On Tuesday night, I had a pen and notebook in my lap and Scream Queens on my TV. The horror-comedy brought to us by prime time's enfant terrible Ryan Murphy and his oft partner, Brad Falchuk, had earned the ire of critics, primarily for, as one New York Times Critic points out, “their penchant for making any story, regardless of its subject matter or genre, deal largely in representations of (and gags about) gender, sexuality, race, class and whatever other categories they deem worthy of breaking down.”
In the case of the two-hour premiere, the racial bigotry was so rampant, that not much else was noticeable. There was the mammy “joke.” There was the horrific request for white eyeliner to draw words on a black pledge. There was the glaringly obvious caricature of security guard, Denise Hemphill.
Of the two black women in the cast, Zayday Williams (KeKe Palmer) gets the most screen time as a Kappa Kappa Tau pledge who rolls her eyes, bobs her head, calls her her soon-to-be sorority sisters ‘ratchet,’ and reveals to her roommate that her mother wants her to be the next President Obama. She’s sassy, she’s black, and she’s identical to any number of young, sassy, black women with natural hair thrown into an ensemble cast of pretty white teens to suck her teeth and good naturedly accept the racist jabs of her peers.
Then there’s Denise Hemphill, a bumbling security guard who explains that she is ill-equipped to adequately protect the Kappa Kappa Tau girls from a masked killer because her phone has been shut off. Her first suggestion, should the murderer appear, is to “scream Denise Hemphill’s name real loud.” She prefers a double burger. She hood. She street. She is played by Niecy Nash WHO HAS AN EMMY and she deserves more than the cliché Murphy, Falchuck and Brennan have written for her – a caricature that was more hurtful to me than Chanel Oberlin’s insistence that her “house slave,” say “I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies.”
Scream Queens was racially problematic.
Scream Queens was demeaning.
And the internet was pissed.
I'd gathered my own thoughts into a critique with an anger fueled by tuning in to four seasons of American Horror Story.
Four seasons of enjoying the mayhem, the horror, and the musical score.
Four seasons of hoping that the show runners might treat its female characters with more respect.
Four seasons of being disappointed by the tactlessness with which Murphy and Falchuk treated their minority characters, specifically the women of color who were, by and large, painted with such broad, stereotypical strokes you would think a bigot held the paintbrush. (Before you get riled up – yes, I am aware that Alma from season two did not fall victim to the black, sassy caricature, but she was in, like, three episodes.)
American Horror Story is the only show that’s honored the horror genre on TV since I got to stay up past my bedtime to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's visionary. It's fun. It's a meta-camp-delightful and despite a disappointing last season, it can be really fucking scary. So, I was excited – though that excitement was tempered with some wariness – for Scream Queens.
And after the two-hour premiere, I was as pissed off as the rest of the internet.
I had a bone to pick with Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan who were solely responsible for the reprehensible script.
I respect satire. I enjoy vicious humor that makes viewers uncomfortable because of how closely it presses against actual bigotry, actual ignorance, or actual hate. I know that this close, ceaseless lens focused on society is part of Murphy et al's MO.
Some critics are willing to label the persistent racism of Murphy's shows as crooked brilliance. Some viewers are willing to give him a free pass. I am not for one simple reason: you can't take part in jeering at problematic behavior and also be part of a problem and too often, Ryan Murphy's shows are part of the problem.
It would be one thing if Scream Queens just spewed hate through the mouths of its leading pretty white girls. It would be one specific thing: namely, racism. As Kerensa Cadenas of Complex aptly states, “[Murphy] knows what he’s doing—there’s always a wink, a hair flip, a smirk to acknowledge the tongue-in-cheek nature of his jokes—but that doesn’t lessen the vileness of these moments on his shows. In fact, it makes it feel even worse because as the audience, we’re supposed to just accept them.”
But the problem with Scream Queens extends beyond its problematic script. The first two episodes were also clearly participatory in the stereotyping of black women. In his excellent analysis of the premiere in The Los Angeles Times, Greg Braxton observes, “there are only two black female characters in the cast, both variations of the sassy black female personas Murphy has presented before…”
Not only did the first two episodes of Scream Queens disrespect black women through the mouths of its characters, it also reduced them to stereotypes that played into its Queen Bee’s bigoted ideology.
So on Tuesday, I was ready to crank out a few more observations and write up an impassioned dismissal of the show. I was ready to turn my back on Murphy, Falchuk, and yes, even American Horror Story. And then I watched Scream Queens.
And I was surprised.
The hate speech was toned down and the caricature status of all the characters was turned up all the way.
Was it offensive that Denise only knew how luminol worked because she uses it on her Arby's sandwiches? Yes, but it's no more offensive than a sorority girl gloating over being Eiffel-towered by a pair of brothers or the singular stupidity of a pack of frat guys, roaming the streets of a college town in matching white outfits to the swelling chorus of "Backstreet's Back."
Now, with a more palatable (and more amusing) episode of Scream Queens in my mind and the premiere of American Horror Story: Hotel on the horizon, I'm feeling more than a little conflicted.
Will Scream Queens continue to feature privileged white bigots mocking their minority peers while continuing to make a mockery of black women by promoting hurtful stereotypes, or will it continue to amp up the satire and unreality until critique is a moot point? Were the caustic first two episodes intentionally incendiary? After all, Scream Queens premiered second to The Muppets and the ratings jumped up last Tuesday.
More importantly, does it matter if the bigotry splashed across Scream Queens' premiere along with all the bloodshed was unapologetic or an attempt to goad us into tuning in?
Either way, the show is stained for me, and I'm not sure the why and how of it matters.