4 times Ryan Murphy sent gay rights back in time

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Ryan Murphy, a white man wearing a yellow cap and a black-and-white checked shirt, sits at a table at comic-con. Gage Skidmore/flickr

Revisiting some … iconic? … tv moments

For quarantine reasons, I watched a lot of Netflix this year. This meant that I watched a lot of shows I never thought I would watch, even ones that I didn’t really like, simply because there was nothing else going on. Nowhere is there a better example of this – of watching something just kind of because it’s there –than Ryan Murphy’s Glee.

Just kidding – I did not re-watch Glee in quarantine. I maintain a small amount of love for myself. However, I did watch other shows by Ryan Murphy: namely, Ratched, which came out during quarantine, and American Horror Story, something that was popular around the same time as Glee but that, unlike Glee, I never watched. I decided to give it a try while I was staying home all year, binging it with my roommate since I am a horror fan, after all. Honestly, parts of it were engaging. I enjoyed the first season a lot. But it had a certain…quality. It was bold in a way that was sometimes shocking, sometimes funny, and sometimes just kind of uncomfortable. In a word, it was exploitative. This is a word that I later realized almost totally describes Ryan Murphy’s creative process.

To be honest, when I first started watching AHS, I didn’t know it was a Ryan Murphy show or that Ryan Murphy basically had a blank cheque from Netflix that lets him make whatever show he wants over and over. I just thought to myself as I was watching “this is kind of like if someone did Glee but made it a horror series.” Lo and behold, that’s exactly what I was looking at. Not only that, but when I watched the second season of AHS (“Asylum”), it was after I had seen Ratched. And I thought to myself, “wait a minute, did Ryan Murphy just remake this when he did Ratched?” Like, he just called up Sarah Paulson again? It was uncannily similar in so many ways.

The more I thought about these shows – Ratched, Glee, AHS, and another show, Scream Queens, that I had seen a little bit of – the more I thought about how influential they were culturally. Specifically for people my age, and specifically for gay people my age. Like, how many of us came out while Glee was airing? For a lot of my classmates, I’m pretty positive Glee was the only measure of interaction with a gay person they had at the time. It’s laughable but also totally affected the environment I was in during my adolescence and the messages I internalized about myself. There’s actually a meme going around on Twitter right now (in response to Lil Nas X’s new Montero music video) where people are saying “back in my day, all we had for representation was this” with screenshots from Glee. AHS and Ratched aren’t marketed as family shows, but I know a lot of teenagers watched AHS, and I know that the exploitative nature of Murphy’s writing is a common thread through all of them.

I get that the things Murphy does are probably meant to poke at the way our culture already is, I do. But the effect he had on a whole generation of theatre gays along with his power at Netflix makes him truly a force to be reckoned with in a way I simply do not like. I have decided to compile a short list of grievances with the way Ryan Murphy handles media and how it affects the generation he raised on Glee.

  1. Gratuitous Sexualized Violence – the Gays Must Expect It

This applies specifically to AHS, and Ratched to a certain extent. Ryan Murphy has a real issue with fixating on violence in a way that is, yes, horrific as intended, but also uncomfortably graphic (trying not to say “exploitative” too many times here). There are things in AHS that I really don’t even want to mention, but whenever they happen, you sort of sit there and wonder what the point of all that was. The violence is also always bizarrely eroticized, right down to people in Murder House being killed by a guy in a gimp suit (Why?? For what reason??)

Much of this violence is enacted against young women (no surprises here) or gay men, which sets a pretty disturbing precedent for desensitization and satirization of a kind of violence that does in fact happen often. With how much trauma Murphy puts his queer characters through – conversion therapy, lobotomies, constant bullying, being disowned – it really seems like it’s “the norm” to be treated like this after coming out. For a lot of people who only had the culture around them to understand themselves, without the benefit of any supportive community, this message can become internalized. Too many of my peers accepted too much abuse because they figured that it was their lot in life. We are finally dragging ourselves out of this era of gay trauma porn, but Murphy has not helped. He’s kind of part of why we’re in it. Oh, by the way, apparently Murphy’s latest project is a Jeffrey Dahmer documentary. Literally the worst person for the job in what will absolutely be a sensationalization of more sexual violence. Can’t wait.

  1. Sexy Lesbians Only

Yeah, Ryan Murphy shows have lesbians in them… kind of. Sarah Paulson does a terrific job in both AHS: Asylum and Ratched, don’t get me wrong. In the same way, Naya Rivera’s performance in Glee was the only reason I even watched the damn thing. But it’s not the individual stories that bother me – it’s the way that, while there are gay men in Murphy’s stories who look different from one another, these women and their partners never seem to be outside the realm of attractiveness for a man who might be watching. The lesbian character in AHS honestly does not even pass the Bechdel test and seems to exist for the sole purpose of being a man’s victim. Again with the gratuitous violence for violence’s sake. There’s a serious problem in media generally with lesbian voyeurism, and because of the hold Murphy has on TV, it seems like it became more deeply entrenched. I’d like to see a single butch on television in my lifetime who doesn’t exist as a misogynistic gag.

  1. Homosexuality and Pedophilia in Glee

Does anyone remember how Glee had this character – the old drama teacher or something – who turned out to be a predator and got fired? He didn’t even disappear from the show after that, he kept showing up to be the butt of jokes. What was that? Murphy is really not above joking about anything, but the creation of this fruity drama teacher with the sweater around his neck who is, surprise, a sex offender…that looks really bad. People still believe this about gay men – there was literally a preacher in Regina talking about this last week – and for Murphy to make it a plot point in a show that young people watched was irresponsible to put it lightly. I really think about this a lot. It didn’t need to be done – why was it?

  1. Kurt Hummel Specifically

Respect to Chris Colfer (he has been through enough), there is nothing wrong with Kurt or anyone who is like him. The performance of “Single Ladies” absolutely haunts me and thousands of others, because again, many of our peers thought that’s what we were all into, but that’s water under the bridge. It’s the way Glee made Kurt the focal point of the entire narrative in a show full of characters who, frankly, were dealing with a lot more shit. I really feel like the microcosm of Glee set a generation up for years to come to centre white gay men in discussions about homophobic violence all the time. I don’t even think it’s conscious; Ryan Murphy just really does a number on a young person.

In a way, Ryan Murphy shows are ahead of their time – but, like, in a really bad way. They predict (or maybe contribute to) harmful cultural fixations in a way that would be kind of clever if it didn’t have so many real-world consequences. Who in this room has been personally victimized by this man’s writing? My hand is raised.

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