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Careful What You Watch

Let’s talk about censorship.

When you hear that word, you think of book burning or religious fanaticism or overbearing parents.  But is there something to be said for censoring what we expose ourselves to?

As with all partially-baked ideas, I have a specific example in mind.  Recently in my quest to watch any and every show available On Demand, I screened the premiere episode of American Horror Story: Coven.  I was a ground-floor fan of the first season, and tried to muddle through the joyless Asylum installment before dropping out halfway through.  Having heard good things and liking the premise, I decided to give AHS another try.

Coven has a lot going for it, to be sure.  Witches are a supernatural icon not yet popularized to death, and one with a lot of depth to be plumbed.  New Orleans is a groovy setting in lieu of the more predictable Salem.  The boarding school conceit is a great satire of the Harry Potter paradigm, but meaner (in a good way).  Every actress in the largely female cast is a delight so far as I’ve seen, from dry Taissa Farmiga (my friend Rachel described her as “like Kristen Stewart, but a good actress”) to formidable Gabourey Sidibe to Queen Bitch Supreme Jessica Lange to THE UNSINKABLE Molly Brown Kathy Bates.  I honestly love the whole setup.  Best of all, the show has returned to the sly, winking fun that defined the early franchise but was largely lost during the over-dark Asylum chapter.

HOWEVER, you knew there would be a “but.”  Despite all that good material, the first episode of Coven left me with a profoundly bad feeling that was hard to shake.  I stopped watching after just one episode (breaking an ingrained binge-watching habit) and went straight to bed, but did not sleep well.  I have not lost sleep over a movie or TV show since I could count my age on my fingers and my dad made me watch The Exorcist because it’s “a classic” (not a good enough reason.)

What left me cold on the show was a scene about midway through the episode that begins in good fun (as I’m sure they intended it to feel.)  Emma Roberts’s Madison and Taissa Farmiga’s Zoe attend a local frat party and rapidly demonstrate what anyone who’s ever seen a Lifetime movie could tell you is deplorable situational decision-making: They split up.  Zoe winds up chatting with a nice(?) guy, while Madison is approached by a sneering frat boy.  She dials up the bitchiness and orders him to get her a drink, every bit the commanding witchy presence, and the only anxiety you feel is for this poor schmuck she’s going to abuse.  Before you can feel too bad, though, the frat guy has roofied her drink and she’s in an upstairs bedroom with a succession of guys taking turns raping her.

I know American Horror Story is intentionally dark, but this simply felt too far.  The camera lingers for maybe a minute, which in this case is despairingly long, like a sick voyeur onto the situation.  It isn’t graphic in the HBO sense, thank God, but the scene is explicit enough to know what’s going on, and to repeatedly show us the defenseless Madison, that self-possessed supernatural entity brought oh so low.

Some good things happened in the second half of that episode, but I really could not engage with them after what I’d viewed.  The whole thing left me with a sort of queasy disquiet that was very difficult to shake.

Eliciting a visceral reaction is what art, by definition, does, in fairness.  So maybe Ryan Murphy got exactly what he wanted from me.  Probably not, though, since the lingering unease has prevented me from watching more.  The rape was barely addressed in the rest of that first episode, though I grant it will probably be eventually.  But without being part of a dialogue or an examination of the effects on the character, the intensity of the event hit far too hard and felt gratuitous.  This is what makes me wonder if we shouldn’t be being more selective about what we expose ourselves to.

My feelings on Coven made me remember a video of Amy Poehler I saw after the Boston Bombing earlier this year.  Though Poehler was referring to current events, she raised thoughtful questions about the effects of what we expose our brains, hearts, and eyes to.  It seems to be taken as fact now that our generation is vastly desensitized to violence by our chosen entertainment media, but the point is usually made in regard to outliers, the people who sublimate what they’ve seen into actions.  What about the rest of us, who take in those same violent images but don’t choose to act on them?  The popular opinion seems to be that we’re better-adjusted and therefore can simply handle these things, but can we?

Viewing a scene like the one in Coven benefits me in no way.  It raised no awareness on the issue it dealt with.  The emotions it evoked weren’t “important” ones not to suppress, as when we feel it’s wrong to avoid difficult current events stories; they were the stuff, obviously, of horror: revulsion and dismay.  So, as Amy Poehler suggests in that video, I believe it might be in my (and everyone’s) best interest to be more selective about what we look at.  As intelligent, compassionate adults, it seems like our responsibility to choose wisely what we take into ourselves, just as we do with food or medicine or skin products.  All of it becomes a part of us, and some parts you are simply better without.

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