Last night on the “Shooting Star” — note the cringe-worthy wordplay — episode of Glee, our favorite McKinley High students plus some of the ones we don’t care about cowered in the dark of the choir room, trying to keep quiet despite the screams outside, and recording goodbye messages to their loved ones. Meanwhile, Brittany hid in a bathroom stall with her feet on the toilet, silently weeping.
It was Glee’s school-shooting episode, except that no one got shot. In fact, there wasn’t even a school shooter. Becky, the cheerleader with Down syndrome, brought the gun to school because she was afraid of the future. (How this translates to carrying a gun is unclear. In an earlier scene, Becky laments not being able to go to college — so, a gun?) The gun goes off when Sue takes it from Becky, and again when it falls on the ground. Sue takes the blame, and she’s fired.
We could talk about why it’s problematic to have Becky, the one character with Down syndrome, bring a gun to school — particularly in light of the link some tried to draw between Newtown shooter Adam Lanza and autism. We could question the timing of the episode, six months after Newtown, and decry it as “too soon.” We could also note that Glee, a series that skirts the line between comedy and drama but works best when it’s being silly, is particularly ill-equipped to handle the horrors of school violence. But Glee is only the latest TV series to ineptly depict a school shooting. And the broader problem is that there’s nothing that Glee or any other series tackling the issue brings to the conversation. It’s all about manipulating the audience to anxiety and dread by showing the unthinkable.
Glee is an easy target, and there will be plenty of think pieces about what “Shooting Star” did wrong. (Short version: everything.) But if it weren’t Glee, it would be another high school drama — these episodes pop up whenever there’s a national conversation about gun control or the culture of violence or the influence of violent media on young people. They reflect the contemporary political climate and serve to make a larger point that furthers discussion. But while that may have been the original intention behind school-shooting episodes, we’re far past that point.
One of the most memorable early entries into the genre was a 1994 episode of Picket Fences, “Guns ‘R’ Us.” After getting picked on by a bully, Matthew fires a potato gun at the bully’s car, causing a massive accident. As revenge, the bully’s brother brings an actual gun to school and shoots Matthew point-blank. During the ensuing trial, lawyer Douglas Wambaugh defends the boy by blaming violence in the media.
This was the year of Natural Born Killers and the rising popularity of the Mortal Kombat games. “Guns ‘R’ Us” is a product of the national concern with movies and video games perpetuating a desensitization to violence among kids. It was also five years before Columbine, when the conversation moved toward bullying instead. The influence of Natural Born Killers and Mortal Kombat were not forgotten, but they were supplemented by the knowledge that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had been bullied by their peers. Now there was something new to fixate on.
And so, in the post-Columbine era, we got school-shooting episodes in which the shooters were outcasts, tormented by their classmates and pushed to the edge. These include Degrassi’s “Time Stands Still,” One Tree Hill’s “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept,” and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Earshot” (although the school shooting ended up being a false alarm). The perpetrators were fat or awkward or otherwise marginalized — Columbine had taught us to heed the warning signs of the wallflower.
Where does that leave us now? The current hot-button issue is gun control, but that’s tougher for a high school show to illustrate. Unless Will Schuester returns to his advocacy work with a new focus on banning assault weapons — and I wouldn’t put it past Glee — there’s little for the series to do. Instead, we see that a gun going off is a mistake, sometimes (though not in this instance) with fatal consequences. There’s no point to be made from an accident, aside from the obvious reminder that guns aren’t toys.
“Senseless” is a word we use often to describe school shootings, and with good reason: They defy logic. As Steve Huntley wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times last December:
Confronted with a monstrous crime like the Newtown massacre, an enduring and very understandable human reaction is to try to make some sort of sense of it. If we can understand it at some level, we can search for solutions to keep it from ever happening again.
But from where I stand, there is no making sense out of someone going into an elementary school and shooting 6- and 7-year-old kids. All of us can comprehend mental illness. Most of us have experienced rage. But the violence in Sandy Hook Elementary School came from an unfathomably dark place.
In 2003, Gus Van Sant made his Columbine movie Elephant, a brutal and wholly unnecessary recreation of a school shooting by two troubled outcasts. As audiences watched Alex and Eric gun down the popular kids, they were forced to ask themselves, “Why?” And there was no answer — just a series of violent and disturbing images that turned off some and gave others a voyeuristic thrill. The point was there was no point: School shootings are senseless, as illustrated by a film with no purpose. What a profound reason to show a bunch of high school kids getting murdered.
More recently, Season 1 of American Horror Story — also by Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy — gave us the character of Tate, who went on a school shooting rampage that was eventually shown in full via flashback. In this case, there wasn’t even an attempt at a lesson: American Horror Story’s mass murder was purely for shock value, and to that end, it worked. This is not to say that every episode of television needs to teach us something, but the school-shooting genre was conceived as instructive. That was why we permitted showing something so distressing and close to home. The entertainment industry could answer those cries of “too soon” with an explanation: They were using a TV show or movie to comment on that all-too-recent event.
But what are episodes like American Horror Story’s “Piggy Piggy” or films like Elephant trying to say? Shit happens. That’s a remarkably bleak assessment, but there it is: no moral, no endgame, just violence because violence exists. The more we conceive of school shootings as senseless, the less justification there is for depicting them as a form of entertainment. We might cry or sleep less soundly that night, but only because a series played on our darkest fears, and reminded us of recent real-life tragedy. It’s cheap and callous, particularly because these episodes were once designed as social commentary. They become “too soon” when they make no attempt to move past exploitation.
Even if an episode does have an agenda — if it’s supposed to make us think twice about bullying or gun control — there’s truly no need at this point. The instructive quality that imbued Picket Fences and Degrassi with purpose no longer feels relevant. What can a school-shooting episode teach us that actual school shootings haven’t already? We are in the midst of a national debate on these issues, and Glee will have no bearing on our opinions one way or the other.
“Shooting Star” won’t be the last school shooting episode, but it should be. There are other stories to be told about school violence — 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is one recent example — but the depiction of these events is unnecessary. Worse, it’s a shameful attempt to capitalize on real tragedy. No matter how writers choose to legitimize the inclusion of realistic school-shooting scenes, there simply isn’t any good reason. And so when we read that a Newtown volunteer organization thinks Glee’s school-shooting episode was too soon, we can’t help but agree.
Now more than ever we accept our inability to understand, but if we’re struggling to figure out the “why” of school shootings, must we also be saddled with the added “why” of school-shooting episodes? Let’s continue our conversation about the prevention of gun violence without letting it bleed into popular entertainment, where it’s exploited for ratings and a raw emotional response. More than any other violence on TV, it feels wrong, because the moral justification has slipped away. What was once a way to provoke a thoughtful conversation has become a plot point: That descent into triviality is reason enough to move on.