Society & Culture

The Power Of A Social Audience: SNL Hires Sasheer Zamata, Leslie Jones & LaKendra Tookes

I started watching SNL in the mid to late 90s.  The iconic players of my childhood were Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, Norm MacDonald, Ana Gasteyer, Tim Meadows, Darrell Hammond, Tracy Morgan, Horatio Sans, and Collin Quinn.  As a little girl, I didn’t notice how few women there were compared to men, at least in part because the women on the show during that time where funny as hell.

At times I’ve definitely shared the opinion that, “SNL isn’t good anymore,” but I kept going back for the seriously funny women who’ve appeared on the show since the early 2000s – Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig.  I’ve only seen one woman of color on the cast, and that’s Maya Rudolph.  Ellen Cleghorne was on the show in the early 1990s, but that was a little before my time as a viewer.

After Maya Rudolph left the show in 2007, Black women weren’t really represented on SNL.  In fact, the only instance I can recall is when Rudolph returned as a host and played Beyoncé alongside Jay Pharoah as Jay-Z.  In more recent seasons, the absence is striking: Where is our First Lady?  Where is Oprah?  Where are Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Angelou, Jennifer Hudson, or any of the multitude of famous Black women in popular culture?  Oh, that’s right, Kenan Thompson played them.  In drag.

Well, not anymore.  Thompson released a statement refusing to play any more famous women in drag until a Black woman is hired onto the show.  Unfortunately, this ultimatum was paired with his now infamous assessment that Black women “aren’t ready” for SNL.

In response to these comments, the Internet collectively roared its outrage, and promptly provided lists of Black American women in comedy who are indeed “ready.” Somewhat surprisingly, SNL faced this criticism head-on when Kerry Washington hosted, opening with a sketch where she had to exit, change clothes and re-enter several times in the same sketch to play Beyoncé, Oprah, Michelle Obama.

In a more permanent move to abate the uproar that followed Thompson’s comments, SNL held closed auditions in New York and Los Angeles to find a Black female cast member.  In addition to hiring new player Sasheer Zamata, who will be appearing after the show’s hiatus on January 18th, SNL added two Black female writers to the team, Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes.

One could argue that SNL had dubious intentions with this move just as easily as one could commend them for facing criticism head on.  These three women will definitely add value to the show, and the entire controversy has certainly drummed up anticipation for the January 18th return of season 39. I don’t think the real credit should go to SNL, but rather to the collective Internet outcry that shined the spotlight on a multitude of talented Black American female comedians.

People of color are still under-represented on SNL, but SNL is just one show, and one show probably shouldn’t be the litmus test for the status of comedy in America.  The truth is that a number of minority groups are under-represented in the entertainment industry.  What the SNL fiasco shows us, however, is that a vocal audience can affect change.

These shows, and indeed television networks in general, have a vested interest in engaging their audience.  More and more entertainers are coming up through online mediums like YouTube, and more and more people in the entertainment industry are connecting directly to their fans and audiences through social media.

Right now is a time when digital media is intersecting on traditional and non-traditional platforms.  Television shows are becoming more social.  There are hundreds (if not thousands) of people who earn their primary income from making Internet-based media content.  Indeed, many of the women invited by SNL to audition have widely popular YouTube channels, like Franchesca Ramsey, Issa Rae, Amber Ruffin (who was recently added to Seth Meyer’s Late Night writing staff), and Simone Shepherd, and all of these women are active on social media channels.

I think the takeaway here is not that SNL is making some huge stride towards inclusion or diversity, because I think that would be a disingenuous claim.  SNL is smartly responding to very vocal criticism and taking action.  The controversy itself is good for SNL, and I believe in the long run this will prove a smart business move for them.  Two women of color in the writing room will absolutely shake things up on the show and introduce a new perspective.  That’s a good thing.

Ultimately, though, what is driving SNL’s decision here is not to be fully representative of America’s diversity.  Their decision is being made by what will be profitable for the show, and what will attract the most viewers.  While we can’t and we shouldn’t rely on one show to “solve” the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry, what’s been accomplished here is significant – we’ve proven that collective reaction can drive real change if we’re loud enough.

Earlier this year, the Internet erupted with calls for Elite model Carmen Carrera to become the first transgender Victoria’s Secret Angel.  I’ve seen her in at least three media appearances to discuss the online petition and subsequent media attention, and yet Victoria’s Secret has still never reached out to her or addressed the campaign at all.  Victoria Secret, if they monitor their brand at all, is certainly aware of this campaign.  To me, that’s a company failing where SNL has succeeded.

Their refusal to address it has – at least – turned some transgender women away from the brand, and – hopefully – convinced some allies to do the same.  As a company, it is absolutely pivotal to listen to and engage your audience/clients/viewers/fans.  That is the power that we can take away as consumers in the Internet age.  If we make inclusion and representative diversity a priority in entertainment, the industry will follow to give the people what they want.

There is, of course, the larger issue of the comedy world in general still being a (mostly white) boy’s club.  There are still people who argue that women can’t be as funny as men, despite every evidence to the contrary.  Women of color are even more adversely affected by these narrow definitions of what can be funny.

I sincerely hope that SNL uses this opportunity to push past the tired stereotypes women of color have so often been confined to in the comedy world.  I hope some of the progressive, seriously funny talent we’re seeing on the Internet is indicative of what we can see in the future on television.

The key here is for an at-risk industry to take advantage of opportunities to listen to and engage their audiences.  Television audiences are of all races, genders, religions, sexualities, and backgrounds.  I’ve always seen pop culture as kind of a lens with which we can evaluate the way we’re seeing ourselves.

I would love to be proud of that reflection, and know that it was truly representative of all the multitudes of people and life experiences that are possible in this country.

Image credit: @GabrielleDennis

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