Why is the internet obsessed with Sarah Paulson?

Viral TikToks and resurfaced interviews have made the queer star of ‘Ratched’ and ‘American Horror Story’ into an unlikely online hero for young people.

by Douglas Greenwood
20 October 2020, 9:43am

“If I say I hate white people, never ever am I talking about his lovely lady right here,” the user @iwantafrankoceanalbum proclaimed over Tiktok last month. “This is my queen hoe. I love her… Don't ever play with her in my presence. Any movie, any show, any thing that this girl is on? It’s automatically a 10 out of 10. You don’t even gotta watch it.”

She’s not alone in this opinion, but why only recently has she become so popular – particularly among young people? After all, 45-year-old Sarah Paulson has been working in the entertainment industry since 1994, but only in the last couple of years has it felt like the internet has fallen madly in love with her and her work.

A mainstay of American primetime television, for the first 15 years of her career, Sarah was a minor presence in a series of television shows and movies. In the late 90s and early 2000s, she appeared in short lived projects like Jack & Jill and American Gothic, as well as rom-coms like Nancy Meyer’s What Women Want.

She was present and patient, earning a Golden Globe nomination in 2006 for the comedy show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip but never experiencing a real ‘break out’ moment until much later in her career (more on that later). In some ways, that’s still not yet happened -- she isn’t a household in the same way her Carol co-star Cate Blanchett is. But to her most fervent fanbase, namely teens on Twitter and Tiktok, Sarah’s power is far greater than Cate’s. That’s the power of “this lovely lady right here” Sarah Paulson.

Alongside @iwantafrankoceanalbum’s TikTok -- which currently sits at 623k likes and Sarah herself has reposted -- social media has become a hotbed for Sarah Paulson stan content. The hashtag #sarahpaulson has over 190 million views on TikTok, while the stan account @fabepaulson has over 110,000 followers. Twitter fans warmly reminisce upon the time she went live on Instagram with Cate Blanchett mid-pandemic, and love to highlight “her power” when she’s on screen.

That, in part, has occurred thanks to her now regular roles in the works of Ryan Murphy, the director-producer she’s established a tight-knit relationship with. From her role as the medium Billie Dean Howard in American Horror Story: Murder House, to playing the lead prosecutor in The People vs O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, to lead star and executive producer of this year’s Ratched, the pair have simultaneously sailed a path to cult TV success.

The notion of ‘relatability’ is complicated in Hollywood, because it’s often grating and performative. But a willingness to share her life with fans via Instagram and Twitter, paired with her position as an openly gay woman in that industry, makes it easier for us to buy into the dazzling personality of Sarah Paulson. Since she first dated the actress Cherry Jones in 2004, Sarah has predominantly been linked to other women. She’s currently in a relationship with the legendary star Holland Taylor. “Her coming out, when she kissed Cherry Jones at the Tony Awards, was such a powerful moment,” 27-year-old Eleonora from Italy says. ”That played a huge part in me coming to terms, and accepting, my sexual orientation. Eleonora believes that Sarah would be her favourite actress either way thought, “queer or not.”

21-year-old Ahmad feels the same way, albeit through one of Sarah’s fictional characters. He first saw her on screen in American Horror Story: Asylum in which she played Lana Winters, a queer journalist who arrives at the titular asylum to interview a serial killer, but instead ends up in the clutches of a psychiatric nurse who performs conversion therapy on her. “I was truly caught off guard by how incredible she was in it,” Ahmad says now. “As someone who is still closeted, I really could relate to Lana Winters as well. Her character goes through such a tumultuous, unpredictable journey. I wasn’t aware she was queer until later on so it didn’t play a part in me becoming a fan, but it did give me a newfound appreciation to some of her performances.”

Her vast array of pop culture and queer-leaning roles have offered a number of entry points for different fans. For some, it’s AHS; for others, it’s her supporting role in Todd Haynes’ Carol, a film that has garnered an inexplicable cult following since its 2015 release. @sarahpaulsbean is a Sarah stan account on Twitter that’s followed Sarah since 2014, but really caught the bug when she joined the iconic all-woman ensemble of Ocean’s Eight in 2018. “It was the first time I saw her on the big screen and I immediately wanted to dedicate my whole life to her,” the admin, who chooses to remain anonymous says. “Her range as a performer, and her being the most awesome human being made me love her. That woman is hilarious, has a heart of gold, and a real galaxy brain. I could listen to her talk all day.”

This too is instrumental in understanding the lure of Sarah Paulson. Not only are her roles on screen so cleverly curated (if they’re not high level arthouse kino, they’re poppy things that people talk about, a la Bird Box), but she’s also refreshingly self-aware. Sarah’s dancing on talk shows single handedly spurred a TikTok trend; she regularly hosts fan Q&As and Lives on her Instagram page too, where she often goes off on tangents that see her speak in Scottish accents or call herself an “asshole”.

“Paulson is an actor of a particular calibre and familiarity for audiences, and her work is accessible to a huge variety of people via streaming,” Christina Newland, the critic and editor of the women, sex and desire in film anthology She Found It At The Movies says. “Many younger viewers may have practically come of age watching her in American Horror Story. Also, on the most basic level, I think Paulson has become such a meme-able figure because she is such a powerfully emotive performer with a very expressive face. Her roles have run the gamut. There’s a reaction shot of her for any occasion.” That’s a testament to her variety as a performer: “That woman’s range is extraordinary,” the admin of @sarahpaulsbean affirms. “She can serve you a good old suburban housewife role today, then the next, she can serve you a deranged and unhinged woman who you’d want to run away from in real life.”

Memeability, and a willingness to be memed, plays an instrumental part in a pop cultural entity being embraced by the internet. In the case of Nicki Minaj, her chaotic personality traits inadvertently made her a meme queen. But while she remains averse to it (or ignorant to the world’s perception of her as a humorous figure on the internet), Sarah Paulson has chosen to lean into it. By sacrificing her ego, and dancing stupidly on television, we come to like her more.

Sarah Paulson is thriving, but in a way that few that have come before have. She’s the face of Netflix’s most watched original series in 2020, at 45 years old -- an age that most women in the industry find the spotlight fading. Instead, Sarah is being framed by many as a ‘breakout’ actor, because a generation of young people have discovered her talents all over again. In some ways, the respect she has long deserved is finally catching up with her, and her ascension into the ‘household name’ realm is happening not as a result of longstanding industry adoration (she’s had that in spades already). Instead, it’s the work of her online stans, some of them who weren’t even born when she made her screen debut. Some actors need Oscars for validation. In the case of Sarah Paulson, 190 million teenagers knowing her name via TikTok feels far more prestigious.

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