Abbott Elementary is an amusing show when it isn’t bashing charter schools. But the ABC sitcom took a disquieting turn in its latest episode with a storyline about a nonbinary teacher. 

In season three’s “Breakup,” teacher Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) thinks something is off about the new second grade substitute teacher, Cassidy Jeffrey. When Melissa asks, “How long you been a sub?” for example, Cassidy splutters, “Ever since I got my gift card — gift certificate — teaching certificate. Teaching … feels like a gift.”

Suspicious, Melissa enlists the help of Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson), who used to teach the class. Now a member of the school board, Janine can’t find any record of Cassidy teaching. 

If viewers can’t guess from the short hair and the button-up shirt, we learn that Cassidy identifies as nonbinary when Melissa says to Janine, “Are you on your way down here now to bury their a**?”

When the two teachers confront Cassidy over her credentials, it’s not the “Mx.” part of her name that they notice on the chalkboard. It’s “Geoffrey,” a unique spelling that explains why Janine couldn’t find Cassidy in any teacher databases. 

The storyline takes Cassidy’s identity as a given. Rather than “Mx.” or a “deadname” being part of the misunderstanding, it’s a spelling mistake that could have happened to anyone. 

According to Abbott Elementary writer Brittani Nichols, this was intentional. Nichols said the showrunners cast Sabrina Wu, who identifies as nonbinary, as the inarticulate substitute teacher because of her comedic chops. 

“It wasn’t about their identity,” Nichols said. “And so the teacher’s the same way. On Abbott, we don’t think that everything has to be a big teachable moment. There’s power in seeing people live out what acceptance actually looks like, which oftentimes isn’t shining a spotlight on someone because of their identity. It’s just letting those people exist in the world.”

Nichols is following the Will & Grace or Schitt’s Creek playbook of normalization: Pretend the world is already the way you want it to be. With Abbott Elementary, that means a world in which second graders are introduced to the concept of gender dysphoria by their own teachers. Of course, we know that, unfortunately, that’s already the world in which we live.  

The show, which has earned four Emmy awards, is a huge hit for ABC and has been applauded for saving the sitcom. Seeing nonbinary characters on a popular series today is not surprising, but their inclusion in a show about an elementary school is troubling when gender dysphoria among young people is on the riseAbbott Elementary could have included Wu’s character with no mention of pronouns or nonsensical titles such as “Mx.” 

But the storyline and its subtlety are intentional. The plot is not meant to trigger alarm bells among parents or young viewers. It’s meant to make you feel foolish and intolerant for even questioning its inclusion in the first place.