WOMEN
09/29/2015 02:38 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2015

Does 'Scream Queens' Creator Ryan Murphy Have A Woman Problem?

Tired tropes about women shouldn't be celebrated.
Fox

Over a successful, decades-spanning career as a writer and television showrunner, Ryan Murphy has been at the helm some of the most groundbreaking and popular shows on TV. But in the process, he's been called out for creating series that rely on harmful stereotypes, racist and homophobic humor. His latest show, "Scream Queens," which premiered on Sept. 22, not only failed to draw in viewers but has also been criticized for its special off-putting brand of "hipster racism," where white characters spew blatantly racist, homophobic, and ableist language for the sake of being "edgy." 

But what "Scream Queens" also demonstrates is that Ryan Murphy has a women problem -- one that often goes under the radar, since so many of his shows have women-focused storylines and ensembles.

Murphy is a showrunner who, on paper, is wildly progressive. His last few series, which include "American Horror Story," "Glee," and "The New Normal," tick almost every box on the diversity chart. Brimming with meaty roles, these shows feature ensemble casts that consist mostly of disabled, minority, LGBT and female characters. 

But the conundrum and perhaps the trap of Murphy's work is that despite diverse casts and the desire to tell nuanced stories, his shows are so often rife with tokenism and stereotypes that it undercuts whatever positive diversity is at play. 

"Scream Queens," finds much of its humor through the lazily offensive. Emma Roberts plays sorority girl Chanel who casually refers to her maid as a "white mammy," and derisively laments a new inclusivity policy that forces her all-white sorority to start accepting, as she describes them, "fatties and ethnics." Meanwhile, original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis plays a dean who spouts vaguely shame-y second-wave speeches about women and sexuality.

Murphy and the stars of his shows defend this as "satire." And of course, satire is a great tool for biting commentary -- if it's good. Unfortunately, obtuse, obvious, and outdated ideas masked as satire has become the showrunner's calling card. 

While Murphy must be commended for creating roles for women (especially for older actresses like Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett), the at times misogynistic undertones of his shows should not. 

The "American Horror Story" series is filled with female characters who play into damaging generalizations about women. In "Murder House," there's the baby-obsessed, crazy ex-girlfriend (played by Kate Mara) and the superficial bitch in "Coven" (played by, surprise, Emma Roberts). Women are systematically tortured and brutalized, often for expressing their sexuality (think Lana and Shelley in "Asylum"). And the older female characters always seem to be singularly obsessed with youth, as in "Freak Show" and "Coven," where both season-long narratives buy into the idea that a woman's power and beauty will always diminish with age. 

And it's not just tired stereotypes that are played on for laughs and narrative drive. Every season of "American Horror Story" has included rape as a plot device. Usually, as in the case of last year's "Freak Show" in which Grace Gummer's character Penny is raped, sexual assault is used merely as a demonstration of the general depravity that runs rampant in the world of the show. Or else rape is used as the catalyst for some hackneyed revenge plot. In the first episode of "Coven," Emma Roberts as mean girl Madison Montgomery uses her witchy powers to kill a group of fraternity brothers who take advantage of her. This is one of several rape storylines in "Coven" that play out in one episode and are never returned to. The real impact rape has on victims, of course, rarely gets wrapped up neatly in a one-hour story arc.

On "AHS," and now on "Scream Queens," Murphy uses the brutalization of women as a shock tactic rather than a real commentary on the way female bodies are treated in our society. 

It would be far too simplistic to merely call Ryan Murphy sexist. There's nothing black-and-white in his depictions of women, which is to say, it's not all bad. Amidst the objectification and brutalization are storylines in which lead female characters are empowered through sisterhood and self-determination. When Lana triumphs over her abusers on "Asylum," or Chanel is forced to face the consequences of her racism on "Scream Queens," it's still something of an on-screen victory. 

Perhaps that's what's ultimately so unsettling about the underlying sexism in Ryan Murphy's shows, and in so many other TV shows that are applauded for shining a spotlight on strong female characters. It seems as though in order to enjoy them, one must turn a blind eye to those moments, however infrequent they are, that make us cringe. Entertainment that provokes and, yes, even offends us, can be vital, and it can start important conversations. But Murphy has launched six shows in as many years that seem to be saying the same things about women over and over again.

What's the point of starting a conversation that doesn't go anywhere? 

Correction: An earlier version of this article named Lana as a character in "American Horror Story: Coven." She is actually a character in "American Horror Story: Asylum."  The article has been updated to reflect this change. 

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