Back in the ’80s and ’90s, they were everywhere. Playing skull croquette in Heathers. Slamming wannabes against lockers in Jawbreaker. Deadpanning “I don’t f— losers” in Cruel Intentions. Casting serious side-eye at Molly Ringwald in every John Hughes movie ever. If these hateful ladies weren’t exactly heroes, they weren’t cautionary tales, either. Often, viewers couldn’t decide whether they wanted to kill them or be them.
For the first time in forever, we’re seeing that kind of quasi-glamorized, quasi-villified mean girl again, on Fox’s new horror-comedy Scream Queens. It follows blonde-haired, black-hearted sorority fascist Chanel No. 1 (Emma Roberts), who’s been forced by the university’s Dean Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) to open Kappa House to all students — even “fatties and ethnics,” as Chanel calls them — while a devil-masked killer knocks off pledges and Kappa sisters alike. The pilot flashes back and forth between 1994, when a sorority girl died mysteriously at Kappa House, and the 20th anniversary of her death — a savvy way to appeal to both college-age viewers and their parents, who will recognize many of Scream Queen’s pop-culture references. When a security guard (Niecy Nash) lists all the ineffective ways she’s prepared to protect Kappa House, she’s winking at the self-aware genre comedy of Scream. Chanel’s archenemy, nice girl Grace (Skyler Samuels), has a make-out scene set to the closing song from Sixteen Candles. And, just like in Heathers, all the Kappa sisters have the same name. There’s airhead Chanel No. 2 (Ariana Grande), sassy Chanel No. 3 (Billie Lourd), and ambitious Chanel No. 5 (Abigail Breslin). No one seems to know what happened to Chanel No. 4.
Still, watching the Chanels work their magic, it’s obvious why this vintage mean-girl archetype is not as popular now, in this It Gets Better era when every queen bee from Jennifer Lawrence to Taylor Swift claims she was bullied in high school. We live in a time when it’s cool to be different and inclusive. And, ironically, that’s partly thanks to Scream Queen’s creators, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuck, and Ian Brennan.
Murphy, Falchuck, and Brennan created Glee, a show so insistent upon its love of nerds and outcasts that it literally aired anti-bullying PSAs. But with its sharp wit and rat-a-tat dialogue, Glee sometimes sounded like it was longing to laugh at these nerds as often as it laughed along with them. Such outright spitefulness wouldn’t have fit the show’s warm-fuzzy message, but on Scream Queens, that’s no longer a problem. The over-the-top violence and campy comedy allow the writers to unleash their most evil dialogue. Case in point: Chanel No. 1 greets Kappa’s recruits by barking, “Good evening, idiot hookers!”
At times, it’s hard to tell if Scream Queens is satirizing mean girls or acting like a mean girl itself. The most interesting characters are the misfit pledges: Grace, her black roommate Zayday (Keke Palmer), a deaf woman named Tiffany (Whitney Meyer), the neck-braced Hester (Lea Michelle), the lesbian “Predatory Lez” (Jeanna Han), and Jennifer (Breezy Eslin), a “candle vlogger” who reviews candles on YouTube. (“I call this one the Nancy Meyers Experience, because it smells like creamy couches and menopause.”) These women get all the best one-liners, and they also serve up the smartest meta-commentary about race, gender, sexuality, and class, which might make you assume that the show sides with these so-called losers.
But that’s not the case when Scream Queens pushes easy shock value for its own sake, as when Chanel repeatedly insists that Kappa’s maid call her “white mammy” and the other sorority sisters force the poor woman to say she “don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies.” (Also: today’s sorority girls still quote Gone with the Wind? WTF? LMAO!) The show itself encourages us to mock Tiffany for being deaf, just like Chanel does. One scene finds Tiffany mistaking her fellow Kappa pledges’ screaming for a Taylor Swift sing-along — a joke so tasteless, I almost turned off my TV.
And yet, thinking about these scenes later, I wondered whether outright cruelty might be slightly more thought-provoking than the type of facile anti-bullying message that allows viewers to pat themselves on the backs. The whole time I watched Scream Queen’s two-hour premiere, I was either laughing out loud, or feeling guilty for laughing out loud. Why did I find it hilarious when the beautiful, popular Chanel No. 2 (played by the beautiful, popular Ariana Grande) succumbed to a violent end while texting with the killer, but I balked when the killer reveled in decapitating a more pathetic pledge? It can’t just boil down to simple schadenfreude. For hours afterward, I was left questioning why certain scenes prompted one response instead of the other.
At its best, Scream Queens challenges our motives for empathizing with outcasts in the first place. When it specifically targets younger generations on that front, it feels fresh. Chanel agrees to accept a gay pledge at Kappa House not because she’s compassionate but because she loves positive publicity and knows the move will light up social media. When local news reporters descend upon Dean Munsch, questioning her about the devil-mask killer, tearful students lurk in the background, taking selfies and giving faux-devastated interviews about a victim they’ve never even met. “I’ve got news for you, self-involved junior,” the Dean thinks to herself. “Just because you know a guy who was in a class with the dead girl’s roommate does not mean that it could have been you.” The idea that empathy might stem from self-interest also feels like a sly indictment of the viewer. Don’t we love to watch devil-masked killers stalking young women because we like to fantasize about what we’d do if it happened to us?
Scream Queens isn’t for everyone. Some will find it too sadistic or too campy or unfairly dismissive of Millenials. But for me, its critique extends to viewers of all ages. “My shrink says these kids are the most messed-up of any generation they’ve seen because their parents made life so easy for them,” says the sorority’s attorney Gigi (Nasim Pedrad). “It’s like they can’t handle adversity.” Sometimes I worry about that same weakness with viewers, too. We can’t handle adversity. We want our messages served up in a tidy PSA message. We don’t want to work too hard to figure out why a show might makes us feel uncomfortable feelings. Scream Queens is flawed, but it’s worth watching, simply because there’s nothing easy about it. The casual brutality takes just as much work to think about as it does to watch.