America in the 1960’s was a time of exploring new ideas– however, old ones still prevailed in society, and women found it hard to attain the same independence and respect as men. All of the strong-spirited women characters in Asylum, which takes place during the 60’s, have been victims of society.
Lana Winters’s (Sarah Paulson) main enemy throughout the season is society itself. Poor Lana, with a dynamic personality and ambitious goals, is unfairly committed to Briarcliff for her homosexuality (Sister Jude blackmailed her girlfriend into committing Lana), after attempting to infiltrate it to get a story on the notorious serial killer Bloody Face, who is known for murdering and skinning women. She is the very definition of a woman whom society fears: strong, spunky, and lesbian. At Briarcliff, the nuns attempt to force her to submit to their rules, but nevertheless Lana keeps fighting until the very end, eventually bringing down the asylum with its harsh, barbaric practices. As a patient, she is forced to go through “conversion therapy” with Dr. Thredson, in an attempt to alter her sexuality– homosexuality was largely frowned upon in the 60’s and as viewed as an illness and a borne sin.
Later on, Lana is brutally betrayed by Dr. Thredson, whom she initially believed to be her ally. After getting her out of Briarcliff the first time, Thredson reveals himself to be Bloody Face, and claimed to only be at the asylum to try and frame Kit Walker for the crime, as well as help Lana “convert.” He traps Lana inside his home, telling her about his murder stories, and how his goal is to find the perfect woman to be his mother, to replace the one he never had. Thredson exclaims that Lana is “The One,” and attempts to shape her into his ideal mother, thus reflecting the view society has on women: that they are only there to take care of the house and kids, and are heterosexual and stupidly loyal, and do only what men tell them. When Lana refuses Thredson, he humiliates her, and then rapes her in anger.
We get a bittersweet ending for Lana. After Supreme Mother Claudia releases her from Briarcliff, she goes on to expose Thredson and, eventually, the asylum, bringing a closure to her fight for independence. Lana meets Thredson in his apartment after she goes to the police, and shoots him before he is arrested, finally killing the man who had tortured her so much. She refuses to have anything to do with Thredson, abandoning her child that he fathered, and going on to live her dream: to be a well-respected writer and reporter, with nothing holding her back. Throughout her life, Lana has been a nonconformist, and is one of the strongest characters on the show. I applaud her for her victory over the status quo.
Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) is the stern, no-nonsense head nun of Briarcliff, and can be initially seen as the Asylum counterpart of Nurse Ratched from ‘Cuckoo’s Nest, with a similar condescending and patronizing personality, hardened from her repression of her own sexual freedom. However, despite her strong ruling of the ward, her position is constantly challenged by the men of the staff, and she even unconsciously follows Monsignor Howard around whenever he is present. This is mainly due to the fact that, for all her attempts to cover her persona with a habit, she still has sexual fantasies about him, a sign of the humanity and spirit beneath. She even has a hidden set of red lingerie in a drawer, a symbol of her suppressing herself.
Jude became a nun because of a hit-and-run accident that leaves her ashamed of herself; before she joined the Church, she was a night club singer who smoke, drank, and was a free soul like Lana. Her life begins to spiral downward after her fiance leaves her due to her inability to have a child (she contracted syphilis from him, yet he still blames her)– we can see how the men in her life have already contributed to the pain in her life. As she later says to Shacahath, “all I ever wanted was my own family.” Society, dominated by men, has denied her this dream.
We are inclined to hate her, along with Lana, at first, due to the fact that they are often rude and aggressive towards others. As Jude’s life crumbles, however, we can see that this stems from the frustration they feel from being oppressed by society. Though becoming a nun is perhaps better than the old wild lifestyle she led before, she is unhappy and miserable from the sexual freedom she had to renounce. Throughout the season, she suffers multiple flashbacks that leave her traumatized and guilty. As powerful head nun of Briarcliff, she is holding onto the last bit of her dignity and pride, and we can no longer blame her for trying to be tough, with the circumstances she’s been placed in. Like Lana, she is just another woman bullied by society.
While she outwardly loathes Lana for her spunky spirit, she was once just as strong, and, towards the end, respects Lana for her ability to keep fighting. Secretly, she also admires Sister Mary Eunice, much like Dr. Arden does, for her purity and innocence– two things stripped early from Jude– and hates Shelley, the nymphomaniac who may remind Jude of her own shameful history (pointed out by Poetry Pundit).
As a patient, Jude (now Judy Martin) is just as rebellious as Lana in the beginning, determined to fight against the Devil and its new tyrannic authority over Briarcliff. Consequently, she is given a max dose of electroshock therapy, which leaves her disillusioned and disoriented, and is also thrown into a dirty, isolated cell when Lana (now a famous reporter) comes to visit the asylum, a move by the Monsignor to prevent Jude from spilling the horrible secrets of Briarcliff. He has also informed Lana that Jude hung herself and has died, presenting a legitimate death certificate, when, in reality, Jude’s name has been changed to Betty Drake. Jude rejects his offer to release her (something he suggests only after he has been promoted to Cardinal of New York, and is able to leave his responsibilities at Briarcliff), commenting:
“It’s an extraordinary thing, you know that? You throw me in the madhouse, you strip away everything I have, everything I know. You treat me like a rabid dog, like a mad woman… And you know what happened? I’m blessed with the gift of total clarity. I am more sane now as a madwoman than I ever was as the head of Briarcliff.”
Forced by the asylum (and possibly from her syphilis), however, Jude gradually starts to go insane. She then begins see a new committed woman physically resembling Shacahath (the Angel of Death) and, terribly frightened and intimidated of this strong patient, fights her, in an attempt to avoid death. It is later revealed that she was beating a harmless woman who was not at all the Shacahath, and it was all part of a elaborate hallucination she has been going through for two-and-a-half years.
Eventually, Kit, the moral compass of the show, the only man who does not try to see women as stupid, childbearing tools of society, rescues Jude, after she has been committed as a patient and stripped of her title from the Church. It is he who constantly visited Jude at the asylum and helped her through her insanity. It is only after she leaves both institutions that she finally finds happiness with Kit’s family (she has achieved her dream after all), and peacefully accepts Shacahath’s kiss of death in Kit’s house, away from the critical eyes of society. Though she can be seen at first as the main antagonist of the show, we eventually come to see her as just another victim of the true enemy: society.
We can see a demonization of females after Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) becomes possessed. As a human, she is innocent and pure, and only wants people to like her. She becomes a nun after being hazed at a pool party. Many people, like Dr. Arden and Sister Jude, find her chastity precious. However, after the Devil gets a hold of her, Mary Eunice’s purity begins to burn away. She shows up at Sister Jude’s office one day wearing lipstick, and Jude (still a nun) is disgusted. She then begins to slowly overtake Jude in authority, eventually becoming head of Briarcliff, and takes up drinking and smoking habits. She tries to seduce Arden (leading him to stop loving her, though he later becomes aware of her possession), and proceeds to rape the Monsignor, physically stripping her of her virtue. Here, Mary Eunice’s new sexual freedom and strong personality are portrayed as, quite literally, the work of the Devil.
Perhaps a more obvious example is Shelley (Chloë Sevigny). The very reason she is committed to Briarcliff is because of her obsession with sex. She began touching herself at the age of five, and her parents forced her to wear mittens to bed to stop this habit. She expresses her anger at her husband, who cheats often but isn’t reprimanded and shamed of his sexual freedom like she is. Her husband admitted her to the asylum under the diagnosis that she was a nymphomaniac, and that she doesn’t obey his wishes for her to be an obedient, devoted wife. At Briarcliff, Shelley begins to wield her body as a weapon, giving sexual favors to the guards in order to get what she wants. Like all the other strong-spirited women of the show, however, she is punished; after laughing at Arden after he attempted to rape her, he amputated her legs and made her into a Rasper, turning her into a horrifying creature. We can see, again, that the female sexuality is paired with monstrosity. Shelley can be seen as a fallen hero; she sacrificed herself in order to allow Kit and Lana to escape, only to be mutilated by Arden and disposed of carelessly by Mary Eunice in the woods. Later, she is taken to a hospital after being discovered at a schoolyard, and the Monsignor visits. Disgusted by her form and unable to save her, he strangles her with his rosary, a symbol (and I admit that I may be guilty of imposing meaning upon a scene with no merit) of the Church and society smothering the female.
Lastly, we come to Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré), who was committed for her axe murder of her father. However, she is not at all insane, and only killed him after he had molested her for many years. She is then ordered to be sterilized– literally, purified of her feminism– after being caught with Kit in the bakery. Grace is first killed after she jumps in front of a bullet Frank shoots at Kit. When Shacahath kisses her, she exclaims, “I’m free.” (Later, she is captured by the aliens and is resurrected and re-impregnated by them.)
Asylum raises awareness about the way women were treated back in the 60’s. There were many campaigns to fight for women’s rights. Around the time Asylum took place, there were many feminist movements, largely inspired by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. However, isolated from the society that was changing (albeit slowly and grudgingly), Briarcliff could still forcefully oppress women and keep them imprisoned within its walls. We can see the dangerous tyrannic power of the asylum as it destroys woman after woman, from Sister Jude to Grace Bertrand. The only victorious one is Lana, who retains her strong spirit after she leaves, and bravely comes back ten years later and ultimately shuts it down with her exposé. Lana is an inspiration to us all, and reminds us that even through the hardest of times it’s important to remain strong and keep fighting. And, we should remember all the other female characters who were brave enough to stand against the status quo. Though Asylum is very much fiction, the sufferings of the what the women went through at Briarcliff represents the hardships of real women in history.