American Horror Story: Coven and the subversion of typecasting

American-Horror-Story-Coven-The-ReplacementsHaving watched the season finale of American Horror Story: Coven, I wanted to take this opportunity to write about something that I think it did very well:  the unexpected way it treated a couple of its characters.

Specifically I was struck by the characters of Nan, played by Jamie Brewer, and Queenie, played by Gabourey Sidibe.

For background Jamie Brewer is an actress who has Down Syndrome. She is very active in theater and is a member of the Groundlings. She is also a disabled rights activist. In the first season of American Horror Story: Murder House, she played the daughter of Jessica Lange’s character. It was a fairly clichéd portrayal of someone with Down Syndrome. She was childlike, mistreated, and had trouble understanding the world fully. It wasn’t a gross portrayal, it just didn’t stand out as anything ground breaking.

Brewer did not appear in season two Asylum; her return in Coven however was fantastic. Her character, Nan, is a clairvoyant and thus often knows more about what is going on than most of the other characters. She is also clearly very intelligent and in a rivalry to attract the attention of a handsome neighbor, and wins over the pretty starlet in the coven by treating him as a person rather than a prize.

Nan is a complete subversion of what we would expect from a character who has all the physical signs of Down Syndrome. In fact I can’t think of a single point in the season where there is any dialog making any reference to her having the condition, although I could not check back with the earliest ones thanks to how On Demand works. I think it shows Brewer’s strength as an actress, combined with the strength of the writing, that by the third episode we aren’t thinking of her as anything other than a member of the coven, and a strong one at that.

New to the show this season was Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie. Sidibe is best known for the movie Precious, for which she received an Oscar nomination. Obviously her weight is going to be something that people notice. As an actress she has had to face a lot of fat shaming in her career, and has always dealt with it like a champ.

As Queenie, there are hints of that in the first episode, again from the pretty starlet who joins the coven. She quickly deals with that and, honestly, it is never brought up again. Instead, the issue of her race is more central, which is logical as race relations are a central theme of the season and her character’s arc includes her being torn between the largely white coven, and the lure of joining the exclusively black voodoo group. She also is the primary character to deal with a racist slave owner, brought to modern times, whom she attempts to teach the error of her ways.

Queenie, like Nan, is given agency, and the writers avoid going for any of the easy routes they could have, given her appearance.

American Horror Story: Coven had an overabundance of excellent actresses and it would have been easy to overlook the gems they had in Brewer and Sidibe, or gone the easy route of playing on the stereotypes of their appearances. That it didn’t, and gave both actresses plenty of opportunity to shine, is a testament to the entire production and makes me eager to see what season 4 has in store for us.