In Defense Of “Scream Queens,” “American Horror Story” & Ryan Murphy
We are living in a moment when we are not just aware of diversity, or the lack thereof, we are obsessed with it. In society, this is a good thing—encouraging people to leave their comfortable bubbles, to engage in cross-cultural conversations, and to realize both the global and national necessity of broadening your horizons. But in the entertainment world, it’s very obviously becoming a boardroom nightmare. Obviously, a Hollywood that only reflects a white, heterosexual reality is not only unrealistic, but perpetuates stereotypes and actively disenfranchises voices of color, different sexualities and gender identities. But the internet has the perked up ears of wolves on a full moon, just waiting to howl at any trace of stereotyping or the lack of a certain kind of character on a network show. And nothing could make this more obvious than this crop of fall television premieres, many of which are obviously crumbling from the pressure to satisfy the needs of every demographic, with every episode, of every show (see Quantico, a show trying so desperately to represent every identity possible that they created a Mormon rapist character).
Alas, there is someone working very hard to provide an alternative to both completely white-washed pulp and stringently codified hogwash, and for some reason we are incredibly unappreciative of him. That person’s name is Ryan Murphy. He has been courageously championing an alternate kind of entertainment for years now, and still we pan and condescend to someone who’s doing us the big favor of not being condescending.
Murphy began his reign in 2009 with “Glee,” a show I can admittedly say has never spoken to me outside a few drunk karaoke songs. But that’s the whole point: Ryan Murphy’s shows are unapologetic about not intending to speak to everyone. What I can admit about “Glee” is that it very obviously gave voice (no pun intended) to a whole slew of characters that hadn’t been put in predominant roles before — queer people, disabled people, people who don’t fit Hollywood’s usual body image standards, etc. — but without the nauseating sentimentality that a lot of entertainment execs seem to think marginalized people must be treated with on screen.
And then Murphy took the horror genre. People have a lot to say about “American Horror Story,” especially about everything that came after the immaculate first season, but they never quite seem to grasp the show’s perpetual nuance, which perhaps goes over the heads of viewers who want it to be more like the clean-cut T.V. they are used to. Yes, there are some silly plot lines, confusing writing and unrelatable characters, but that’s because, with each season, Murphy creates a world of extremes that seem designed to speak to the parts of ourselves that we all tend hide away—and he plays with diversity in order to get this point across. I mean wasn’t the greatest irony of season one of “AHS” that the character with Down syndrome knew better than everyone else what was actually going on—and in creating that irony in the show Murphy also catapulted an actor with Down syndrome, Jaimie Brewer, to fame.
Now Murphy has taken that pattern to what can only be its pinnacle with “Scream Queens,” a satire made for primetime that is apparently ungodly to some. Granted, “Scream Queens” is getting stellar ratings, but the reviews have been adamant about categorizing it as filth. Really? Are we actually turning up our noses at a shows described as “‘Heathers’ meets ‘Scream’”?
On “Scream Queens,” we view the world through the lens of everyone’s disdain. The anti-feminist feminist Dean Munch (Jamie Lee Curtis) hates the current sorority girls who represent the same people who iced her in college, while also being the worst kind of manipulative, man-hunting woman. Nasim Pedrad’s sorority girl turned lawyer, Gig, is undermined by the fact that she might be a psychotic baby kidnapper. Lea Michele’s weirdo character is understanding to the point of being literally up for the worst kinds of ideas. Niecy Nash’s campus security guard character, Denise Hamphill, mocks the whole idea of being the “sassy black character” by being exactly that x 1000.
And then there’s the character of Chanel, played by Emma Roberts, who, in this past week’s episode, was revealed to be made of the exact kind of stuff Ryan Murphy’s brilliance is made of—she is a Taylor Swift parody, in that she embodies the crazed, power hungry underside of Swift’s squeaky clean façade. Nothing could have made this more clear than last week’s “Chanel-o-ween” episode, which torched Swift for hand-delivering gifts to her most adoring fans last Christmas. At the time, most people wrote about how sweet Swift was, but Murphy illuminated what the whole schtick was really about, with a scene in which Chanel is preparing the presents and handwriting the cards, encouraging one “frumpy spirit” fan to “post this on social media for my own gain.” I’m sorry, but Ryan Murphy showed how big his balls are by standing up to Taylor Swift on this scale, and that makes him unimpeachable, dammit.
Of course, the newest iteration of “AHS” is here, “Hotel,” and people are taking the opportunity to call it “garbage” as well. They are somehow capable of criticizing Murphy’s characters without putting them in the context of their own worlds, something I didn’t know was possible for a TV critic. Sorry, but you can’t compare the anal rape scene on “AHS” to a girl trying to lure a guy in with promises of anal sex on “Scream Queens” – one is using extremes to remark on the sexual undertones of the horror genre, the other is parodying the trope of anal sex being some kind of trump card – yet one writer tried to use them to cancel each other out.
No, Murphy doesn’t always get it right. Last season of “AHS” was pretty boring, but it still gave us something no other series is offering—horror with a pop culture edge. And no, Murphy doesn’t always land the diversity meta commentary that he’s capable of, as evidenced by the five incredibly similar looking white men who were cast on “Hotel.” But at the same time, Murphy manages to make entertaining, boundary-pushing television which recognizes that all of us, regardless of race, sexuality, or gender identity, have the capacity to be catty, jealous, cruel, selfish, desperate and insecure, and that’s something to thank him for.