‘We Deserve So Much More Than Police, Prisons, and Jails’: Scalawag Takes On Emmy-Winning Television

We recommend these incisive essays on Abbott Elementary, The White Lotus, and The Dropout in Scalawag’s series on pop culture and justice.

Monday night’s Emmy Awards ceremony was an unsurprising mix of boring and strange and mostly forgettable, with the occasional funny moment or moving speech. (The video clip of Abbott Elementary star Sheryl Lee Ralph accepting her Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series — singing powerfully into the mic on stage — was impossible to miss in your social feed.)

As you wade through Emmys takes this week, we’d love to recommend the recent work from Scalawag’s newsletter “Pop Justice,” which examines popular culture through an abolitionist lens. This week’s essays take smart and critical looks at several Emmy-winning or nominated shows: Abbott Elementary, The White Lotus, The Dropout, Yellowjackets, and RuPaul’s Drag Race. Here are three favorites.


Abbott Elementary and the Promise of Schools Without Cops

“With Abbott Elementary, what I got was not only a cheerful single-camera mockumentary, but also an unexpectedly abolitionist storyline,” writes Eteng Ettah. Black schools in the U.S. are heavily policed, and schools in Philadelphia — where the show’s titular, predominantly Black Abbott Elementary is located — are among the most segregated. Eteng Ettah commends Quinta Brunson, the show’s creator, lead actress, and now Emmy-winning writer, for keeping cops out of Abbott’s storylines; in Brunson’s universe, the protection and care of Black children comes instead from a community of patient, risk-taking, and challenging teachers. Ettah’s piece, however, is not without criticism: She also points out how the ABC sitcom occasionally “falls into the easy trap of copaganda,” citing an episode in which the teachers — discussing a social media trend among the students called desking — divide into “good cops” and “bad cops.” But overall, Ettah is elated to see in Abbott Elementary a portrait of a different — and better — world.

Still, without cops or school resource officers roaming the hallway, Abbott invites us into a world that’s possibility-laden and imaginative. It asks us both: What does it actually feel like to be a Black student? And: What should it feel like? Simultaneously grappling with how to move through an antiblack world designed to oppress Black peoples globally while imagining, organizing, and building a new world that ushers in Black liberation is one of the many central challenges of abolitionist organizing.

But our imaginations have been so flattened by media mimicking our reality that we find ourselves asking entertainers to reflect back our violence instead of offering a portrait of a better world.

The White Lotus Is Supposed To Be Satire. Hawaiians Deserve the Last Laugh.

In this essay, Mariah Rigg outlines the many problems within The White Lotus, HBO’s dramedy (and Emmy winner for Best Limited Series) about a group of guests and employees at an exclusive resort in Hawaii — and how their lives intertwine over the course of a week. Creator Mike White has claimed the show is an indictment of white American privilege and settler colonialism, but as Rigg digs into its use of policing and stereotypes, it’s anything but. Consider how all the Native characters are either sidelined (Lani, the employee who goes into labor); exoticized (the male paddlers who venture out to sea); or vilified (Kai, the staff member who falls for Paula and is arrested for attempting to steal from the Mossbachers). The show “[sanitizes] the moral failures of white capitalists at the cost of Kānaka Maoli and locals,” writes Rigg, and missed an opportunity to critique the systemic harm, targeted policing, and cultural obliteration of Native Hawaiians throughout history to today.

It’s hard to see political or cultural critique in a show that was filmed in Hawai`i during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Kānaka Maoli and politicians alike were asking visitors not to come to Hawai`i. It’s even harder when the writer and director himself was comfortable saying that his idea for the show came from a desire to “get out of L.A.” during quarantine.

If the show is satire, it’s the wealthy white elite who get the last laugh. Because while Kānaka Maoli characters like Kai are arrested for attempted robbery, white characters like Shane get away with “accidental” murder, reinforcing the white American idea of Hawai`i as an amusement park to be exploited for pleasure—much like Westworld—an adventure they can buy and abandon for their privileged lives on the continent.

The Dropout Dramatizes Elizabeth Holmes’ Fraudulent Rise. Endless Military Funding Is Also a Scam.

Bria Massey examines the rise of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, portrayed in The Dropout by Amanda Seyfried, who won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series. She asks: How could a dropout raise $945 million and win the support of important investors and public figures with fraudulent technology? And what can bring political opponents together? “The answer to both questions: U.S. imperialism, or the promise to advance it.” Massey explains that Holmes got as far as she did because she “[played] into the illusion that a portable blood-testing device could be used on the battlefield to save American lives,” and appealed to public figures and political leaders — some of them on Theranos’ board of directors — who have historically supported war, military expansion, and mass incarceration. “We deserve so much more than police, prisons, and jails,” writes Massey. “We deserve so much more than Theranos and companies alike, or the shows that glamorize this terror.”

It’s hard to fathom that someone could rack in billions of dollars from investors without evidence of a viable, working product. Nevertheless, history shows us that the budget and support for police and military funding is limitless. Technology has always been a tool used to advance western imperialism; the implications of this oftentimes result in the death and destruction of our most vulnerable and under-resourced communities. So it’s unsurprising to learn that the billionaires and public figures who supported Theranos didn’t do their due diligence to better examine the company’s claims. These same individuals have shown us, time and time again, that there’s no expense too great, including the lives of poor and working-class people, to expand the military and prison-industrial complex further.

Read Pop Justice at Scalawag