Ryan Murphy Is Trolling Us With American Horror Story

by Tami Winfrey Harris

You are reading this online, so you are undoubtedly familiar with the nefariousness of trolls. Trolls, of course, being those who purposely provoke their audience, often through sexism, racism and other inflammatory actions. They are less concerned with the harm they cause than what they deem their personal “free speech.” Oh, and lulz…they do it for the lulz. Now, online trolls, like the recently-unmasked Violentacrez, known for running threads like Misogyny, Jewmerica, Jailbait and…wait for it…Niggerjailbait, rightly earn the enmity of all right-thinking people. But TV trolls earn huzzahs from mainstream critics and more viewers for their creative output. Just ask Ryan Murphy.

Murphy is a television screenwriter, director, and producer, know for work, including Nip/TuckThe New Normal, Glee and American Horror Story, which is now in its second season on F/X. American Horror Story is an homage to frights on film–a pastiche of tropes, classic horror scores and anything-can-happen, edge-of-the-seat shocks. Each season of the show introduces a new balls-to-the-wall storyline. This season, true-to-form, in just four episodes of American Horror Story: Asylum, Murphy has thrown us a serial killer; two demonic possessions and an exorcism; aliens; man-eating, forest-dwelling zombie thingies and a mutilating Nazi doctor. He has also assaulted us with his trademark casual racism, ableism and disregard for marginalized people.

Using off-hand slurs and un-PC narrative is as much a part of American Horror Story’s schtick as devil babies and overt sexuality. In season one, a scenery-chewing Jessica Lange, as Constance Langdon, spouted lines like “Why can’t you people just be content with having pets? Why must you subject an innocent child to your perversions?” (to a gay character)” and called her daughter with Down’s Syndrome “a Mongoloid.” This season, in episode three of the series, we are treated to Lange as Sister Jude, along with everyone else, referring to a Latina patient derisively as “The Mexican.” But it was with Wednesday’s episode of American Horror Story that Murphy cemented his trolling credentials. This week, who should be ushered in to the Briarcliff Mental Institution’s hellish halls, but Anne Frank (or at least a woman who claims to be Anne Frank), who has hidden her survival of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp so that her recently-published book can continue to inform the masses of the Holocaust’s horrors.

World War II and Nazism have been used as fodder for drama, and even comedy, before. But belittling evil men, as in say Hogan’s Heroes or Inglorious Basterds is different than appropriating the life of a young victim of evil men. What next? Will Emmett Till show up as an asylum orderly?

American Horror Story recappers seem to be titillated by all this. On Salon, J. Bryan Lowder wrote:

As far as I can tell, there’s no word in English (but probably one in German!) for the reaction that most recappers experienced when Anne Frank shuffled into Briarcliff last night—something  like gasping, cringing and being turned-on by the brashness of it all, simultaneously. Call me crass, but I just kind of took her arrival in stride; are we really surprised that Murphy would make a move like this in an already delightfully ridiculous show?

The problem is that Ryan Murphy uses “isms” not so much for character or plot development (The narrative doesn’t need Lange to call a patient with microcephaly a “pin head,” as it doesn’t need Anne Frank to out the background of the asylum’s resident doctor.). Murphy has no message to deliver that I can see. He does is all for no greater good that demonstrating American Horror Story’s clever edginess, to turn us on “by the brashness of it all.” He does it to provoke…or maybe for the lulz.

I am not convinced that this kind of manipulation is more worthwhile than an asinine Reddit subthread. It is certainly no more enjoyable for me.

Look, there are ugly people in the world. Of course there will be characters and story lines in art that reflect that ugliness. But racism and antisemitism and homophobia are not jokes–least of all to the people still subjected to them. The subjects, at least, ought to be handled with thought and care, not levied for crass attention-grabbing.

  • Dee

    Yes, I was thinking the same thing last night when I saw an episode glee. One of the black characters said, “who want Justin Bieber hair?” and the white character said, “half black guys who can’t grow it.

    and the comment was so off hand. When the show first started I thought it was about these outcasts taking a stand, but what’s really happened is their just being bombarde with horrible comments. It’s supposed to be a comedy but that really got to me.

  • gmarie

    what? I don’t even get that joke lol. No wonder I haven’t watched Glee since season 2. Reaching and failing to be provocative…just give us good tv

  • http://valsotherblog.wordpress.com Val

    “racism and antisemitism and homophobia…”

    Unfortunately, Tami, this kind of entertainment has become the norm, again. Many people ignore the hipster-racism on shows like 30 Rock and all of the adult cartoons on Fox, which in many minds is a green light to show more of it.

  • CeeCee

    I noticed that as well and it upset me for the rest of the episode.

  • Apple

    I thought maybe they were relating to how people in America talked in the 50/60s like insensitive misogynic homophobic anti semantic racist . But i think they are totally unnecessary and isn’t shocking but more cringe worthy and a bit irritating

  • http://twitter.com/JumpJunkieJoe Geechee Goddess (@JumpJunkieJoe)

    I’m confused. Maybe it’s because I don’t really watch Glee, I can only make my statements based on Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story because I am a fan of both. I haven’t been offended by either because the truth is there are people who talk like that. I don’t understand why there are so many out there who don’t want to believe that ignorance and prejudice exsist. Why so many get offended by it when they see it on tv when we all work with people like this is beyond me. I’ve know a mother who told her 4 year old daughter “I should have had an abortion”. I think Murphy uses such harsh language because for the first time on television you’re seeing characters that mimick real people. It’s a lot more believable. It adds depth to the characters. It makes you wonder, why is this woman you so hateful? What is her back story? And later he eventually reveals some type of back story. I plan on continuing to watch the show because I have yet to be offended but have been very much entertained.

  • mEE

    …I thought the gLee joke was funny :-/. it was actually the only time I laughed during the entire episode.
    I mean did that comment bother you more than all the HORRIBLE things Sue said about Unique?

  • __A

    Yes. The queen of this kind of comedy is Chelsea Handler.

  • Dee

    Oh no, it all bothered me.

  • CenterLeft

    See all sorts of “groups” being made into laughing stocks and punching bags. Short, fat, “nose”, sexual orientation, foreign country, &c. It should be happening to all people or no people…

  • Catpopstar

    Maybe the problem is that the show appears to condone this behavior instead of speak against it.

  • Ednrina

    I thought I was the only who noticed. I cant stand her.

  • http://twitter.com/0oIAMSHEo0 IAMSHE (@0oIAMSHEo0)

    Television shouldn’t guide your moral compass. It’s NOT REAL. The characters may have depth but they DO NOT exist. Plus this is the same show that has put interracial and homosexual relationships out in the fore. I’m not convinced that this attempt to call Ryan Murphy a troll is anything more than being mad that someone said something with which Ms. Winfrey Harris disagrees as is the tendency for more and more people.

    I quite enjoy the show and wasn’t offended at all but I am offended that people are offended. It shows a lack of self-reflection.

  • Avril

    This “trolling” is televsion now. This is the new normal. I personally can’t stand it but the masses are happy with it. It gets people close to what they really want to say,hear, or do in real life but due to how P.C. we are, can’t/won’t do it themselves. Sure, media should not be our moral compass but sadly, there is a segment of our population that it IS their moral compass. That ridiculous movie “Project X”; people got killed trying to “re-create it”….and there’s a sequel in the making!! As a country, we need to get our ish together, but as long as people are entertained and ads are being watched I would expect more of this.

  • Catpopstar

    I am not saying that this show should be a moral compass. TV shows do not exist in a vacuum. They are integrated in our culture and deserve a deeper look. It is said that you can find out a lot about a society from the entertainment, after all.

  • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

    Agreed! I can’t stand Chelsea Handler. But Val is right entertainment like this is becoming the norm because people either ignore it or don’t want to come off as “sensitive” so they let it slide.

  • Me

    catpopstart- why in the world did someone minus your comment? It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. Who has a problem with that?

  • Me

    This is a response to the television shouldn’t be a moral compass comment and those similar retorts that happen when people begin to point out media that is an influence on our image.. There are a lot of should nots in this world. But, the is fact is that television is a large influence on perceptions of what is appropriate, especially with children and youth….To be blind to this fact is far more dangerous for a woman of color, or any minority, than to be aware of it…This is why we have the NEED for programs like Black Girls Rock. This is why Brown Vs. Board experiments were recently replicated with the same result from pre-civil rights days. This is why we protest BBW Evelyn Lozada and try to provide better examples for young girls. This is why Jewish people have a task force on watch for them which helps ensure that they are not denigrated in the media to the degree that led an entire country and world being okay with their destruction. Subtle messages which are repetitive matter in real life, even if this doesn’t match with our theories of what humans should do- this is real. Media (pre-televised) was the foundation for slavery in a world where blacks were already intermingled, accomplished and world leaders. Media influences how people treat immigrants today- you don’t need a psychology degree to understand the influence…

    Prejudice is shaped by media, propaganda and all its forms among other things…Television has guided election results, reinforced prejudice against black mothers and black men especially in the 1980′s. before it went hard in on the image of black women in the 1990′s and early 2000′s. And, it sure as heck is a guide and barometer for what is okay culturally in America- that is 100% real and having a problem with someone (catpopstar) actually acknowledging and rationalizing why people “may” have been offended is exceptionally surprising to me..What? Why be blind? Exchanging reality and what history and present circumstances has taught us for the same idealistic philosophies of what “should happen” that make us forget what IS happening- this is not wise in my book.

    …Exchanging reality for the same philosophies that legitimized the Viacom funded media which tore down our own (bw’s) image for the past 10 plus years- that is beyond problematic for me to see, but it wouldn’t offend or anger me. What has offended me is people finding issue with those who explain this reality and being upset by the fact itself…Once again, does it help to be blind?

    That being said, I didn’t see the show and have no concrete idea of whether or not I personally think it crossed the line (although, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nene loving Murphy is possibly like many others who like her because it gives them an inroad to saying the inappropriate things they’ve longed to say about racial minorities for a long time, and at second best to be near someone who says them so openly without apology- No offense to Murphy, but it’s possible). Although I didn’t see it, as the poster who has a minus by her name said (and who I agree with) mentioned, if it appeared as though it was condoning the behavior instead of mocking or pointing out the fallacies of the prejudiced person- it would have crossed the line in many people’s eyes- including mine.

  • Movie Buff

    This is a fictional horror show. It takes place in the 1960s. Worse things were said in the actual 1960s than what we’re seeing on the show. I think this author’s approach, calling Murphy a troll is a bit extreme. Many of the offhand comments and stereotypical fare presented are exactly the way people in this world actually think today. So, it’s not really that inflammatory—just references used to further authenticate the horror. And yes, I thoroughly enjoy the program.

  • Nic

    I really wonder about the thought processes of a LOT of the writers on this site. They seem to read situations in such an odd way…the article about a person who the author said wanted to be white is one recent example.
    So they’ll take a real topic and use a very bad example and flawed logic to develop their essay. The titles of the stories only seem to match the actual articles about half of the time.
    This is like saying that Mad Men is trolling us. Or Sons of Anarchy. A show set in the 60′s is very accurate to show casual and everyday racism. And racism is real in 2012 so showing people who are racist, homophobic, and xenophobic is very realistic.
    Have any of the authors/editors here seem the kinds of tweet, facebook, and other social media comments about our President? How can you claim this showrunner just want to use slurs when we have people who boldly use them with their REAL names about the leader of the free world?
    I think the authors who write for this site are really young and just don’t have the perspective or knowledge of the past in a way that even makes sense.
    Ryan Murphy was being realistic in how they showed the interracial couple being harassed and in danger, and it is a fact that the DSM did treat homosexuality as a mental disorder and the way that the writer was easily committed, the fact that another female was committed for being promiscuous, are all sad reminders of a not so distant past.
    Next time you want to accuse someone of racism, why not pick an actual racist instead of a writer who is showing you what the world was really like.
    And really, if you are too lazy to do your homework on these things, you are really doomed to see a lot of them repeat themselves.
    Also, as you more or less touched on, these people are BAD people, and their badness is being played up precisely through their use of this language. We are rooting for certain characters to get their comeuppance precisely b/c they are not only evil but racist, anti-Semitic, and hypocritical.

  • Treece

    As a person who watches the show, I think Murphy is just using the language and reflecting the beliefs of many straight, white, “average” people during that time. It is hard for some people to accept that people with Down’s were called Mongoloid and that people call just about all Hispanics Mexicans. Or that people don’t agree with homosexuality or that people used to treat the mentally ill inhumanely. But these are truths. He puts it right in front of the viewers face so we (Americans, particularly white) can’t go around hiding our imperfections and trying to forget our ugly, not so distant past. Yes, it’s provocative. Yes it’s uncomfortable, but it happened. In a way, I do think that he is trying to make a but of a political statement and using American Horror Story as his “soapbox”. And I think that he will continue to push the envelope in this way with the series. Maybe the real “American Horror” is in so many of the -isms that we try to hide so often. We don’t want people to forget our struggle but when it’s brought to the fore front in a series or a movie, we get offended. I say let it be. I don’t think he’s crossed the proverbial “line” yet, so we’ll just see how this goes.

  • Johnny

    So, I’m to understand that because people spew racial slurs, it’s okay to parade it around television? Wow, with this logic, no wonder people like the Cold Stone girl feel like they can spew racial slurs without any repercussion.

  • IzDaWiz

    Dude. The show is set in the present.

  • Primetime85

    Uh, AHS: Asylum is primarily set in the 60s. So far, from ’64 to ’68. Only when we catch up with present day-Bloody Face and the couple in the ‘now’ abandoned asylum, is it present day. The only slurs we hear in the show, take place in the 60s.

  • Fredo

    I see this is quite old, but I had to comment…

    I believe the only one trolling here, that is, insulting and provoking to get attention, is you.

    Because it’s more than obvious for anyone with brains that even if some characters in the series are homophobic or racist, it doesn’t mean the message is. Actually, the message is more like all the way around, with Lana and Kit being one lesbian and the other married to a black woman, and both main characters and the good gal and guy.

    I’m gay, and I’ve never felt insulted by these series. I’ve felt insulted by Will and Grace or other full-of-gay-cliche shows, but I love this series and the way they treat homosexuality.

  • http://twitter.com/glb95 Garrison

    I have sat in horror with every episode of American Horror Story, and not only for the scare elements. There is literally every kind of “ism” here and none of the racism, sexism, ableism, etc. adds any substance to the show. I do wonder if the purpose of that is to say that this is a representation of middle class white America since the show is, after all, “American” Horror Story. Either way, it is all senseless and I have had enough.

  • Fredo

    Sure, it’s obvious that’s what we all want: politically correct characters in a horror show. Specially when the story takes place in the early 60s, when there was NO racism, NO homophobia and NO sexism, right?

    Maybe you think “horror” only means scary monsters and ghosts, but I find all that historically real personal horror to be a lot more frightening…

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