seasons is Asylum’s Lana Winters. AHS is, as far as this author knows, the first major media narrative to feature an out queer actress playing an explicitly queer final girl, and it did this in its second season in 2012. Sarah Paulson’s Lana Winters is way ahead of 1991’s closeted Jodie Foster playing the curiously sexless Clarice Starling. Final girls are, by trope, usually tomboyish and asexual. Winters is neither; she’s a fighter and a lover, and that’s why she’s still one of the most popular characters, returning in Season 6’s Roanoke and mentioned in Cult. On a show that constantly recasts its actors as new characters in new locations of the same universe, Paulson’s Cult character Ally Mayfair-Richards (also a lesbian) can discuss another character Paulson has played in two previous seasons, all in-canon.

These characters aren’t above being problematic. AHS is one of the sleaziest shows on TV. But in the midst of its sensationalism, exploitation, and disregard for plot continuity, it’s a show on which complicated, dynamic queer people—the actors and the characters—are front and center.

Comments

Stevi Costa's picture

Subverting Queer Deaths?

A thing I so appreciate about your writing, Evan, is its own camp sensibilities. Thanks for this thoughtful — and funny — look at AHS as one of the queerest shows on TV.

And in thinking more about AHS’s queerness, your piece really generates some questions about what we do with the way these characters are used. Even though Lana and Ally are queer final girls, we also have to witness their lovers’ deaths. And on Freak Show, our queer characters are especially brutalized: Chester Creb’s wife Alice and her lover are butchered, and Matt Bomer’s queer sex worker also meets a gruesome end.

Do these deaths subvert the “bury your gays” trope simply because there are so many other queer characters, and under the logic of horror, someone must die? Or does the amount of violence we witness that happens to queer characters undercut the show’s progressive casting?

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