When interviewing people, especially folks whose work I dig, I’m a bit of a nervous (but charming) wreck. There is something slightly terrifying about having a pseudo-structured conversation with someone who is, well, really fucking cool. Enter Brittani Nichols — ever so coolly known as B — actor, producer, organizer, and writer. I wanted to chat because I found it pretty damn dope that someone who used to write here on Autostraddle dot com is now one of the writers behind one of the most popular television shows of the year, Abbott Elementary.
B signed on to the show after its creator, Quinta Brunson, made it rather clear she wanted her to come on board. The two met years back when doing a web series for BuzzFeed, stayed connected, and then found themselves working together again on A Black Lady Sketch Show.
“We just sort of vibed,” B tells me. “We talked about how weird my sketches were, and how they had twists that she liked and I think she gravitated to them.”
Hearing about the beginnings of creatives whose careers have flourished, especially those who are Black and queer, is a big deal to me. Discovering where others got some of their start is not only interesting but — get ready for a buzzword — inspiring.
Writing wasn’t always the focus, she didn’t have a set plan laid out for writing at all. After college, she worked at a social justice non-profit, was a freelance marketing consultant, and also ran sports camps for kids. In between doing all of those things, a few of which would aid in her career later on, she found Autostraddle.
“I just really liked the website, I’m not sure what my aspirations were besides, this website is cool and funny and I think I’m cool and funny, so I want to start working with them!”, and so she did. She’s stayed a friend of the site in a big way and kept connected even after she moved on from writing for us — guesting on our podcasts, taking part in live events, and most importantly, supporting us as a reader.
With her chill presence and disarming smile, B made my nerves slowly dissipate throughout our talk, but I kept thinking about how important this interview would be for Autostraddle. We’re constantly overlooked by the media for things like screeners, interviews, and advertising. Unless it’s Pride month; then suddenly folks realize that dykes consume pop culture and that perhaps they should toss a little support our way. It would have been so easy for B to follow suit and have this interview elsewhere, but she understands the importance of independent sites like ours, and the need for marginalized writers to cover a wide range of media.
“It’s frustrating that people only look to marginalized communities for input when they think it’s something that was specifically made for them,” she says.
Most folks would think that queer coverage of Abbott isn’t warranted because it’s not directly queer, but I’d be willing to argue that point. A show doesn’t have to have dripping in dykeness for it to be liked by the community. Being a queer writer on the show (there are two others) isn’t treated as groundbreaking, and writing storylines for its queer characters (as of right now Jacob is the only out character) isn’t exaggerated either.
“It’s very chill, Quinta loves the lesbians and we have a blast. The discussion around how we wanted to essentially out that character [Jacob]… was not even a big discussion, which was nice. It felt good, and we were all in agreement that it shouldn’t be some big huge reveal”.
It’s refreshing to me that there are some writers’ rooms (on shows that are not explicitly queer) who don’t think that the sole purpose of the queer writers in the room is to just write all things gay. That they are realizing we don’t want to be in these rooms to serve as a token. That yes, we should be looked to to “properly” handle queer storylines and characters but that our talents exist outside of talking about that narrative.
That did lead us into talking about specifically what the Black and queer media landscape currently looks like on TV, and the future of it.
“From the perspective of a creator, it feels like not enough at all. It’s frustrating honestly, I think that as much as there is more representation, it’s still very much treated like, that’s enough,” B says. “[They are saying], this Black queer thing exists over here so we’re not going to do that over here, or we put this Black queer character on one of our big shows so now, we’re done!”
These days, I’m feeling less and less bad about not being wildly thankful for those exact scenarios. Giving kudos to one or two shows for having a (usually poorly written) Black queer character simply is no longer enough for me, and seemingly, not enough for B either: “The scope of how many [Black queer] stories have yet to be told is a really wide one. There’s not enough of us in the rooms, or on cameras and I can’t pretend to be happy with what we have because I’m not.”
When it comes to Black queer representation on television, I’m also rarely satisfied with what is presented. It’s not that I don’t recognize that we are in a far better place than we have been before, but it feels like media thinks there is only one kind of Black queer story to tell — but could that be because they keep giving the same handful of people the opportunity to tell them? There are only so many times you can change haircuts, cities, and fair-skinned love interests before the audience begins to realize you’re telling the same story just on different networks. We are far too dope and diverse a people for there not to be a wild amount of stories on television for Black queer folks to find some facet of ourselves in. And at the risk of sounding like someone’s auntie (I mean, I am, so) but in this day and age — what valid reason can you give for them not being out there? These stories are sitting in computer documents and in the tattered notebooks of talented folks who have full and intricate tales to tell, who will never get the chance simply because Hollywood thinks they only have enough space for three Black dykes and the slots have already been filled.
In lighter conversation, and to wrap our call up by coming full circle, I asked how she felt about the changes Autostraddle has made since her time as a writer here, specifically in relation to Blackness.
“I’m super proud of it,” B says. “Autostraddle has moved through missteps in a way that I think is important for people to see. I think it’s a testament to when you’re not just saying shit to say shit. I’ve seen the growth over the years, and it’s really cool to get on it and see a bunch of queer Black folks because that’s not how it used to be.”
The shifts that were made to not center white queerness on the site haven’t come without hiccups. But, in the brief time I’ve been here (just over two years), I’ve felt the determination to make sure that our readers know that these changes are meant for longevity and not just for a moment. The term “safe space” has been so watered down in recent years because, in reality, it’s hard to promise such a thing. But, what I have felt here is the feeling of being able to curate content without being disrupted, questioned, or asked to explain my reasoning behind it. That makes me not just feel comfortable as a Black writer, but makes me want to bring more writers and readers into this community with the higher than average hope that the chances of harm are slim.
When we wrapped our call and after I jumped into Slack to ask for compliments and interview aftercare, I felt proud. It might sound lame but it felt nice and assuring to chat to someone who used to be, nearly literally, where I am. Abbott Elementary is a runaway success, and with someone like Brittani Nichols behind the camera, I think we can expect many more seasons to come. And before you ask, I forgot to ask for a book bag, and yes we did talk about that 20 seconds of gay goodness that was Ayesha Harris in episode three. But I can’t give you everything so I guess I get to keep that convo just for me.