“American Horror Stories” Is Ryan Murphy At His Worst

This review contains spoilers for American Horror Stories: Rubber(wo)man.


The first two hours of American Horror Stories are a Ryan Murphy Weakest Hits. Literally, this first episode revisits the origin show’s titular Murder House and some of its murderers. But more broadly, this initial two-parter is every tendency I loathe about the powerful television creator I’ve been known to defend. Just a bunch of a pretty white gays tap dancing their way through racist brutality.

Michael and Troy are a gay couple with a dream. They want to run ghost tours out of the famous Murder House just like our queer ancestors always imagined. The year is 2021 and cis white gay men who look like former models should get to do whatever their hearts desire gosh darn it! Watching Matt Bomer and a long-haired Gavin Creel commiserate and bicker, I felt like show creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were revealing how they see themselves. And just like Murphy and Falchuk have parented several monsters, Trichael are raising one of their own.

Their daughter Scarlett is technically the protagonist of this lesbian love story even if Troy and Michael are the only characters with any development, humor, or specificity. Scarlett is another pretty white cis gay but because Ryan Murphy is trapped in the amber of a Prop 8 protest, her life is one of turmoil. Sierra McCormick also looks like a model — or at least a CW darling — and no overalls or bob can sell her as the weird girl. In fact, she looks so much like her love interest Paris Jackson, it’d be easier to believe them to be sisters than the star-crossed lezzie outcast and popular girl. Alas Scarlett is something of a psychopath.

As obsessed with unnecessary plot as he is with white men who look the same, Murphy offers several explanations for Scarlett’s sadism and eventual murderess ways. First, she was kidnapped as a baby by a woman whose own child was murdered by her husband. Second, she’s obsessed with violent porn. And third, the murder house itself is taking over as she embodies the Rubberman — aka puts on a haunted latex fetish suit.

Despite his own sadism toward young actors, I’m not surprised Murphy contextualizes BDSM in this way. He’s always had the respectability politics of a No Kink at Pride viral tweet. Troy and Michael are Murphy’s gay ideal. Black latex is the stuff of nightmares. Scarlett masturbates thinking about her crush Maya and a mere orgasmic choking is made synonymous with a jump scare.

Murphy’s conservative streak and terrible writing could be forgiven if it weren’t for his totally skewed vision of who is granted humanity. As I wrote about in my generous review of Ratched, Murphy’s approach to horror is consistently racist. I rolled my eyes when Scarlett’s therapist was Black — but that trope quickly became the least of my worries once she was the show’s first brutal kill. Similarly, it wasn’t lost on me that all of Maya’s friends were people of color and that their cliché high school popularity is framed as a greater privilege than Scarlett’s whiteness — but again, things get worse after Maya’s advances are revealed to be a prank and Scarlett murders all four of them for revenge. And then, almost as an afterthought, a Latino construction worker is brutally murdered immediately upon introduction.

This is a horror show and people are going to die. But when Trichael meet their eventual doom it is done off-screen. The majority of the violence in these two episodes is inflicted upon people of color despite our four main characters — Scarlett, her parents, and her new ghost crush Ruby — being white. It wouldn’t surprise me if all of this is just a product of Murphy’s liberal-minded colorblind casting. But at this point intention doesn’t matter. These episodes are a brutal look into who Ryan Murphy deems worthy of a personality and who exists only to aid or bully a white gay before getting their throat slit.

Beyond my thematic issues, “Rubber(wo)man” is also an incompetent work of television writing. I was excited by this spin-off because I hoped the shortened anthology format would prevent the usual Ryan Murphy problem of starting strong before getting lost in mess. Instead he just accelerated his usual arc with a season’s worth of story packed into two episodes. There are endless twists, tonal shifts, and a barrage of references to past American Horror Story seasons. It feels like attending the concert of an aging rocker — it’s so bad it makes you wonder if the music was ever even good to begin with.

The good news is this is an anthology show with different writers, directors, actors, and stories for each of the season’s remaining episodes. This isn’t good news, because I think future episodes will be great. It’s just good news, because there’s no way they could be this bad.

Three seasons of Pose later and Ryan Murphy is still the same man who thought being in a glee club was the same as experiencing racism. Murphy is determined to think of himself as an underdog. No amount of money or power or influence will heal his adolescent scars or broaden his worldview beyond his own identity. Murphy has undoubtedly made Hollywood a better place for cis white gay men like himself. I used to find that inspiring. But as the limitations within that purpose reveal themselves again and again, all I can see is horror.

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 180 articles for us.

21 Comments

  1. This takedown is a joyride, quite honestly, as I’ve been getting steadily more uncomfortable with Murphy’s writing for a long time now. I don’t watch his shows anymore as I’ve chosen Beat Bobby Flay as my go-to hate-watch, but I’m absolutely dreading whatever disability episode gets made. Yuck.

  2. I don’t watch horror in general, so I haven’t watched AHS. I fully believe what you write though. When Murphy is good he is amazing, and we all know how bad his bad is.
    One thing I want say though- the trauma of many cis gay men is not just “being in glee club” (aka school bullying). Most visibly gay men (cis and transitioned) experience physical violence to a degree that is roughly similar to what trans women, butches or drag queens experience. This is something that other LGBT+ often don’t recognize. That’s why I find it problematic to treat gay men like they didn’t experience “real” discrimination or danger.
    I had this discussion with many (cis) lesbians in real life who had no clue how physically dangerous life is for the rest of us (i.e. trans people, butches, drag queens, but also gay men).
    I had several cis gay friends beaten half to death with metal poles, or otherwise mutilated in the sense that body parts had to be sowed back on (even in queer friendly cities). In the 80s and 90s, when someone like Ryan Murphy grew up, the degree of physical violence was even more excessive.
    That doesn’t change the overall privilege that some gay men display, but it’s still something that should be recognized.
    That said, I very much appreciate the nuanced cross-over approach you take, working on that thin, (but steep) crack between lesbian/gay and trans and gender nonconformity. That place, which is also my home, is rarely represented.

    • I agree with what you’re saying. But I’m not comparing cis white gay maleness to being in a glee club — I’m quoting Ryan Murphy. He literally has Mr. Schue say “You’re all minorities. You are in Glee Club.”

      The issue for me is not whether cis white gay men experience oppression — they obviously did and they frequently still do. The question for me is whether Ryan Murphy’s goal is liberation for all queer people or assimilation into the society that previously scorned him. Based on his work it seems more like the latter.

      Murphy has always cared more about William Schuester than Santana Lopez. That is my problem.

      • Yes, to offer more context to anyone who hasn’t watched Glee: in one episode of show, many minority students in the Glee Club feel that their teacher doesn’t listen to them or care about their experiences (ex: Mercedes, a Black teen, feels that there is a lack of Black music in their repertoire). The cheerleading coach who hates the Glee teacher takes advantage of the unrest and forms a new club with these “minority” students (kids of Asian/Black/Latina descent, LGBT kids, disabled kids). In order to regain unity with all his students, the Glee teacher very seriously suggests that his students in the Glee Club are all minorities because they’re in Glee. This actually works at bringing them all together again. It’s such a weird scene because the show has already made it so clear that Kurt, a gay teen, is relentlessly bullied/tormented for his sexuality at the school. Artie, a student in a wheelchair, is constantly the target of ableist attacks by football players, some of whom are IN the Glee Club!!! But the show would rather have us believe that the popular, straight, cis, white characters in the club somehow have the same experience as their counterparts, lol. Anyways, that’s a little bit of the larger context for why Drew said what she did. In the context of that episode, a white, cis gay student is one of the minority students whose struggles were overlooked by his teacher in favor of the teacher living out his former glee glory days. Hope this helps! :)

    • Thank you for saying this. I was thinking the same thing. Beings CIS white male has its privileges I’m sure but they’re still gay none-the-less and historically have been brutally targeted through hate crimes, etc. Just because other lgbtq may experience more hate doesn’t mean we should minimize their experience. Regardless of gender, race and sexuality we all have our own experiences and it’s not fair to judge or assume what we may or may not have faced based on what we are.

  3. Came here because I saw on Drew’s insta that she had written a takedown. Was not disappointed. One of my top ten pleasures in this life is screaming about Ryan Murphy in frustration, and it improved my Monday substantially to see someone else do it so well. Thanks, Drew – I salute you via a cry of “MURPHYYYYYYYY” and a shaken fist.

  4. I agree with most of what you said, but why didn’t you discuss Ruby and Scarlett’s relationship? It was a great contrast to Violet and Tate’s relationship, even in the character names. Ruby had much more agency than Violet, choosing her own life over being trapped in the house. What’s wrong with references to previous seasons, isn’t that part of why we watch spin-offs? Part of the appeal of AHS in the vague interrelatedness of the seasons.

  5. I agree that these two episodes were mostly really bad, and everything in this review sums up why Ryan Murphy shows always leave a bad taste in my mouth. But I was excited to see Paris Jackson and Kaia Gerber as queer women (Paris was really solid I thought! Kaia was…fine) and I did enjoy that there was not a single straight person in this story! But overall my face journey was extremely ‘Trying Kombucha for the First Time’ and ended on 🤨

  6. This was a decently nuanced article, but I can’t help but walk away from it thinking the main takeaway is “everything Ryan Murphy does is bad and you should feel bad if you like it”rather than taking a more critical look at the ongoing problems that plague both AHS and any of his shows. I know Murphy is an easy scapegoat, but I feel like aside from the one line about other writers, people consistently ignore Brad Falchuk and the fact that what Murphy really needs to do is diversify his writer’s room and writing team. I appreciate the nuance but it’s clear he’s a major player in Hollywood these days and with his Netflix deals, and constant new projects, he isn’t going anyway any time soon. So what to do? Are we going to boycott him entirely, or push for him to have a more inclusive writing team that will hopefully solve the issues regarding racism and the overall focus on cisgender white gay people? What’s the solution here? Genuinely asking, as someone who’s a fan of his work but also understands the ongoing problems with them.

    • Did you click the links to my other writing about Ryan Murphy? I gave Hollywood, Ratched, AND The Prom reasonably positive reviews!

      I’m not against Ryan Murphy. This review is an expression of frustration when he has the power you describe and refuses to grow in a meaningful way. Whenever I think he is understanding his gaps, he reveals that his understanding is actually superficial.

      I don’t write reviews of work or artists that are worthless. I don’t have the time or energy for that. I wrote something this harsh BECAUSE I like Ryan Murphy and know his talents and influence could be better used.

    • Drew doesn’t need me to defend her, but I will still jump in to say that I don’t at all think her takeaway is ever “everything Ryan Murphy does is bad and you should feel bad if you like it”. Even within this beautiful to read takedown, she’s more generous than I am toward Ryan Murphy.

      My major question coming away from these two episodes is: are we supposed to be laughing? Or are we supposed to be taking it seriously? It felt to me like a satire that wasn’t intended to be a satire.

  7. Ryan Murphy pisses me off so much and a lot of it is frankly because of his missed potential/resistance or refusal to growth.

    What I’m trying to say is “trapped in the amber of a Prop 8 protest” is a perfect description

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