Here’s the thing about Ryan Murphy: he has no boundaries. If there’s a line, he will go out of his way to cross it, and then cross it again, and then draw a new line, and cross that one too. The evolution of his creative approach has been fascinating to watch. Seemingly squeaky-clean Glee always had a bit of a dark side, and now we’re being captivated by his latest offerings in the same way as a car crash—you just can’t look away.
Murphy’s shows are all about shock value, whether that means an excessively gory and detailed scene of dismemberment, outlandishly racist/sexist/homophobic/generally awful dialogue, or over-the-top sex scenes that make you scramble to switch the channel when your parents pop their heads in to say goodnight. Everything about these shows will keep you up at night. Murphy knows how to get people talking, and he often uses strong female characters to do it.
How should we feel about the puppet master behind the horror heroines we love to hate to love? There are two sides to the story here: on the one hand, Murphy has given us some extremely problematic female protagonists whose “offensive” (read: loud, obnoxious and borderline discriminatory) behaviour aims for satire and sometimes feels more like an exercise in shock value. On the other hand, there’s Murphy’s undeniable talent for creating complex and interesting backstories for his fictional women, good and evil, not to mention bringing horror to mainstream television audiences. Both Scream Queens and American Horror Story combine elements of classic horror films with music video style, a unique aesthetic appeal and host of female leads. The plotlines are exaggerated and chaotic, but they’re also horrific masterpieces that happen to feature incredibly charismatic women of all ages (from Emma Roberts to Jessica Lange!) at the helm.
Take, for example, Lana Winters, the lesbian journalist of AHS: Asylum, played by Sarah Paulson. Lana is trapped when she seeks to infiltrate the twisted world of Briarcliff Mental Institution and becomes the subject of her own story. At first we’re impressed, then we fear for her life, then we’re rooting for her, then we cringe as we watch her noble intentions come crumbling down in the face of fame and fortune. Her character arc informs the tone of the entire season, leaving us both confused and intrigued.
Then there’s Chanel Oberlin. Emma Roberts plays the sadistic sorority sister of Scream Queens who talks a big game, while struggling to mask the cracks in her shiny persona. Chanel is the classic villain we all love to hate, not just pushing the envelope, but ripping it to shreds. As problematic as her dialogue can be (her insults cross into dangerous territory, voicing jokes the writers could never get away with in the real world), there’s no denying she’s a character we want to see more of. I could watch her walk angrily down a hallway for hours.
Murphy’s most recent scream queen (outside of Scream Queens) is Lady Gaga—er, The Countess—on American Horror Story: Hotel. Lady Gaga has always been stranger than fiction IRL, but now, thanks to Ryan Murphy, she exists in the world of television as well. When The Countess rides into a ‘70s nightclub on a horse wearing 85 ft. of hair, there’s no question this character is essentially just Gaga being Gaga. And from what we’ve seen of her so far in AHS: Hotel, it’s clear that she’s the one running the show. She owns every room she enters, she keeps her men on leashes, she likes things done a certain way, and she makes no apologies. I’m terrified of her. I’m fascinated by her. She’s amazing.
All three of these women are powerhouses in their own ways. They aren’t victims, but rather create their own opportunities and control their own fates. They don’t sit passively on the sidelines waiting to be rescued; they take matters into their own hands and make things happen. Say what you will about him, but we’ve got Ryan Murphy to thank for putting them front and centre on our screens.
This piece is part of Galloween, Cinefilles’ month of all-girl horror coverage. Click the image to read more.