And then there’s Sue Sylvester in Glee. “I hate you, Will Schuester,” she tells her glee-club rival without the slightest trace of hesitation. “And I will stop at nothing until I see you homeless in the streets drinking gutter runoff and allowing passersby to perform lewd acts on your butt-chin for money. You are a fatuous, dim-witted borderline pederast who tears up faster than a gay jihadi in a sandstorm.” Murphy’s messy women are too clean—in their prose, their poise, their overall precision. With their readiness and willingness to sate viewers’ desire for disgrace, they are coherent, sanitized, practiced. They’re not just in on the joke—they’re making the joke for us.
This is what happens when the appropriator assumes the position of creator, when the diva-worshipper becomes her author. In writing these female characters, Murphy is less a storyteller than a Dr. Frankenstein who misguidedly builds his creatures from the parts of others. The results are monsters missing a heart, woman grotesqueries without a soul.
In the Scream Queens series premiere, viewers meet the Kappa Kappa Tau pledge class—misfits the dean forces Chanel to allow in. The seeming biggest loser is Jennifer, a self-described candle vlogger who posts online reviews of her favorite scented candles. Many gay diva-worshippers recognized the cutaway clip of her sniffing a candle top on YouTube as a nod to real-life candle vlogger Angela Julius—YouTube user Az4angela—whose video recounting a bad experience at a Bath & Body Works in Wisconsin went viral last year. Her strange, hypnotic, rage-filled rant resonated particularly strongly with young gay men, one of whom went so far as to ask fellow Tumblr users, “Do you accept az4angela as your lord, savior, and true gay icon?”
But Murphy’s fictional version of Angela lacks the thing that unexpectedly endeared the original candle queen to a gay audience: her vulnerability. The confessional intimacy with which Angela addresses her camera is inimitable, iconic. To even try to replicate it is futile.
Murphy is at his funniest when he’s in uncharted territory—not referencing past icons but making new ones. Take, for example, Tiffany DeSalle, the Scream Queens pledge known as Deaf Taylor Swift. A hearing-impaired Taylor superfan, she mistakes everything around her as a Taylor Swift reference. When her friends are screaming in response to the killer approaching behind with a lawnmower to decapitate her, she thinks they’re all singing “Shake It Off.” The bit is downright weird, wrong, and awfully delicious—a sign not of divadom but of Murphy’s own brand of perverse, offbeat humor.
In American Horror Story: Hotel, Murphy has cast Lady Gaga as his newest diva, introduced as a “blood-sucking fashionista.” The choice seems safer than anything he’s done before—to hire an actual gay icon to play the role of an outsized diva. The two pop titans are well-matched collaborators: Both Gaga and Murphy have been central forces in the larger move to mainstream gay culture. Like AHS and Scream Queens, Gaga's early music videos made queer images that were once subcultural into prominent, widely appreciated pleasures. The assimilation of gay sensibility into the norm is a noble project, but it also takes away from the subversive potential of queer feeling and thinking.
The point of gay-male diva-worship is that decision to take a woman everyone else dismisses or ignores and transform her into something special. A diva written or created by a gay man is too easy, too obvious—there’s no interpretive work for its consumers to do. Murphy would do a better service to his viewers, gay and straight alike, if he made them work harder for better laughs: The pleasures of popular entertainment are worth more when you have to look for them yourself.