American Horror Story Recaps: Valerie Solanas Died For Your Sins: Scumbag

by thethreepennyguignol

Oh, fucking hell.

Alright, let’s get started on the latest episode of American Horror Story (here’s last week, for those who are new here), Valerie Solanas Died For Your Sins: Scumbag. Right from the very moment that I heard that Lena Dunham would be playing Solanas in an episode of American Horror Story, I knew this episode was going to be a doozy, and I wasn’t wrong.

Firstly, the Lena Dunham problem: I fucking detest Lena Dunham. I’m not the only feminist to be tearing their hair out over the fact that Dunham has come to represent feminism in the mainstream for many people and continues to just do and say the most infuriatingly counter-productive nonsense every time she opens her mouth. She and Ryan Murphy, in many ways, suit each other perfectly: obnoxious, loud, and often missing the point by several eons, so it doesn’t surprise me that she’s in this episode, even if it annoys me.

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And then you’ve got the character she’s playing, Valerie Solanas. Now, in the course of getting my history degree, I spent a lot of time on gender history and women’s history in particular, and there’s no arguing with the fact that she’s a significant figure in terms of feminism in the twentieth century. I recently read the excellent book Trainwreck by Sady Doyle, in which she summed up Solanas pretty succinctly:

“From most vantage points, Valerine Solanas is indefensible. She wasn’t upset or misunderstood or under stress: she was actually crazy…she was continually cruel, even flat-out abusive, to the people in her life, including the feminists who organized to help her during her trial…and, oh, yeah, she tried to murder three people. What line of defense can you concoct for that?

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Maybe this one…Norman Mailer stabbed his wife to settle an argument at a party…William S Burroughs got drunk and accidentally shot his wife in the head…Norman Mailer served time in Bellevue [a mental hospital] but somehow, an explanation of his life story tends to open with “author” rather than “lunatic”…Mental illness and addiction ruin women – make them sideshows, dirty jokes, bogeymen, objects of moral panic – but they seem to add to a man’s mystique.”

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Crucially, Valerine Solanas existed outside of the SCUM manifesto and shooting Andy Warhol, the two acts that she is best known for, and yet, she is consistently boiled down to them, particularly the latter of the two. She was treated differently to men in similar positions who commit similar acts of violence. She’s someone I feel strongly about, not because I think she was some saint who deserves deification in retrospect (beyond her acts of violence, she was also a big ol’ transphobe), but because she is treated so differently from her male counterparts. She’s an example of the way we devalue the work of women who don’t fit into the mould we create for them and deify men for doing the same. So when I saw that two people I Do Not Trust with nuance (Ryan Murphy and Lena Dunham) were having a crack at her, I was…less than excited.

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And honestly, I have deeply mixed feelings to what the show did with their version of Solanas. They took the SCUM manifesto as a starting point, and ran from there on the basis that everything Solanas had written within was serious (for those unsure, the SCUM manifesto is a satirical piece: Solanas studied psychology at both under and post-grad level, and much of the manifesto satirizes the male-centric views of psychology, critiquing subjects like penis envy and the notion that women are too emotional or hysterical). So, we get another patented Feminist Murder Cult, which TV just seems to love these days (see also: Sherlock’s fucking godawful Abominable Bride).

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And in terms of entertainment, yes, this episode is pretty fun: we lilt our way through Lena Dunham’s not-awful, high-pitched Solanas performance as Frances Conroy, as her becaped former lover come to radicalise the women of Kai’s cult, recounts the exploits of the SCUM group to Beverly, Ivy, and Winter. On the one hand, this does give Solanas’ ideas – some of which were rooted in the same notions of the destruction of the patriarchy that many feminists, including me, subscribe to – a fair airing, and even delivers a solid scene towards the end of her arc where she confronts an imaginary Andy Warhol (played by an uncanny Evan Peters, because gotta save that cash where we can) and acknowledges the fact that, despite her attempts to establish herself as an artist in her own right, people will only ever think of him when her name is mentioned. It’s a powerful meditation on the way that women’s achievements are marginalized in the face of a man doing, well, anything really – just try to ignore the fact that the episode more or less introduces her as “that crazy bitch who shot Andy Warhol”. And then, of course, on the other hand, the episode fingers her as the mind behind the Zodiac killings.

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I’m not a fan of shows like American Horror Story – shows that are, at their heart, pulpy as fuck – using real-life crime and death as a framework through which to tell their stories (the way they sensationalized and sexualised Elizabeth Short in season one is just fucking gross), but that’s not what I want to focus on with this absurd and atrocious plot twist. In arguing that Solanas deserves to be remembered for more than just a single act of violence against men, the show skims past the point and attributes numerous acts of violence against men and women to her instead. “Don’t remember her for this act of violence that was at best tangentially related to her life and work – remember her for these acts of violence which had literally nothing to do with her life and work!”. I know that AHS sees the most goofy course of action and simply cannot sidestep it, but even still, Jesus Christ. It’s so agressively, unbelievably stupid. I wanted to hurl my computer through a window and into another dimension.

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But I think the part that gets me most about this is that, for a lot of people judging by the social media reactions I’ve been seeing, this isn’t far removed from what they think Solanas actually is. When people hear about Solanas, they think of her shooting of Warhol, and many tie it in with the SCUM manifesto, taking the attempted murder to mean that she really was the evil man-killer she proclaimed to be in her most famous work. And, as much of the show touches on her abuse by the men in her life, it frames her as, more than anything, a crazed man-hating murderer who truly wanted to see all men dead. As it tries to subvert the generally accepted view of Solanas, it backs it up instead. And, for many people, this almost entirely fictionalised account of her life acts as confirmation that feminism really is the man-hating cult they think it is, though honestly, if you believe that, this show – which is, may I stress, very, very stupid at points – is too clever for you and you should go sit in a corner somewhere. Even as they hint at the end that it might all be fabrication, the work of Kai and Babette together, they still gave us a good solid half-hour of bollocks about Solanas and feminism in general.

You wouldn’t think it based on this review, but there were other aspects of this episode beyond the crappy Solanas plot: Kai has gotten into office and seems to be picking off those people linked to his past as a murderer, inciting the women of the cult to murder Harrison (farewell, Billy Eichner, basically my favourite part of this season so far), with the help of Frances Conroy’s brilliantly camp Babette. Evan Peters continues to dazzle, while Adina Porter is slyly superb as Beverly Hope.

But this episode was really a statement piece, a diversion from the plot for an argument for the place that women hold in society and in positions of influence more broadly. It’s just a shame that American Horror Story seemed to have no idea what it was trying to argue for. Valerine Solanas might have died for my sins, but that alone wasn’t enough to repent this mess of an episode.

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