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Feminspire | April 23, 2014

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Kerry Washington Can Play Every Black Woman, But SNL’s Lack of Diversity is No Joke

Kerry Washington Can Play Every Black Woman, But SNL’s Lack of Diversity is No Joke

| On 05, Nov 2013

I’m not an avid fan of Saturday Night Live, but I do watch sometimes when I hear there are interesting people hosting. This week, Scandal’s Kerry Washington stopped by to host their November 2nd episode. Overall, I thought it was pretty standard SNL material, occasionally funny but not groundbreaking by any means, and Kerry Washington as usual did a wonderful job. The episode’s first three minutes, however, has been what’s catching attention. You can watch it here:

In their cold open, Kerry Washington plays Michelle Obama opposite Jay Pharoah’s Mr. President. The sketch ultimately pokes fun at the criticism of Saturday Night Live’s diversity, which is addressed directly as Michelle Obama rushes out of the Oval Office just in time for Oprah to walk in:

The producers of Saturday Night Live would like to apologize for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests because she 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 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.

Here’s the thing, SNL: your lack of diversity is problematic, especially when it comes to minorities and even to women. I appreciate that you are aware of the problem, and that you have now drawn attention to it. We are all guilty of sitting down and watching television programs with predominantly white male casts and not even giving them a second thought, and this sketch is a perfect illustration of the problems with that. Now that you have proven yourselves worthy of laughing at yourselves and acknowledging a problem very publicly, in the words of a television president who was not sleeping with Olivia Pope: what’s next?

kerry washington michele obama

While I was watching this sketch the first time, I actually imagined it going a different way. I thought at the end of the sketch SNL would take the audience by surprise and have a new, black female cast member run in. A missed opportunity to make a memorable entrance for a new cast member, I thought. Once SNL does hire a black woman, it might feel like or appear to some that they are doing so just because they have promised to or feel obligated to. Although the actress they choose will undoubtably be deserving, to be brought on the show after such a big to do, which has probably happened considerably in advance of her introduction, will be a huge responsibility that is not entirely necessary.

I also took issue with this sketch, not because of the diversity message, which I think had good intentions, but because of the implication that they need a black woman on the cast so they can impersonate Oprah and Michele Obama and Beyonce. Everyone on SNL does impressions. I get that. But to reduce a future cast member to just impressions of important black women is limiting to the scope of what a black woman as a cast member could bring to SNL, besides her appearance. The roles cast members play should be determined by their talents and by their personalities. Who knows what a future cast member will be good at playing at this point.

I walked away from this SNL episode with very mixed feelings, especially on this sketch. What did you think? Feel free to share with me in the comments below!

Written by Shelby Rosten

  • Inlustris

    I agree with this.

    I am a white woman, so my view of this is through a privileged perspective. But I was completely horrified at most of those sketches.

    I absolutely adore Kerry Washington, and her performance was amazing. But, they subjected her to playing stereotype after stereotype. What we have seen in Scandal is that Kerry Washington is a phenomenal actress worthy of every award and achievement.

    Instead of utilizing her talent, they made her play stereotypes and caricatures of women of color. Just because she is black does not mean those are the ONLY characters she can play. Isn’t Scandal proof enough of this? It’s why I love Scandal.

    It made me mad. Then, I had a friend after tell me, “well, she decided to play those characters, she made the choice. She is just as culpable for her behavior.”

    No. No she is not. Not when opportunities are so limited. Unfortunately, it is somewhat of a rarity that Kerry Washington got to go on SNL at all. Even though she is the only person in recent memory that I wanted to watch on SNL.

    I do hope SNL fixes their massive gap in diversity. Just because you can have 10 Matthew Mcconaugheys does not mean you should. Maybe they should cut out 7 of them and make room for people of color.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to see a show that actually represented the people who live in America and watch American television?

  • Pat

    Great piece! Being aware of your problems and actually solving it are two very different things.

    I kinda enjoyed the episode, mainly because of Kerry! The “What Does the Fox Say” parody was pretty funny, but I think the “How’s He Doing?” sketch had problems. I think it’s because it was just a tired rehash of old material (when Maya Ruldolph hosted) and another example of SNL being utterly incapable of breaking new ground.