This Halloweentide, a new spoopy show graces us with its presence: Scream Queens. Ryan Murphy has once again blessed/cursed us with yet another television show; the font of his creative juices is ever-giving. As an avid American Horror Story fan, I was excited but also scared—frankly, I was worried Scream Queens would be AHS Season 5, because there were rumors of AHS going in a “different direction” this year. Thankfully, this was unfounded as American Horror Story: Hotel has premiered in all its provocative, disgusting psychosexual glory that we all love to be horrified and appalled by. As it turns out, Scream Queens is an entirely different beast than AHS. In its tongue-in-cheek, girl-power feel, you can see a sort of line of inheritance from AHS: Coven, the show’s third season. But take Coven, add in liberal doses of slasher flicks like Scream and Halloween, then multiply exponentially by Mean Girls, and you get an idea of what Scream Queens is like. Let’s take a closer look after the jump. Spoilers for the first season so far.
What is Scream Queens? Many things. It’s an ongoing slasher movie. A serial killer is running amok on a college campus, targeting the sisters and associates of a particular sorority, picking them off one by one in various gruesome ways. It’s a comedy. It’s fucking hilarious. The show utilizes one of my favorite kinds of comedy: over-the-top characters saying extremely absurd things but in such a genuine, serious way. Honestly, even more so than the writing, I give credit to the actors for this point—they have fantastic comedic delivery; I feel like they could make practically any line hilarious. It’s a parody. From Scream to The Shining and pretty much any sorority movie, many kinds of genre films are poked fun at. It’s commentary. It’s a positively brutal look at the Greek system, in particular sorority culture.
Now, I have no experience with the Greek system (my itty bitty Catholic liberal arts college had none) and I’m sure the show has people screaming #NotAllSororities. However, surely there are elements present in some facets of collegiate Greek system at some locations that need to be addressed if every year, university students still die in hazing incidents around the country. The biggest critique posed is the sorority as an oppressive, kyriarchal power structure. This also serves as a glaring clarion call that shows that women can uphold and carry on these kind of power structures, keeping down other women. Kappa Kappa Tau, the sorority in question in Scream Queens, is headed by the one and only Chanel Oberlin, played with icy perfection by Emma Roberts. Chanel is the epitome not of a vapid blonde sorority girl, but rather a destructive killer queen bee, ruling her drones with an iron fist. She has literally dehumanized her “minions” as she calls them by renaming them Chanel No. 2, Chanel No. 3, etc (someone told me that’s also a perfume joke?). The new pledge class is everything unacceptable to Chanel: “weirdos”, girls who aren’t stick thin, women of color, queer ladies, individuals who refuse to be stripped of their identities to fit some perfect, floofy mold of the ideal sorority sister. They’re here to rock the boat.
Scream Queens is definitely doing some things right, and aside from challenging the unjust power structures represented by Kappa Kappa Tau, another good thing is that it has a surprisingly diverse cast for teeny-bopper slasher genre. The “Chanels” are rich white girls dressed to the gills in ruffles and frills, but we have a decent variety of people otherwise. Although there’s nothing to say her character isn’t white, Gigi is played by Nasim Pedrad, an Iranian-American woman (whom you may know from SNL!). Looking for Latin@ representation, I initially overlooked Pete (whose last name it turns out is Martinez) because he’s pretty white-passing. However, he’s played by Mexican actor and musician Diego Boneta; far be it from me to discredit someone born and raised in Mexico to Hispanic parents, and who used to star in the telenovela Rebelde, as not Latino. It’s almost like I was projecting my expectations on what Latin@ characters should look/be like in pop culture! Shame on me.
Keke Palmer plays Zayday Williams, the only Black pledge for KKT, but not the only Black character on the show. The Dickie Dollar Scholars, a fraternity of spoiled rich golfers that is Kappa’s go-to for hook-ups, has but one member of color, a Black British guy with the most beautiful English accent, named, of course, Earl Grey, who has been featured quite prominently so far. There is also the private security officer hired to protect Kappa, Denise, who is at first glance a token “sassy Black woman”. But she shows she’s much more than that when she does things like educate the girls on how luminol (that blacklight CSI blood-detector) works by reacting to the iron in hemoglobin. Now, Ryan Murphy has not always received the best reviews for his inclusion of characters of color, and there has been some debate among viewers over whether Zayday was good representation or not.
Keke Palmer herself has spoken up in defense of the character, but all viewers are entitled to their opinion. Personally, I think Zayday is a super important character. When introduced to the new pledges, one might naturally assume Sklyer Samuel’s wide-eyed, idealistic, curly-blonde Grace would be Chanel’s challenger to the Kappa throne, but it is Zayday who runs in opposition (and spoiler: wins co-presidency). She will mark a new era of leadership for Kappa, and that is hella awesome.
In my opinion, Scream Queens is doing pretty well on queer representation too. Sam is an unabashedly out and proud lesbian with tattoos and short hair and a masculine presentation, and she’s also Asian, making her one of the few queer PoC to ever appear on TV. Nick Jonas plays Boone, a member of the Dickie Dollar Scholars who is gay. Okay, so he is pretty and fit and white, but it is nice to see a gay character at all in a fraternity. Although he is only out to one of his Dickie brothers, that brother is Chad Rockwell, the quintessential frat president/campus stud who nevertheless supports Boone unconditionally, sadly not always something we gay men can expect from our straight male friends. The biggest surprise came with Episode 5, where Chanel No. 3 came out as bi/pansexual. There had been growing romantic/sexual tension between her and Sam, but as she explained to Chanel No. 5, she didn’t think she was lesbian, but rather when she kissed Sam, it didn’t matter to her whether Sam were a girl or a boy. Yay for not adding to bi erasure, plus having a queer sister embedded in the sorority culture is pretty awesome (even if said sorority culture is in need of some major reform).
Now, just because there are good things and the show is funny as hell, doesn’t mean we don’t call out unacceptable bullshit, which also exists on the show. In going with Chanel’s love of dehumanizing the sisters, she’ll also find nicknames for those not worthy of being her minions, such as calling Sam “Predatory Lez”. In fact, she’s referred to as such so often by the other characters, it’s easy to forget her real name. One of the first characters killed off was a pledge nicknamed “Deaf Taylor Swift” by Chanel; this was a double blow because not only was a Deaf character killed so soon, but because of this she didn’t get a chance to really be known as a person—she was just an ableist caricature. Apparently, Ryan Murphy stated in an interview that after he worked with the actress for “Deaf Taylor Swift” he regretted killing her off so soon, but didn’t think he could re-work it to kill someone else instead. And of course, Sam was killed off in Episode 5, killing a queer character and a PoC with one stone. In all fairness, making it to Episode 5 in a Ryan Murphy horror show is quite an accomplishment itself, but it still sucked. I’m also worried about what this means for Chanel No. 3: it really seemed like things were going places with Sam and Chanel No. 3—does this mean No. 3’s queerness with be shelved or forgotten since her love interest was just murdered? Boone, our other queer character, was killed in the second episode too—only it was shown that his death was staged and he’s an accomplice to the killer (“homo-cidal” maniac anyone?). The gay white man survives, but the Asian lesbian gets it. I see your game, Ryan Murphy.
So should you watch Scream Queens? That, dear reader, is not something I can answer unequivocally. If you’re inexperienced with the genre and worried about watching a “slasher show”, the gore is really pretty low-key and very manageable for non-horror fans. Like I said, I find this show extremely funny, like Mean Girls laugh-out-loud kind of funny, but the style of comedy may not be for everyone. When the humor veers towards the offensive is likely to be a sticking point for some people, and rightly so. Nicknaming pledges “Deaf Taylor Swift” and “Predatory Lez” almost made me turn it off during the pilot. I get that the point is to show what a vile person Chanel is by how she treats people, but some things are just distasteful. A scene explaining how the Chanels only eat cotton balls for lunch is meant to be a commentary on trying to live up to body image expectations forced on women, but could be triggering for those dealing with eating disorders. The balance between biting comedic commentary and just being plain offensive is a fine, fine line.
This is disheartening, because there really is so much good about this show. I want to see this new pledge class, headed by Zayday, take on the unjust power structures led by the Chanels. I love seeing a show with so many different types of women, slaying the Bechdel test left and right. Look at this beautiful scene in which the Chanels, even though overall being a horrible model for true female solidarity, take on the patriarchal catcalling of some college asshats. This show has potential to really be feminist, even intersectionally feminist, but only if it can get its act together.
Have you watched or will you watch Scream Queens? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!!