Something of a “gay sensibility” has pervaded Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story since its inception. When it wasn’t trading in explicitly gay characters like sparring gay couple ChadPat in season 1 or Sarah Paulson’s plucky lesbian reporter in season 2, AHS was loaded with queer friendly elements like campy diva fights, iconic guest stars (hellooo, Patty Lupone and Stevie Nicks!), and Dylan McDermott’s bare backside. But with “Pink Cupcakes,” the November 5 episode of Horror Story’s Freak Show season, the gay content reached its zenith.
Freak Show is set in 1950s Jupiter, Florida, where wannabe German movie star Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) hosts a carnival side show. Personalities in her orbit include Stanley (openly gay Denis O’Hare), a con artist with a thing for hunky hustlers and a 13 inch endowment (!); Dandy (Finn Wittrock), a psychotic mama’s boy both obsessed and repelled by the freaks; and Dell (Michael Chiklis), a strong man with a sexually ambiguous, three breasted wife (Angela Bassett). Did you get all that? Because now it gets juicy.
“Pink Cupcakes” kicks off with Emma Roberts chastising O’Hare for his muscle magazines and declaring, “the only thing people in Jupiter hate more than freaks are poofs.” That may be true, but if Stanley could see inside Dandy’s bedroom later in the episode, he wouldn’t need a magazine. In a gorgeously shot, intensely homoerotic sequence, Wittrock exercises in a pair of skimpy white briefs, oils himself up, and muses about how “This body is America; I am no clown; I am perfection.” It’s a clear homage to American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman and his gratuitously unclad fitness regimen, and it leads immediately into an even gayer sequence. Dandy visits a seedy but fun looking gay bar (think Nowhere on a busy night) where go-go boys prance on the bar and Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love” plays anachronistically on the stereo. There, Dell is on a “date” with Matt Bomer (who co-starred with Wittrock in Murphy’s The Normal Heart). Bomer’s Andy is a sketch artist hustler (who shares a first name with the most noted gay artist of all time) and he angers the other man by reminding him that he’s a boy toy for hire. Possessive Del storms off and Dandy immediately makes his approach; cut to a rendezvous in Dandy’s abandoned van/kill room. Dandy snaps that he’s “not a fruit,” then proposes an odd little game in which the two will undress, then turn around and “whatever magic happens, happens.” (If you had a nickel, amiright?) To his credit, Andy thinks it’s all kind of weird, but hey, a boy’s got to pay the rent. Needless to say, violent death ensues, with overtones of real life killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
I could write a college paper on the layers of subtext going on in this sequence and with these characters. Dandy is an avowedly heterosexual maniac whose bizarrely close relationship with his mom recalls Psycho and 50s ideas about what causes homosexuality. The underground nature of the bar and Dell’s clandestine rendezvous tip their hat to the closeted reality faced by gay men in the era. Even the casting of out actor Bomer is its own kind of comment; in 1952, Hollywood stars weren’t allowed to be gay—Anthony Perkins, who played Psycho’s Norman Bates, went on studio-arranged dates with starlets while carrying on an affair with Tab Hunter. The attractiveness and similar looks of Wittrock and Bomer create a mirroring effect like the one Alfred Hitchcock achieved with Perkins and John Gavin in his 1960 classic. Entertainment Weekly’s Jodi Walker even pointed out that the pair wear “almost inverse outfits (horizontally-striped polo and 50s jeans vs. vertically-striped dandy Uncle Sam outfit).” Get a load of those names, even: Andy rhymes with Dandy, and doesn’t that sound just like one of Oscar Wilde’s contemporaries?
Subtlety has never been a hallmark of American Horror Story, or of Murphy (who also gave us Nip/Tuck and Glee, of course). It’s one reason the series gets away with things that might seem grotesquely homophobic in another context; what’s a fireplace poker up a gay man’s um, *intimate place* (see season 1) when everything else is utterly loony tunes? The series has always attacked real life American “horror stories” with gusto. Coven, for instance, is probably the bluntest depiction of race relations ever seen on television, with Confederate zombies massacring lynch mobs and Gabourey Sidibe munching unapologetically on fried chicken. Could Freak Show be the AHS take on homophobia? Its freaks are the perfect stand in for everything “queer” and unusual in American society. What will the season’s ultimate comment, if any, be on gay rights? This season is dark, well-constructed, and much more focused than the scattered and flawed Coven. I’ll be eager to keep tuning in and see just where it goes.
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