Mean girls

Is “Scream Queens” subversive, or just plain sexist?

How Ryan Murphy’s latest horror-fest fits into the tradition of the sorority slasher

"The Chanels"/ Courtesy FOX

This review contains spoilers for season one of Scream Queens.

If you’re partial to gore, mysteries, and entitled blondes, allow me to point you in the direction of Scream Queens, the latest television offering from American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy. The series, now in its seventh week, centers on the fictional Kappa Kappa Tau sorority house, which is ruled by girls so mean they put Regina George to shame. The KKT sisters (and pretty much everyone remotely connected to them) are gradually picked off by a mysterious person in a red devil costume, who—in a burst of inventive genius—is referred to as the “Red Devil.” The source of the killer’s ire has yet to be revealed, but is probably connected to a death that occurred at the KKT house some two decades prior.

As long as you make no effort to unpack Scream Queen’s narrative—which is more often than not disjointed and nonsensical—the show is good, bloody fun. Emma Roberts fronts a strong cast as KKT president/despicable human Chanel Oberlin, who refers to her fawning besties as Chanel No. 1, 2, 3, etc. Jamie Lee Curtis seems to be enjoying herself as Dean Munsch, the wry administrator who forces KKT to accept all pledges (including, as Chanel puts it, the “fatties and ethnics”), and Niecy Nash’s earnestly inept security guard is a blessing to GIF-generators everywhere. The show’s stylized dialogue is caustic and mean-spirited, but so absurd that it elicits laughs. Take, for example, this weird little gem that one of the Chanels (played by Glee’s very own Lea Michele) lobbies at her love interest: “After our bonding session in the cemetery and our coitus interruptus in the haunted house, I got the feeling you and I are on the verge of becoming the next ‘it’ couple.”

The "Red Devil"/ Courtesy FOX

The “Red Devil”/ Courtesy FOX

But the real centerpiece of Scream Queens is the murders, which are as disgusting as you could hope for when it comes to primetime TV. Unwitting characters are stabbed, sliced, seared with boiling oil, impaled with a nail gun, and dismembered to the tune of “Backstreet’s Back.” Something very upsetting also happens with a lawn mower, but I will leave you to explore that one on your own. It’s little wonder that Scream Queens has invoked the ire of the Parents Television Council, which deemed the series “so horrific that is nearly impossible to know where to begin describing it.” (I would normally dismiss these fuddy-duddies, but Scream Queens does feature implied masturbation on a gravestone, so … point taken).

The series as whole is intended to be a parody of sorority-slasher films like Black Christmas and Sorority House Massacre. Broadly speaking, these movies see beautiful young co-eds, whose bodies are ripe for the slicing, disposed of in suitably bloody ways by a disgruntled or just downright psychopathic male. Fetishistic slayings of sexy women are hardly exclusive to this sub-genre, but there is something acutely Freudian about depicting the coolest, meanest, most unattainable girls getting defiled by a whack job with a chip on his shoulder. There is a moralizing slant to these films, too. Common tropes of sorority horror include deadly pranks, deadly secrets, deadly hazings, and—as Wired so eloquently put it—a “Head Bitch in Charge.” In other words, the sorority slasher is all about girls behaving badly and, ultimately, getting what they deserve.

Keke Palmer in "Scream Queens"/Courtesy FOX

Keke Palmer in “Scream Queens”/Courtesy FOX

Scream Queens winks at these tropes, but just what Murphy is trying to do with them remains a bit muddled. As of yet, most of the Red Devil’s victims have not been sorority sisters—at least not the most egregious ones. The killer has inventively disposed of inoffensive pledges, a security guard, a couple of frat boys, and an ice cream cone (don’t ask), but the meanest of the mean girls have emerged unscathed. In fact, in the most recent episode of the series, the Red Devil seems to deliberately leave one of the Chanels intact, unleashing his murderous ire on her boyfriend instead. For a horror series that centers on a sorority house, the body count of beautiful young women is surprisingly low.

Is Scream Queens subverting the sorority slasher’s tendency to revel in the bitchiness of female co-eds, and then sell them up the river as gruesome examples of what happens when girls fail to make nice? Possibly. There are moments when the show seems to be trying its hand at a sort of feminism-lite.  In one instance, Chanel and her friends call out a male student who makes a boorish attempt to hit on them, noting that “there is a killer on campus murdering women. When you treat us like meat, you’re no better than him.” Of course, it’s entirely possible that the scene was a not-so-effective attempt to satirize a spoiled little rich girl’s misappropriation of feminist creed; the altercation comes on the heels of Chanel’s efforts to sabotage a fellow KKT member’s bid for house presidency.

Abigail Breslin and Emma Roberts in "Scream Queens"/Courtesy FOX

Abigail Breslin and Emma Roberts in “Scream Queens”/Courtesy FOX

It seems more likely, then, that Scream Queens is building up its characters’ nastiness so that their deaths offer an ultimate moment of catharsis. Chanel in particular is so self-absorbed, racist, homophobic, and just generally wretched that by the end of a given episode, it’s hard to refrain from wishing that the Red Devil would hurry up and finish her off. (I could expend another 500 words chronicling the many abuses that Chanel levels at those around her, but consider these notable examples: she makes the KKT housemaid repeat a black slave’s lines from Gone With the Wind, refers to a barista as a “coffee donkey,” and tells one of the Chanels that she is liable to “end up in an asylum somewhere, staring at a wall and trying to nurse a watering can.”) Even the less offensive sisters spend an awful lot of time calling each other horrible names (“Farty,” “little sociopath,” “predatory lez”), and plotting to take one another down.

We are invited to laugh at these girls and their ridiculous lack of empathy, but Scream Queens’ gleeful focus on the sorority sisters’ internecine feuds is more of a misstep than it is insightful. With our increased awareness of campus rape culture and misogynist sexual hazings, it seems clear that the most unsettling aspects of Greek life are not the harms that women do to one another. So sure, Scream Queens is fun to watch if you don’t think too hard about it. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the show’s depictions of murders and mean girls will prove to be as hollow as the Red Devil’s mask.

Scream Queens airs Tuesday nights at 9/8c on Fox.

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