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/Tuck, The 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.