Save this storySave this storySave this storySave this story
The day after the première of “American Horror Story: Delicate,” the twelfth season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s FX anthology series, two Instagram posts appeared on my feed in quick succession. “Kim Kardashian is getting rave reviews for her acting skills after her ‘American Horror Story’ debut,” TMZ announced. And just a couple of scrolls of the finger later, from the New York Post: “Kim Kardashian brutally slammed for ‘AHS’ performance: ‘Terrible actress.’ ”
Though I briefly wondered if Instagram’s algorithm was attempting to crack a joke about criticism’s meaninglessness at my expense, the juxtaposition I happened on wasn’t actually all that surprising. Kardashian—reality-TV megastar, shapewear and skin-care mogul, attorney in training, Kanye West’s ex-wife and mother of his children, and a chief arbiter of twenty-first-century beauty standards—is nothing if not a divisive figure. Frequently lambasted for practically embodying the “famous for being famous” credo, her last role as an actress was a decade ago (on Tyler Perry’s “Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor,” playing the main character’s co-worker), and so it made sense that her turn on “A.H.S.: Delicate” would transform into a kind of event, greeted with both eagerness and consternation.
Murphy is known for his elaborate, stylized productions, in which he often gives older actresses like Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, and Kathy Bates glamorous, larger-than-life roles. (On “A.H.S.,” these roles are made particularly outsized by the show’s general goth-and-gore mood.) He is also fond of the occasional stunt diva casting. In 2015, on Season 5 of “A.H.S.,” three years before her Oscar-nominated performance in “A Star Is Born,” Murphy gave Lady Gaga her first major role as an actress. Kardashian’s casting seems to belong to the same P.R.-rousing category. On the show, Kardashian plays Siobhan, a publicist who represents Anna (Emma Roberts), a young actress who has languished for years on a CW teen soap but is finally getting her big break after starring in a surprise-hit horror indie. The two women originally met in an I.V.F. support group, but Siobhan’s attempts to get pregnant, we learn, have not been successful, whereas Anna and her art-dealer husband, Dex, are on the verge of an embryo transfer, set to be administered by a “world-renowned fertility doctor.”
“A.H.S.: Delicate,” written by Halley Feiffer and based on Danielle Valentine’s novel “Delicate Condition,” is heavy on body horror and paranoia—an entertaining “Rosemary’s Baby”- and David Cronenberg-adjacent spectacle with some contemporary twists. Anna’s gynecological procedures are painful and ominous, taking place in a spare, cell-like operating room; she feels that she’s being followed and watched by various cloaked figures (celebrity stalkers? grim reapers?); her calendar app is mysteriously hacked; the suspiciously smarmy Dex is showing a new artist at his gallery who not only makes paintings using her menstrual blood but is also the spitting image of his dead first wife (“Sooo much prettier than Anna,” one of her online haters crows); and spiders and bird fetuses and women in jet-black wigs keep popping up willy-nilly in unexpected places.
In the midst of all this, Kardashian is actually pretty good. As several users have noted on Twitter, she seems to be channelling, in the role of Siobhan, someone like her mother and manager, Kris Jenner, a master of promotion and spin who is often seen as the force behind her daughters’ success. As one familiar with the easy shifts from personal to professional practiced by confidantes on the payroll, Kardashian makes the part feel lived-in. “Your joy is my joy. You’re my best friend,” Siobhan reassures a shaky and fatigued Anna, only moments after pressuring her to go on Andy Cohen’s talk show for the sake of her “Oscars campaign.”
But, if casting Kardashian in a Kris-style role is at least partly a P.R. stunt, I also found that it aligned in deeper, interesting ways with the logic of “A.H.S.: Delicate.” In the show’s title sequence, as portentous music plays, we see a collage of colorful flickering images: surgical implements, needles, knives, pearls, blooming and burning flowers, lipstick tubes, a stud-embellished stiletto. The point seemingly made here is expanded on in the episode itself: being a woman is an agonizing and violent business. The show is clearly commenting on the chauvinistic approach of the medical establishment. “Is it normal to feel this much pain?” Anna asks, wincing, as she’s wheeled out of her egg-extraction procedure. Told dismissively that “some achiness is always to be expected,” she is annoyed when the doctor prefers to communicate with Dex rather than with her. (The show quotes, too, from the Book of Genesis: “Unto the woman he said, ‘I will multiply thy pain and thy conception.’ ”) And then there is the matter of fame. “They think if a woman is in the public eye, she’s looking to be harrassed,” Siobhan tells Anna in her soothing So-Cal drawl. Putting these words in Kardashian’s mouth is clearly meant as a winking gesture, as if to say: if anyone knows about being a woman in the public eye, it’s her.
But Kardashian is also a prime example of a woman who has taken pain and alchemized it into worldly power. Since emerging as a public figure almost two decades ago, she has sculpted her own extreme, and extremely influential, version of femininity, seemingly nipping and tucking, exercising and starving her way to a new beauty ideal. (Her lightning-quick, much-publicized loss of sixteen pounds toward the 2022 Met Gala, in order to fit into a gown once worn by Marilyn Monroe, is just one recent example of this; her mysterious gain and subsequent loss of a plump posterior is another.) Watching her in the role of Siobhan, I was struck anew by her cyborgian features, as nearly immovable as a gorgeous statue’s. I’ve long thought that the Cronenbergian vision in which organic and synthetic meet, apparent in horror thrillers like “The Fly” or “Crash,” has come to its logical end point with Kardashian, and “A.H.S.: Delicate” drives the point home. “I feel like I’m violating myself,” Anna tells Siobhan, as she signs the body of a doll made in her likeness for a fan. “That’s called being an actress,” Siobhan answers. Yes, I thought. But also, perhaps, that’s called being a woman in the age of the Kardashians. ♦