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Ableism in American Horror Story

Ableism in American Horror Story published on No Comments on Ableism in American Horror Story

So FX network has a new series out this season, American Horror Story. The story concerns the Harmons, mother, father and teenaged daughter, who move into a haunted house in Los Angeles, complete with past murders, creatures in the basement and eccentric neighbors. Among the neighbors is Adelaide, or Addy, a young woman in her mid- to late 30s. She has Down's Syndrome and lives with her mother in the house next door.

At first I was all excited to see an actor with Down's Syndrome playing a character with the same condition in a television show. I suppose I was entertaining visions of Life Goes On, a feel-good sit-com from the 1990s centering around a family in which one of the members had Down's. I'm not here to discuss the complexities of the portrayal of Corky, the young man with Down's, but just to say that, in my memory, the show at least gave him a personality and character arcs, treating him as a well-rounded character.

No such luck for Addy on American Horror Story. Her primary function is to give warnings about ghosts to people, who then ignore her, and also to sneak inside the Harmons' new home and startle them. In fact, the first scene of the first episode has a young Addy warning twin brats who vandalize the house, "You're going to die in there." Naturally they do. Grown up in the present day, Addy continues pestering the Harmons with similar admonitions. From her initial appearance, then, Addy is shown to have unusual insight into the creepiness of the house, in the same way that so many blind characters in TV and literature can't see, but have unusual insight into people's souls [or something]. This subtle display of a compensatory strength — maybe Addy has intellectual disabilities, but, as a substitution, she can sense ghosts! — starts Addy's one-dimensional portrayal as a character solely defined and developed by her disability.

The TV show itself presents Addy as a strange sort of disabled object, and the able-bodied characters in the show continue such alienating, abusive treatment. In the first episode, Addie's mother refers to her derogatorily as "the Mongoloid." In the second episode, Addie's mother refers to tying Addy to a chair "again," about which the Harmons make no comment, thus passively colluding with the ableist, demeaning treatment of Addy. We are also shown a scene in episode two in which Addie's mother abuses Addie, locking her in a closet full of mirrors and telling her to "look at [herself]." Though Addy's screams follow us, the camera quickly cuts away, denying the audience any chance to sympathize with a grown woman being manipulated by her cruel mother by being shoved around and locked in a closet. The show doesn't care about Addy as a person, and neither do the characters.

In the two eps of American Horror Story I watched, I also noticed how Addy's mother subtly infantilizes her through controlling her appearance. As I mentioned, Addie is in her mid- to late 30s, so figured because she was shown to be somewhere between 6 and 8 in the initial scene in 1978. Addie now wears the same type of pastel pinafores that she did when she was less than 10. Furthermore, her mother keeps her hair in long curls. I assume that her mother controls these aspects of her appearance because she treats Addie like a stupid child on other occasions, so why wouldn't she continue this abusive attitude with Addy's dress and self-presentation?

I'd watch a show about a woman with Down's Syndrome growing up next to a haunted house, dealing with her abusive mother, if the show focused on the protagonist as a full, rich character who was affected by, but not defined by, her disability. But American Horror Story is not that show, and I will not be watching it any more.

Thanks to Fangs for the Fantasy for summarizing [and calling out various prejudices of] this show.

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