Ryan Murphy has a weakness for women having breakdowns. The TV show creator and director lives for the broken lady: the delusional, tempestuous middle-aged woman who’s lost all self-control, like the totalitarian cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester on Glee, or the actual witches of American Horror Story: Coven. In his latest horror anthology, Scream Queens, Murphy gives viewers the broken woman in her purest form—the still-young, still-pretty sorority president who hasn’t yet reached rock bottom. But she’s spiralling downward, and the audience has a front-row seat at her prolonged unraveling.
Scream Queens asks its viewers to root for the campus killer, who offs victims while wearing a shiny devil costume. Yet the most irresistible sin at the center of the series and all of Murphy’s shows isn’t devil worship. It’s diva worship: taking pleasure in the bad behavior of gorgeous women, like Joan Crawford abusing her children, or Naomi Campbell throwing a phone at her assistant. But Murphy’s divas never quite earn icon status—their hysteria is too deliberately constructed, and their hyper-articulate speeches are so obviously written by a gay man who wants viewers to adore them. They have two things that a gay icon simply can’t have: self-awareness and composure, meaning they’re so in control of their own madness that they’re never really at their worst.
More than your standard love-to-hate relationship with charismatic villains, the form of tender revulsion that Murphy champions comes from a long tradition of gay-male diva worship. Like many other gay men—including myself—Murphy finds beauty and high style in scenes of disgraced femininity: tantrums, train-wrecks, and freak-outs, and the runny mascara, wild eyes, and frizzed-out hair that come along with them. When Scream Queens’s Chanel throws a fit over her not-hot-enough pumpkin-spice latté, you can’t help but think of Faye Dunaway screaming about wired hangers in the gay cult classic Mommie Dearest.
The deep admiration Murphy has for the women he loves to watch melt down is a distinctly queer feeling—a mode of relating to female characters that tons of gay men experience. This queer infatuation with broken women isn’t so much schadenfreude as it is a complicated mixture of identification and dis-identification, at once a shared struggle and a well-earned condescension. The femininity that humiliates these divas is, after all, the same femininity mainstream culture often associates with gay men.
At their lowest, these women become heroes. In How to Be Gay, David Halperin describes the unlikely valor gay divas achieve through debasement: “Femininity in them gathers force, intensity, authority, and prestige,” he writes. “Femininity may lack social seriousness, but it is not bereft of passion or fury or dominance ... Divas disclose a form of power that gay men can claim as their own.”
The transformation of a woman into a gay diva is almost always an accidental, unintentional event—which is precisely what makes these heroines so magical. The divas who gay men worship are subjects of straight culture who become unintentional objects of queer obsession: Think Elizabeth Berkley water-boarding herself as a sex act in Showgirls, Little Edie doing an impromptu runway walk in the detritus of her Hamptons estate in Grey Gardens, Kim Richards making chicken salad alone in her kitchen on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Part of the fun of gay cultural appropriation is the very process of it, finding the things in straight culture that horrify or repulse other people and bringing out their hidden allure, their secret brilliance.
This is why, as Halperin points out, lots of gay men “routinely cherish non-gay artifacts,” why they “prefer Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives” to overtly gay shows like Queer as Folk, since the former give gay men opportunities to turn them “into vehicles of queer affirmation.” That the hallmark of Murphy’s horror fictions is their gross-out sensibility speaks to their underlying queerness. He challenges viewers to see, in these awful images, the unlikely elegance he does.
Murphy’s hags, crones, glamazons, and mean girls have all the makings of gay icons. They have the zaniness of Britney Spears, the unpredictability of Amy Winehouse—yet their self-awareness precludes them from becoming true divas. The defining quality of Murphy’s broken women is their preternatural eloquence—their astonishing facility with language. Their monologues are polished to the point of lifelessness. “That obese specimen of human filth scrubbing bulimia vomit out of the carpet is Ms. Bean. I call her ‘white mammy’ because she’s essentially a house slave,” Chanel says in the first few minutes of the Scream Queens pilot, delivering every word with nauseating lucidity.
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.