M3GAN's campy horror romp has all the trappings of a queer icon in the making : It's Been a Minute At first blush, M3GAN seems like your standard murder doll horror film. Uncanny appearance, eerily close relationship with a young child, and of course, murder. But it's become way more than that. She's got a viral dance, powerful side eye, wig fittings, and songs - all of this led M3GAN to become a camp queer icon overnight. Host Brittany Luse and writer Alex Abad-Santos talk M3GAN's queer appeal, our skepticism of Silicon Valley life hacks and how the movie inverts some classic horror tropes.
You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at ibam@npr.org.

M3GAN, murder, and mass queer appeal

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1148395270/1149698181" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

BRITTANY LUSE, HOST:

OK. Alexis, we just got out of "M3GAN." What are your thoughts?

ALEXIS WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Ten out of 10 - she accomplished a lot.

LUSE: M3GAN didn't let anything stand in her way. (Laughter) I'll say that much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUSE: Hey, everyone. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. And me and my producer, Alexis Williams, used our lunch break last week to go see the movie everyone is talking about - "M3GAN."

There was camp. There was horror. There was comedy. There was family.

WILLIAMS: There were a few scenes where literally Brittany and I, like, jumped up out of the seat...

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: ...Like, what?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "M3GAN")

JENNA DAVIS: (As M3GAN) You should probably run.

LUSE: So we know "M3GAN" is scary, but what's the movie actually about? The film centers on a toy creator named Gemma who becomes a guardian to her recently orphaned niece. To make her adjustment to parenting easier and to give her niece a new friend, Gemma invents M3GAN, an AI robot toy in the form of a life-sized doll. And as you might imagine, murder ensues. And audiences, including me, have been eating it up. This tweet from Rohita Kadambi sums up how much of a hit this movie is. Domestic box office of 30 million on a $12 million budget? Ninety-four percent on Rotten Tomatoes? Sequel in development? "M3GAN" is the industry.

And queer people have been claiming this murderous blonde doll as their own.

ALEX ABAD-SANTOS: She looks like Elizabeth Olsen/Amanda Seyfried, and she's very pretty. And she's, like, a little bit psychotic and mean, and you're just like - I don't know for other people, but I was like, I'm in love.

LUSE: The "M3GAN" Oscar campaign starts today.

ABAD-SANTOS: (Laughter).

LUSE: That's Alex Abad-Santos. He wrote a piece for Vox about "M3GAN's" queer appeal.

In some ways, do you think that, like, M3GAN had, like, a righteous vengeance or, like, that she was right to attack in some way?

ABAD-SANTOS: Well, there's that Lady Gaga quote that's like, I don't believe in the glorification of murder, but I believe in the empowerment of women.

LUSE: (Laughter).

Today on the show, we're making the argument for why "M3GAN" belongs in the queer canon after a quick break.

Alex, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.

ABAD-SANTOS: Thanks for having me.

LUSE: We've been so excited for this conversation all week, you don't even know.

ABAD-SANTOS: Perfect. Any time I can talk about "M3GAN" or "M-3-GAN" (ph), I am very, very happy.

LUSE: (Laughter) OK, OK. So what did you initially think the film was going to be about?

ABAD-SANTOS: I mean, it's pretty straightforward, right? It's Allison Williams - famous nepo baby from "Girls," "Get Out," "The Perfection" - and she basically invents a doll that, like, seems to kill people. There is no bait and switch here. Like - it's like - there's, like, maybe, like, a little tweak about, like, how it's about AI and how it's about parenting, and maybe it's about screen time. But, like, what you got is a pretty killer doll that dances, that's very cute, but also kind of mean.

LUSE: You know, you mentioned that you are actually not a horror fan. What made you want to see the movie? Was it just M3GAN's charms alone?

ABAD-SANTOS: One, I'm a flagrant homosexual, so anything that is - involves a pretty woman who's kind of mean and kind of very awful, there's something in my little brain that's like, yes. I love this. I love "Chicago." I love anything that - any woman that kind of, like, is into murder a little bit, I am very into it.

LUSE: (Laughter).

ABAD-SANTOS: So I think that is what drew me to it. I think there's, like, a bigger trend here - right? - of, like, a lot of these horror movies that are coming out - like "Barbarian," even "Malignant," or even if you go back to like, "Ma" - there's, like, this sense of camp about them. And it's just - for me, I'm just, like, well, I am - like, I can't watch "The Exorcist." I can't watch "Poltergeist." All that stuff freaks me out. But I was just like, in these movies, because you're, like, a little bit removed from it and you can kind of make fun of it and laugh at it, that's what I love.

LUSE: I mean, to your point, like, it wasn't just you. You also noticed this trend, which has been discussed online, speaking specifically to, like, "M3GAN's" queer appeal. What else do you think gives "M3GAN" the makings of a queer icon? 'Cause...

ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah.

LUSE: ...You were one of the first people to call this, I feel like, on the internet and really stake that claim.

ABAD-SANTOS: I mean, please - I'm terminally online, so please.

(LAUGHTER)

ABAD-SANTOS: So that is not a compliment by any means. I'm just online a lot. I wrote an article about this. And I, like, spoke to, like, a queer scholar who was like, there's a lot of overlap between, like - gay people and queer people love horror movies. When you peel that back and you're like, well, why? And it's just like, well, at the basis of it - right? - is like every horror movie is about startling and something frightening the status quo. It's something about, like, normal life that kind of gets shaken up and there's an affinity to that. For a lot of queer people, like, normal life is kind of a horror show, right? Like, it's a little bit like you feel trapped, and it just doesn't feel right. A lot of those themes interweave with horror. With "M3GAN," I think the camp appeal is that it's a doll.

And I asked - and I was like - 'cause I really needed to know. I was like, I don't know why I love this movie so much. And this guy named Joe - Joe Vallese - he's a professor at NYU. And he was like, well, I think a lot of it is, for gay men, especially, and queer men, there's a lot of, like, binary, right? It's like, boys are supposed to act one way. Girls are supposed to act the other way. And it's like, you can't be pretty, you can't be beautiful, you can't be, like, soft if you're a boy, right? And so - and they're just like, don't play with dolls. And then he was like, I think there's probably some of that there. And I'm like, yeah, I think so, like, if it's this pretty Barbie that kills people, right? The action figures are supposed to be killing people. Polly Pocket is not supposed to kill people (laughter).

LUSE: Right.

ABAD-SANTOS: Barbie is not supposed to kill people. And so I think that the displacing of expectation is what triggered this kind of outpouring of affection for this murder doll.

(LAUGHTER)

ABAD-SANTOS: Because it's just, like, you don't really see a murder doll every day.

LUSE: So you've been thinking about this for a while. You talked to an expert about "M3GAN's" queer appeal before...

ABAD-SANTOS: Yes.

LUSE: ...Seeing the film. Now that you've seen it, does she still hold up?

ABAD-SANTOS: It's so much gayer. You saw it.

LUSE: (Laughter).

ABAD-SANTOS: Like, it's so much gayer. I think the - one of the recurring jokes on the internet is "M3GAN" has a lot more LGBTQ appeal than a movie like "Bros," which was the famous - well, infamous rom-com that came out...

LUSE: Right, right.

ABAD-SANTOS: ...Last year. And there was this whole campaign for all these people to watch "Bros." So they were just like, we need queer love stories.

LUSE: Right. Right, right, right. According to Billy Eichner, it was the first of its kind.

ABAD-SANTOS: Right. It was like, here's this studio rom-com. And it was just like, it's gay rights if you go see this movie. And then it was just like...

LUSE: (Laughter) Right.

ABAD-SANTOS: It kind of did not live up to box office expectations. And for gay people, this murder doll movie comes around. Everyone loves it. There's, like, a couple good trailers. There's, like, this really cute troupe of dancers dressed like M3GAN. And they're showing up in, like, Times Square. They're showing up at football games, and they're doing a little dance. But, like, other than that, there was no real, like, hey, gay people, this is an important movie for you to see.

LUSE: Right.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yet there's this exponential outpouring of affection for the gay murder doll. Like, now it's a gay murder doll. It's part of our community.

LUSE: (Laughter).

ABAD-SANTOS: "M3GAN" is our community. We are going to support (laughter) this murder doll to a $30 million domestic box office, which is insane because the movie reportedly cost $12 million to make.

LUSE: Wow. I wonder - like, you say that "M3GAN" actually ended up being gayer than you thought when you saw the movie. Like, what makes it gayer than you thought it would be?

ABAD-SANTOS: I mean, spoiler alert - there's two musical numbers. M3GAN sings. And you're just like (laughter)...

LUSE: She does sing. She sings a hit. I don't want to say what hit it is, but she sings a hit.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah, she sings a hit. But she also has another song earlier in the movie. And you're just like, oh, wow, M3GAN can sing. And then it's also just a lot of these moments - the human characters will say something. There's just a lingering shot of, like, M3GAN firing off, like, this, like, side eye. This, like, side eye...

LUSE: Yes (laughter).

ABAD-SANTOS: ...That is a very Caucasian girl side eye that you would only feel, like, from a - like, it's like a pre-teen girl side eye.

LUSE: It's like a McKayla Maroney circa the Olympics a few years ago, kind of just like...

ABAD-SANTOS: Absolutely. Absolutely.

LUSE: (Laughter).

ABAD-SANTOS: And it's just a very campy moment. And that tracks through the entire movie, that kind of sensibility. And then, like, the protagonist or one of the protagonists, Gemma, is this woman that just doesn't want to be a parent. And she's basically a tech bro.

LUSE: Yeah. Yeah, she is.

ABAD-SANTOS: Right? Like, she doesn't know how to take care of a kid. She doesn't - all she wants to do is robotics. She collects, like, little Funko POP!, like, Kaiju toys that she...

LUSE: Yeah.

ABAD-SANTOS: ...Doesn't want anyone to touch. She's very particular about, like, who's in her home. And she's just a very - it's a very tech bro character that's kind of placed into what I think - traditionally, you're just like, oh, it's like a 30-year-old woman. She should want to be a parent. Like, those are, like, the...

LUSE: Right, right, right.

ABAD-SANTOS: ...Norms for her. But it's like, no, like, she absolutely does not want to take care of this orphan - her orphan niece. And it's like, she's horrible...

LUSE: She doesn't want to babysit, no.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ABAD-SANTOS: I don't think she wants to babysit. She wants to come over for, like, an hour.

LUSE: Yeah.

ABAD-SANTOS: And then, like, be like, OK, I'm going to go back to my real life now.

LUSE: Exactly. Exactly.

ABAD-SANTOS: So I think there's a lot of, like, sensibilities there. But I also - like, I don't want to say that this is just a queer movie, but it resonates with the community for a reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC JB'S "NEBULA CLOUDS")

LUSE: All right. All right. Alex and I are getting more into "M3GAN." But first, we have to take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

LUSE: Thinking about M3GAN being this, like, cute little doll - well, I mean, she's a big doll, but she's little for...

ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah.

LUSE: ...A being. There's this idea in your review and also in the earlier interview that you did with the horror expert that M3GAN's beauty is a subversion. You call her in your review a pretty murder doll. And she is, like, the picture of, like, white Westernized beauty and innocence - pale skin, blue eyes, long blond hair. There's a moment in the film where they're, like, very intentional even about picking out the hair.

ABAD-SANTOS: She also has sunglasses. Why does she have sunglasses?

LUSE: I'm like, girl, what does she need to protect her eyes from?

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: She doesn't have real retinas. What's going on? What's happening?

ABAD-SANTOS: I mean, she's a baddie. But it's also like, why does she need, like, a cute coat?

LUSE: That reminds me of something else that came up in the conversation that you had with the queer horror expert.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah.

LUSE: The idea of the final girl in horror films, you know, like...

ABAD-SANTOS: Right.

LUSE: ...The virginal, like very straight, typically, mostly, white girl that makes it to the very end of the film, like who vanquishes the killer or at least escapes the killer, unlike everybody else. And in that conversation, you discuss, like, the dichotomy between, like, the final girl and the villain. It's interesting because the villain in this film looks like the final...

ABAD-SANTOS: (Laughter).

LUSE: It's like a baby robot version of the final girl.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yes. In the movie, you can pick M3GAN's outfits.

LUSE: Yes.

ABAD-SANTOS: Right? Like, you can pick M3GAN's skin colors. She comes in six different skin colors or - and the - like, has four different hairstyles. But, like, the one that they pick, like, I think very deliberately is, like, the one that's supposed to appeal to all the people and be the prototype. It's, like, this very pretty - she looks like she went to private school. She looks like she went to private school in the Northeast.

LUSE: She looks like Regina George.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yes.

LUSE: (Laughter) She does. She looks like a baby Regina George.

ABAD-SANTOS: I mean, this is the whole beauty of, like, horror movies is that it's such, like, weird circumstances. And there's so much, like, weird rules about them that it's fun to subvert them. And it's also like the horror movies themselves were doing subverting, were, like, trying to, like, be twisted and do this weird stuff and, like, have these weird commentaries. This is what makes "Scream" so good, right? There's - "Scream" is always like, there's certain rules of, like, who makes it to the very end, who gets killed, what happens. And it's like, you can't have sex. You can't be drinking. You can't participate in the stuff that would, like, make you not a wholesome person, not a wholesome teen. And so, yeah, what you're seeing in more modern horror is, like, subversions of that. And you're seeing sudden twists. I think in "M3GAN" - also, like, if you compare her to other dolls, if you look at Annabelle from "The Conjuring" movies, basically she looks demented.

LUSE: Oh, yeah.

ABAD-SANTOS: She looks like she's rotting. She looks like she smells bad. When you see, like, an ugly appearance of something - of, like, a monster - there's this expectation that they're supposed to be scary. When you have something pretty and soft and supposed to be beautiful, like M3GAN, I mean, I think that's when it kind of gives you the spectacle of it. Like, you're just like, oh, that's kind of good that they're making this very docile-looking doll run on all fours, look completely feral and do mean, murderous things.

LUSE: I loved that, when she ran on all fours.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah, like, I think that's where there's a little bit of fun. She's a singer, actress, dancer - a triple threat.

LUSE: Triple threat (laughter). You know, something else that stood out to me is that M3GAN is an AI machine, and she represents the AI underclass in revolt.

ABAD-SANTOS: Well, it's also funny 'cause she kind of gets accidentally - like, Gemma, like, is basically like, oh, I created one of these in college. I'm just going to make - like, I accidentally made the most powerful AI on the face of this earth.

LUSE: Right. Like, I've used ChatGPT.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah.

LUSE: M3GAN is kind of like the pinnacle of, like, this machine to which, like, you know, Big Tech people can outsource a lot of their everyday activities, from getting groceries and scheduling meetings to literally raising a child - which is not an easy thing to do, and requires, like, more nuance than coding. But that's kind of, you know, the point that it gets to in the film. You know, the past few months, we've seen other films, like "Knives Out 2" (ph), take on these Silicon Valley-esque aspirations. What do you think that says about our changing views on the ethics of advanced tech?

ABAD-SANTOS: I mean, I think it's, like, late-stage capitalism. Everyone's kind of aware of it now, right? Like, one of the themes in the movie is just basically, like, there is a capitalist motivation to basically distract your kids. Gemma's a toy inventor, and she basically gets kids addicted to these toys. And these toys are - you can play with them on your iPad or on your phone. And if you've looked at movies of late, like, yeah, there's definitely been this kind of, I guess, skepticism and kind of just, like, this weariness of tech. Obviously, "M3GAN" could be read as, like, a - yeah, look at it, like, what happens with, like, technocrats and - I guess we will outsource parenting to robots.

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: I'm not ready.

ABAD-SANTOS: I mean, I don't have any - there is nothing - there's no fiber in my body to ever, like, want to take care of a child. I just was not built that way. I guess I'm like Gemma. And I was like, yeah, maybe, to be honest, that sounds - like, if I didn't have to take care of a kid but still I could hang out with it?

LUSE: (Laughter).

ABAD-SANTOS: Like, provided that the kid had good vibes, I'd be into it. But I do think that there's an interesting idea of, like, parenting and, like, what - the pressure we put on parents. How we think about women, too...

LUSE: Yes.

ABAD-SANTOS: ...And when it comes to parenthood. And again, it's not that deep of a movie, but it kind of hits a lot of these very popular topics.

LUSE: Well, you know, I mean, I guess M3GAN came in and was like something of a Mary Poppins of some sort, and she greased the wheels. You know, here we are, post-"M3GAN" - post-"M3GAN" world. It's her world, we're just living in it. The internet loved M3GAN before they knew her. But after seeing the film and now that, like, you know, a good amount of the internet has seen the film - because the film's doing really well at the box office. The sequel's already in the works. We started off this conversation talking about M3GAN. Basically, you know, she's the internet's sweetheart. In a post-"M3GAN" society, is M3GAN still that girl?

ABAD-SANTOS: Oh, absolutely. There are people rooting for M3GAN, right? Like, people are like, M3GAN innocent. M3GAN didn't do anything wrong.

LUSE: Free M3GAN.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah. It's like, did she do anything wrong? I don't - I mean, maybe. Murder is probably bad. But it's also, like, the whole camp aspect of "M3GAN." Horror lets us play around with a lot of, like, just silly ideas. And the only thing scarier than M3GAN would be, like, a teenage M3GAN - right? - at this point. If she comes back and she's teenage, could you imagine?

LUSE: No. She'd be unstoppable.

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: I can't tell you how much I appreciate this. This is the highlight of my week. I cannot wait. I just can't wait to bring this to people.

ABAD-SANTOS: "M3GAN" for everyone.

LUSE: Alex, thank you so much for coming on the show today and talking to me about, honestly, what is my favorite topic right now.

ABAD-SANTOS: Oh, my God. Like, any time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUSE: That was Alex Abad-Santos, friend of this podcast and a writer for vox.com. This episode was produced by Alexis Williams and Barton Girdwood. It was edited by Jessica Placzek. I'm Brittany Luse, and we'll be back on Friday with another episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. Talk soon.

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.