How Lena Dunham and 'American Horror Story' Delivered a Timely Look at Feminism

The actress and friend to co-creator Ryan Murphy made a one-episode cameo as Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who shot Andy Warhol.
Lena Dunham in 'AHS: Cult'

Lena Dunham made her one-episode debut on American Horror Story: Cult as Valerie Solanas, the real-life radical feminist and SCUM Manifesto author who attempted to murder Andy Warhol in the late 1960s. Though the episode, which aired on Tuesday, was intended to be timely, the story of female rage proved to be even more relevant in the wake of the sweeping Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal. As of press time, more than 40 women had come forward to accuse the Hollywood movie mogul of sexual harassment and assault, alleged to be dating back decades. The revelations have since spurred countless more women to come forward with their own stories of rampant Hollywood misconduct since the story first broke Oct. 5, something the vocal Dunham has supported on her social media accounts amid a growing "Me Too" campaign encouraging women to tell their stories.

When announcing his idea for the semi-stand-alone episode — the Solanas story was told through a flashback tying the women of the present to Solanas' fictional then-girlfriend, Bebe Babbitt, played by another guest-star Frances Conroy — American Horror Story creator and showrunner Ryan Murphy had explained that the intent was to explore "female rage then and in the country now." In telling the story of how Solanas preached her SCUM Manifesto ("Society for Cutting Up Men"), in which she instructed women to kill men in order to rise to power, the FX anthology series also offered an alternate theory to the identity of the famed Zodiac serial killer, someone Murphy had also explored in the show's fifth season, Hotel

In the flashback, Dunham inhabited a gradually spinning out Solanas, who had diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia. After shooting Warhol in his Factory over a script squabble, she served out a three-year prison sentence and continued to run her own serial killing operation with her SCUM followers from the psychiatric ward. When she went to the police to claim credit for her murders, which were being pinned to the infamous Zodiac killer due to a traitor in her ranks, the male cop laughed at her confession. Ultimately, the rage over societal's refusal to believe that women could be responsible for such things led to her demise. In real life, she died of pneumonia at age 52.

After its opening depiction of her attempt on Warhol's life, the episode, titled "Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag," took liberties with the Solanas story, including the conspiracy theory of the true identity of Zodiac. The point of the story, however, was laid out by Murphy and echoed by Dunham, who took to social media to offer her only public comments on the appearance. 

"Valerie Solanas attempted to shoot Andy Warhol because she felt denied into the cult of personality that was Warhol in the Factory at the time," Murphy had explained when outlining "cult of personality" as a seasonlong theme during a press event ahead of the season. Evan Peters, who stars as Kai Anderson, will play five additional real-life serial killers throughout. He also played Warhol during Dunham's episode. "Valerie Solanas created the SCUM Manifesto, in which she told women — all women — to kill all men, and that was the only way you could rise to power. We also examine our female characters, Sarah (Paulson's Ally), Alison (Pill's Ivy) and Billie Lourd [Winter] as they're trying to figure out a way that they can have equal power within this cult that Kai has started."

Shortly before the episode aired, Murphy explained further how Solanas relates to the post-election set season, which, on Tuesday, focused on the women in Kai's cult realizing that he is doing "what men always do" and pushing the women aside. As Conroy's character pointed out: "History may change, but her story always repeats itself."

"I was interested in the SCUM Manifesto and how it relates to the Trump-Clinton of it all," Murphy said at a recent press event attended by THR about Cult, which opened its story on 2016 election night in Michigan. "[Valerie] feels unheard and not allowed to be herself, so it's a narrative within Cult's story and also about how the women within Evan's cult have helped this man have all of this power, and as soon as he has the power he completely disregards what they want or what they need."

When sharing a photo of herself in character as Solanas, the Girls creator and star said Cult is the first piece of post-election work to "truly address the rampant pain and insanity of this post-election world." Murphy had long said his intent with the season was to highlight the consequences of a disenfranchised community, explore the ignored America that President Donald Trump had tapped into to win the stunning election and chronicle the divisive identity politics that have risen in its wake.

About Solanas, whom she called history's "most demented feminist prophet," Dunham said, "I loved every second of embodying Valerie — her pain, rage, fear, loss and weird hat collection. ... This one's for all my ladies crying out to be known as more than a shadow. This one is for the people who refuse to play the game."

 

It was a wild honor to play history's most demented feminist prophet, Valerie Solanas on tomorrow's episode. The latest season of American Horror Story is the first piece of art work to truly address the rampant pain and insanity of this post-election world. It's surreal and it's all too real. I've loved every second of the series, just like I loved every second of embodying Valerie- her pain, rage, fear, loss and weird hat collection. So much love to Ryan Murphy @mrrpmurphy for his boldness and for resurrecting Val, Brad Falchuk @bradfalchuk for asking me to go hard, Crystal Liu for the killer script and Rachel Goldberg for directing the tits outta this. I got to act alongside so many beautiful women. This one's for all my ladies crying out to be known as more than a shadow. This one is for the people who refuse to play the game. This one is for corduroy- I've never worn so much fucking corduroy #SCUM #AHScult

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