by Angela Batuure
I love Kerry Washington. She is probably one of my all time favorite actresses. Her character on Scandal is smart, intelligent and well written, a rarity for black actresses today. When I found out Washington was going to be on Saturday Night Live, I was beyond stoked and couldn’t wait to see the episode when it aired on November 3rd.
The week before the episode, there was a large amount of news coverage about the lack of diversity in the SNL cast. Specifically, since the show premiered in 1975, there have been only four black female cast members. SNL cast member Kenan Thompson told TV Guide Magazine that the reason SNL isn’t hiring black female comedians is because they “just aren’t ready and the talent pool is limited.” (cue eye roll). Somehow in all of America there is not a single black female comedian talented enough for SNL? While I find that hard to believe, SNL clearly doesn’t.
Many people have been claiming that Washington’s appearance on SNL was in part to curb angry viewers who have been complaining about the lack of diversity on SNL. Somehow, however, SNL’s writers seemed to think that in order to make up for the lack of black women in the rest of their episodes, Washington would have to play pretty much every single black female stereotype…ever. I applaud SNL: I don’t think the missed a single black stereotype; it’s quite the accomplishment. During the show’s 90 minute running time, Washington managed to be “the ghetto black girl,” “the foreign African,” “the mistress,” “the over obsessive girlfriend,” and of course Michelle Obama, Oprah and Beyoncé (or as I like to call them, the trifecta of awesomeness). Washington was completely pigeonholed in every role she played. It was almost as if the writers figured this would be one of the few opportunities where they would have a black female host, so they better parody every black woman alive today.
In SNL’s defense, they did warn the audience in the opening sketch. Shortly after Washington dressed as Michelle Obama left the screen to change into Washington dressed as Oprah, SNL directly addressed the audiencme telling them that Washington would be a stereotyping all black female for the night:
“The producers at “Saturday Night Live” would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these request both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because SNL does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason we agree that this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future….unless of course, we fall in love with another white guy first”
Somehow SNL found a way to address the problem that so many people are angry at without really addressing it at all. It is almost as if the writers at SNL are saying that because they are apologizing in advance, it’s okay. It’s like when someone says “no offense” and then proceeds to offend you on purpose. While an apology to Kerry Washington is definitely in order, what about an apology to every black woman who was negatively stereotyped by SNL?
While there are numerous problems with SNL having Kerry Washington portray stereotypically black characters, the main problem I see lies in the fact that a black woman can be considered a character in the first place. The fact that there’s even a specific role or stereotype that Washington can be asked to play is problematic, because it underlines the cultural prejudice towards black women in America. The SNL sketches fall to the idea that black women are not people like everyone else, just caricatures of personalities. They are loud, obnoxious, or promiscuous.
Overall, Washington’s appearance on SNL was well received, which in large part was because Washington was an actress of considerable talent. Yet simply having black female host once every few months as an attempt to “solve” the race issue is highly problematic.
There is a quote in the movie Miss Representation that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” I think this holds true for black women in comedy and on Saturday Night Live. SNL is perhaps the most powerful and most visual sketch comedy television show to date. The fact that SNL fails at equal representation of race and gender on TV show is detrimental to viewers. When young black girls and women watch SNL and never see people who look like them, how are they ever supposed to imagine themselves in ten or fifteen years as sketch comedians? Yes, the black female talent pool for sketch comedians is small–but SNL can be a major driving force in increasing the number of black women who see sketch comedy as a plausible career. If SNL made a conscious effort to hire black female comedians, then maybe (just maybe!) actresses like Kerry Washington won’t have to be seen as talented simply because they can portray multiple black stereotypes, but because they can play any character, regardless of race.