After last week’s school shooting tragedy in Uvalde, TX, a grieving world went searching for answers to the questions it was tired of having to ask: How did this happen? How could this happen again? And what can we do to get people to care? The idea is that if people really cared about these deaths, if they truly understood what a bullet does to a young body, or how profoundly a mass shooting traumatizes entire communities, or even what decades of teaching children how to respond to a shooting in their school has done to those children, then something would finally change.
Making people care is more the job of art than it is politics, so some of the calls to action fell upon Quinta Brunson, the creator and star of the hit sitcom Abbott Elementary. Faced with a bombardment of requests to make an episode centering on a school shooting, Brunson went to Twitter to express her frustrations:
Brunson is right to be angry and disappointed. To ask this of her is wrong on several levels; but to explain them, I have to explain a little bit about Abbott Elementary.
Abbott Elementary is a workplace sitcom in the familiar 30-minute format, except that it takes place in a predominantly Black inner-city Philadelphia elementary school, which is (accurately) under-funded and under-staffed. The beauty of the show, arguably the breakout hit of the new season, is how it highlights the despairing state of Philadelphia’s school district while also conveying the joy of childhood, the merits of teachers, and the beauty in community. The show is smart, consistently ripping apart the image of the White savior that would usually be at the center of this fictional setting, grounding everything in good characterization, and utilizing minor characters with great deftness—not to mention, it’s really fucking funny. Where some shows take years to find their footing, Abbott already balances Blackness, class, and institutional failings with life-affirming joy and humanity. This is likely why it blew up, gaining the biggest ratings for an ABC comedy since the finale of Modern Family, with a second season planned to take over that show’s flagship time slot.
Given that delicate and successful balancing act, asking for a school-shooting episode of Abbott Elementary feels misguided at best, disrespectful at worst. The show is already inherently political, showing how lack of funding and traditional educational structures disproportionately impact Black children in schools, and yet still still finds a way to ground itself in joy. Black joy. To insist that senseless violence be depicted in one of the few shows founded in Black joy shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the show so important.
It is especially nonsensical when considering how real gun violence predominantly plays out in Philadelphia, which is already outpacing the homicide rates of last year, the highest in the city’s history. Gun violence is already a heavy weight on the children of Philadelphia, especially in underserved neighborhoods, which are predominantly Black and Latino. Children in Philadelphia do experience the effects of gun violence daily, but rarely in the form of school shootings. Abbott omits the types of violence elementary school children are more likely to experience, so for it to showcase school shootings would not only be unnecessary, but undo the effects of the choice to focus on an environment where joy and learning can be the focus.
It’s been over two decades since Columbine, a decade since Sandy Hook, four years since Parkland. School shootings have been dissected on our film and TV screens, whether on the news or in Oscar-winning documentaries like Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. Even the megahit TV series Glee aired a school-shooting episode in 2013. I was in high school when it aired, a high school that did have a school shooting years before I arrived. That episode of Glee, one of my favorite shows at the time, didn’t help. It couldn’t change anything that happened before and it didn’t change anything that happened after. And it wasn’t good. I would have much preferred an hour of covers of pop songs.
Asking for a sitcom episode about school shootings is already a bad idea, but when the creator of that show is Quinta Brunson, it plays into a tiring pattern that has existed since the origins of our society’s racist power structures (which is to say, always). Black women are always called upon to clean up society’s messes. God forbid we carve out a space to celebrate us or something positive, it always is asked to comment on something “real” or “heavy.” This is true of all diverse creators, but especially of Black women. It doesn’t take into account how difficult it is as a Black woman to get something you created on air in the first place. (Not to mention, Brunson has already used the show’s profits for philanthropic purposes.) And it’s an especially ignorant request given that Brunson lost a family member to gun violence herself. She has spoken out about how gun violence deserves attention, but it’s not only the responsibility of those directly affected to raise that attention.
It is, frankly, exhausting to consistently be reminded that your joy is not what people want from you as a Black woman, that it’s not as valid as showing harsh realities—when, in fact, finding space to be happy amidst the experiences of being marginalized is the harshest reality in existence.
Zoé on Twitter said it incredibly well: “That it isn’t enough for a brilliant black woman writer & comedian to deliver us a functionally perfect comedy. ‘Black women will save us’ isn’t a celebration of our agency and creativity: it’s an extractive demand made of mind, body, and spirit.”
Entertainment is important and celebrities have platforms, but they will not save us. Putting artists, creators, and celebrities on explicit political pedestals puts us at risk of deprioritizing actual politics. Creators shouldn’t have the burdens placed on them that ought to be placed on elected officials. How many people wrote to or called either their own local representatives or Texas’ before sliding into Brunson’s DMs to ask for a traumatic episode of television on what is otherwise a beautiful comedy? How many of them looked into donating to gun safety organizations or the funds for the victims’ families? How many signed petitions for stronger gun reform and bans on things like ghost guns? I doubt the answer is zero, but I doubt even more that the answer is most. Instead of reaching out to Gov. Abbott, they found the wrong Abbott (and I’m not the first or only person to make this sad joke).
Entertainment is political whether we want it to be or not, but it doesn’t have to be reactionary and it doesn’t, ultimately, have to be negative. Though many movies and shows do focus on tragedy and trauma, happy shows should be allowed to be happy. We should be allowed to enjoy things, or at least be reminded that enjoying things is possible. Real life is tragic enough.
For an interview with Quinta Brunson about what inspired her to create Abbott Elementary, listen to this episode of A Word.