Within the first five minutes of Ryan Murphy’s latest horror hybrid anthology series, Scream Queens, Chanel-clad lead bitch Chanel (Emma Roberts) delivers an opening montage to introduce us to life as the #blessed leader of Kappa Kappa Tau sorority at Wallace University. After meeting her minions she launches into an attack of the woman scrubbing her floors, giving her quite the introduction. “That obese specimen of human filth scrubbing bulimia vomit out of the carpet is Ms. Bean, but I call her white mammy because she’s essentially a house slave.”
IT ONLY TOOK FIVE MINUTES.
Murphy’s work lauds itself for focusing on the downtrodden, the underrepresented, the outcasts. He fills the casts of his shows (which are many) with actors and actresses who probably wouldn’t normally be cast in mainstream television programs. He’s singlehandedly revived the careers of esteemed actresses over 40 like Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett—making a whole new generation appreciative of their work. He dusted off the concept of the "anthology" series, so much so that we’re now berated by them on every network. The man even made Broadway palatable for the masses with Glee for six seasons on Fox.
He’s one of the most visible television showrunners out there. More than likely you’ve seen an episode of his work or are familiar with a star that he’s created—Murphy’s fingerprints are all over television. He hops from drama to comedy, horror to crime, musical to procedural, more often than not combining all of the above, so it’s hard to pin down a unifying theme in his work. But there is one that’s hard to ignore: his race problem.
As the number one cheerleader for the bullied and marginalized, Murphy sure has had a lot of problematic depictions of race, racist jokes, and racial stereotypes in his work. He 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.
On Glee, while Murphy acts like he’s showcasing diversity by having multiple black and Asian characters, he just ends up marginalizing them further, consistently pushing them to the sidelines. By the end of the series, Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) was practically silent, a mere background presence.
Murphy also doubled down on the stereotypes constantly: the sassy black girl, the smart Asian, the fiery Latina. Take for instance in season two, when Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) meets transfer student from the Phillipines (and future glee club member) Sunshine Corazon (Charice Pempengco) for the first time in the bathroom. She automatically assumes that Sunshine can’t speak English and decides that yelling in her face in broken English is the correct move.
Murphy dealt with race, perhaps most explicitly, in American Horror Story: Coven, where he showed the centuries-long battle between a coven of white and black witches (who loathe each other) in the racially charged backdrop of New Orleans. Kathy Bates played Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a fucking nightmare racist, who brutally tormented and murdered her slaves in exhausting detail. You’d think that she was beyond redemption from her behavior, but later in the season Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) made her severed, 200 year old head (remember, this is a Ryan Murphy show) watch Roots and footage from the civil rights movement. By the end of the episode, despite her boasting that she wasn't watching the footage, she was visibly moved—giving her a road to redemption that she certainly did nothing to deserve.
This isn’t to say that people can’t change or learn from their mistakes, but we’re so inundated with LaLaurie’s horrors through flashback and then supposed to feel sympathy for her because Queenie begins to that it feels like the racism in the show can be ignored or put aside because LaLaurie ends up learning a lesson at the end. As Kera Bolonik noted at Medium during the series’ initial run: "She's a sadistic psychopath, not only sadistic to her slaves, but to her daughters, too — and you don't recover from being that kind of person. It's who you are, even if you’ve been buried alive with your own thoughts for 200 years."
Even in Murphy’s shortlived sitcom, The New Normal, about a gay couple, David and Bryan (Justin Bartha, Andrew Rannells) and their future surrogate, Goldie (Georgia King)—a pretty progressive premise—there’s uncomfortable moments. Ellen Barkin’s Jane, the racist grandmother of Goldie who berates her granddaughter, is called out for being a bigot by her great-granddaughter and makes casual AIDS jokes. Don’t worry, she also says that Chipotle is "spanish food." But instead of being depicted as this deplorable person, we’re expected to accept that this is just who this character is—she’s your backwards, un-PC grandmother. There’s nothing we can do about it, wink.
Scream Queens carries on Ryan Murphy’s tradition of winking racism within those first five minutes and it continues to escalate from there. Towards the end of the two-hour premiere Chanel is hazing the future pledges by writing their physical flaws, in eyeliner, on their practically naked bodies. When she gets to Zayday (played by the black Keke Palmer) she greets her with "Hello hoodrat!" and then before she writes on her body, pauses, and announces that she has to go get white eyeliner so she can legibly scribble on Zayday’s black body. It’s topped off with a smirk from Roberts and an eyeroll from Palmer—seemingly an indication that this is just something the audience can gloss over.
Murphy’s fondness for this sort of thing is, for one, fucking racist, and for two, fucking lazy. While the majority of his work ends in a mess, he has envisioned and shaped the landscape of television in more interesting ways than other showrunners. You’ll never be bored with a Ryan Murphy show—a fact that New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum wrote about in 2012: "From the perspective of critics and fans alike, Murphy is an irritant, like cayenne pepper: he gets us all excited and then, a season or two in, we’re screaming and gulping down ice water and calling for the waiter. For years he’s been notorious for constructing fabulous pilots, then driving his inventions off a cliff."
For someone with such interesting foresight and the clear ability to manifest some of the most insane, fascinating television of the last decade (the “Name Game” anyone), Murphy really shouldn’t continue to need to fall back on tired, racist jokes and racial stereotypes with such (I’m so sorry) obvious glee. The racism in Scream Queens is blatant and gross—that "white mammy" moment left me uncomfortably squirming for days after—which is unfortunate, because in such a dismal fall TV lineup, Scream Queens is pretty decent. But if "white mammy" is what we get in the premiere episode, imagine what we’ll get as the episodes go on. He’s built a career on these types of jokes, so there’s no stopping him. Keep in mind, this is also the man bringing the O.J. Simpson story to our screens in February.
So, either you tune in or you don’t.