Column: American Horror Story: Coven, Witches, Television, and Diversity

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Television has been credited with providing the most influential interpretations of social reality of all the mass media” – Richard L. Allen.

American-Horror-Story-Coven-Shoes-500x692

Media outlets covering minority groups in truthful and positive ways has long been a concern of many communities. The Pagan community is not immune to these concerns about the media, and there is often a lot of apprehension with the type of coverage we have gotten. There has also been a lot of scrutiny about the lack of media coverage that ethnic people, specifically African American, have had in mainstream television; this is not limited to television, and also extends to print and movies.

People of Color in the Craft have not been represented equally in television or movies unless looking at something that is specifically VooDoo inspired. There are not very many People of Color playing roles in the Witchy or mystical dramas we have been seeing on the screen.

This season on television is remarkably different. Some of the new shows on this season, that have a Witchy, Sci-Fi, or fantasy theme, have more African American or ethnic characters than we are used to seeing. American Horror Story: Coven has two main Black actresses playing characters and seems to be drumming up a lot of interest from Pagan watchers. Not only does the show have diversity in terms of on-screen actresses, but there is also a lot of talk about issues of race throughout the show.

After every new episode Facebook and Twitter are full of quotes made by Queenie, the African American student from Miss Robichaux’s Academy on the show. Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, the actress playing Queenie, originally hit the screen in 2009 in the movie Precious. This large-figured, dark-skin woman brought something special to the screen then, and is doing the same to American Horror Story this season. Not only does she speak her mind when she has something to say, Queenie makes a point to clearly poke fun at the trend of Caucasian-centric Witchy television shows and issues of racism. She is a straightforward, shoot-from-the-hip, kind of Witch.

 "I grew up on white girl shit, like Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Cracker." – Queenie

“I grew up on white girl shit, like Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Cracker.” – Queenie

And Queenie isn’t the only one that makes comments that point to race. The writers of the show obviously were thinking about the sociopolitical dynamic of modern racial issues, as well as those in the South in the 1800’s. There are vicious scenes of slavery infused in the backstory of the plot, making for a racially-influenced story. In reality, most things in history have had a racial tone to it, and the writers and producers of this show decided not to edit that out.

Madame LaLaurie, a historical figure in New Orleans, is a major character within the storyline and a large part of the racially-charged theme. Her past as an abuser and torturer of her slaves creates an interesting dynamic when she is magically thrust into the modern world with Queenie in the same home.

"Yo, who you callin' a slave, bitch?” – Queenie

“Yo, who you callin’ a slave, bitch?” – Queenie

Is there value in having more mainstream movies and television that feature Witches, regardless of whether it is a realistic depiction? What does it mean for African American and ethnic minorities to have more representation in the media as a part of the Witch culture? There have always been social commentary, research, and data that correlates a lack of representation with issues of internalized worth, confidence and understanding of cultural capital.

In The Media, Group Identity, And Self-Esteem Among African Americans: A Program Of Research, Professor R. Allen at University of Michigan stated that, “Black media may be seen as a filter of African American information sources pertaining to the general status of African Americans both as a distinct group and in relation to the dominant society. Thus, the black media play a significant role in determining the content of blacks’ view of themselves, or stated differently, they influence the content of the African American racial belief system.” Professor Allen is pointing to very important cultural significance among many minority cultures, and how they view roles within the larger culture that will help to dictate the relationship between their racial community and other communities.

If social sciences link representation of People of Color with perceptions of cultural capital, what does that say about the Pagan community and what does it mean for People of Color seeing themselves in the greater Pagan community? If the representation that we see in movies, television and media always depicts Witches as Caucasian, then how does that impact the perception of acceptance and diversity within the Pagan community?

As with any growing community, these are some of the many questions that are coming up. Many of these questions will not be answered in isolation, and the issues of coverage have historically been a concern for Pagans, and for People of Color, regardless of how these communities intersect.

While we continue to explore the growing trends of Paganism, diversity, and community integration, we also see how positive and not so positive things come from increased visibility of any community.

My top positive and not so positive influences of Queenie on American Horror Story: Coven are:

Potentially Positive

  • She is not the typical Hollywood “acceptable” Black woman. She is dark skinned and heavy set.
  • She is strong woman that is not afraid to engage with danger.
  • She is a common-looking person who could be the lady next door.
  • She faces racism on the show, and still stands-up to defend the woman who had treated her inhumanly.
  • She is not afraid to be vocal about issues of being Black in a white community.

Potentially Negative

  • The writers and producers utilize the stereotypical perceptions of how Black people speak and infuse that into her character.
  • They put a lot of focus on her weight and an obsession with food; she is teased about this several times.
  • There is a bit of the evoking of the “angry black woman” in the character that is stereotypical, and they represent her as the “hard” one.
  • There appears to be no effort to make Queenie look desirable or sexy, unlike two other students in the school.
  • Queenie was in foster care as a child, which I am curious about. I would like to know why the writers chose this past for her instead of a more family-oriented one like some of the other main characters.

There are always many opinions about parallels between television and reality, TV Witches and Paganism. And while we all know that television or movies are not reality, there tends to be concern with how the reflection of Witches on the screen can fuel misconceptions of Paganism to those who are uninformed. As this is often a concern for many minority religions and cultures, what are Pagans saying about American Horror Story: Coven, and the Black Witch that is so prominent on the screen Wednesday nights? I asked a couple of practitioners their thoughts on two specific questions:

 

Fire Lyte

Fire Lyte

What do you think Queenie’s character, as an African American Witch, adds to the show?

The writers are doing a good job with Queenie’s character. However, I would love to see a bit more organic growth between LaLaurie (the infamous Delphine LaLaurie who, by many accounts, was a famous racist and slave torturer) and AHS: Coven’s resident African American Witch. The writers seem intent with beating us over the head that LaLaurie is learning the error of her ways at light speed and in record time, when, in reality, these kinds of changes are much more gradual. In that instance, you have to wonder who they think the audience is, and who their message is supposed to reach.

Do you feel that having more diverse representation of Witches in the media benefits the Pagan community?

This is going to be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t see the Witches on AHS: Coven as being representative of the Pagan community. When was the last time you saw the local High Priestess of your Witchy group or coven fling someone across the room with her mind? How many of us attended secret magical academies to get our Charmed powers working right? Oh, I’m sorry… This isn’t Charmed? This is another TV show where each Witch is assigned a superpower. Gotcha.

This is entertainment. I get that. And, as such, I need to remember that when they use the word ‘Witch’, they’re using it in the fictional, literary sense of the word. In the fictional, literary world, Witches fly and have superpowers and secret societies or schools. On TV, Witches can wiggle their noses or flick their fingers or point a wand and the magic gets done. This has nothing, in my opinion, to do with modern Witchcraft or Paganism.

That being said, I think diversity in television programming is always a good thing, if only so that we are more accurately representing the way society looks. I’m white, but I think the world is a beautiful, colorful, diverse place, and it should be represented as such in media. Accurate representations of society only serve to further eliminate the lines between in-groups and out-groups. They desensitize the majority to the “strangeness” of the minority, such that the ideas of ‘us’ and ‘them’ eventually become ‘we’. Studies prove time and again that the more we are exposed to an out-group – a group of people we perceive as being different than us in some way – the more we are willing to accept them.

So, my answer is two-fold. I believe that diversity in programming is amazing, and I’m glad to see it only growing on popular programs. However, I do not see this diversity on AHS: Coven as being specifically beneficial to the Pagan community, as I do not feel the ‘Witches’ have anything to do with Witches or Pagans in the real world. – Fire Lyte of Inciting A Riot (blogger & podcaster)

 

Dava Greely

What do you think Queenie’s character, as an African American Witch, adds to the show?

Honestly, I’m conflicted about Queenie’s character. She’s certainly funny and adds a different flavor of drama, but…I don’t know, she’s very crude, self loathing, and her powers suck. Why must the only AA Witch, as opposed to Angela Bassett’s character representing African spirituality, be so unconvincing and useless?

Do you feel that having more diverse representation of Witches in the media benefits the Pagan community?

I do think that the diversity of Witch characters in various media outlets helps because entertainment is known to make people curious and I’m certain that some, mainly black women, will be inspired to learn more about paganism and Witchcraft across the diaspora. – Dava Greely, Hermetic Practitioner

 

chas5

Chas Bogan

What do you think Queenie’s character, as an African American Witch, adds to the show?

I appreciate how the American Horror Story franchise has dealt with issues of race in this and other incarnations of their series, especially because they take an added risk when casting aberrant, ethically questionable characters as African American. I am fascinated by Queenie’s magical ability of inflicting physical harm on herself in order to hurt others. To the degree that horror often serves as metaphor I’ve wondered if Queenie’s destructive abilities speak of self harm and body issues, and Gabourey Sidibe’s physical appearance as a large black woman factors into that question as much as everything else about the character. We see in Queenie a young woman with issues concerning her sexuality and role as outcast, which is played out through her attempted seduction of the Minotaur. This is a tragic side of her character, yet even in that instance she has the assertiveness to pursue her needs, no matter how ill fated the fall out is. In other scenes she is seen using her power to stand up for herself, and that take-no-shit attitude is empowering, and herein lies the brilliance of Coven, as we are able to see a character stand up for herself while witnessing her harming herself. Whereas I wouldn’t say that Queenie serves as a great role model for African American Witches, she is an intriguing character who adds much to the show.

Do you feel that having more diverse representation of Witches in the media benefits the Pagan community?

The Pagan community is not represented in the media much at all. For all the talk of Witches on television this season none of them represent real Pagan Witches, rather they explore themes through the mythology of the Witch as being a person with supernatural power. I am a nerd for all things Witchy, but do not feel that the present offering of fictional Witches represents me or my community in any way. Diversity is always a good thing, but I doubt that anyone will rethink their perceptions of Pagans simply by having characters such as Queenie present. – Chas Bogan

 

What do you think Queenie’s character, as an African American Witch, adds to the show?

Airam Willow

Airam Willow

I am a bit conflicted about Queenie’s character. On one hand I love that there is a female of power that does not fit the status quo but on the other hand I feel she perpetuates, for lack of better words, a simple mindedness… Fiona was able to use her and play on her want for power.

Do you feel that having more diverse representation of Witches in the media benefits the Pagan community?

I still feel that witches are portrayed in a bad light. I don’t watch all the other shows like Witches of East End, but I feel not all publicity is good publicity. I think a lot of the Witches are portrayed to be evil, vindictive and in Fiona’s case, a psychotic drug addict who is insecure about aging and losing her status. And Angela Basset’s character, although entertaining, is nothing like the real Marie. Mind you, I love love love this show, but I do see that there are racist undertones; the white witches of Salem versus the black voodoo priestess of New Orleans. – Airam Willow

As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see how this character evolves and how the racial context of the storyline unfolds. Queenie might just be a reflection on the screen of the growing acceptance of People of Color within previously uncharted arenas, and the confrontation of racism that appears to be coming up in many different places within society today. While American Horror Story: Coven is not a depiction of real life, it appears to still be working out some issues that we are struggling with in the Pagan community and within society, while showing a brown-faced Witch to the world.

You can access the full quote from Fire Lyte here.

Note: The Huffington Post recently published this piece on the lack of media representation for African American girls, and how that translates for young Black women. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/olivia-cole/why-im-not-here-for-white_b_4214132.html