Live From New York–It’s A Lack of Diversity!

by Alexis Burns

‘To be a woman and a humorist is to confront and subvert the very power that keeps women powerless.’ Nancy A. Walker

Approach a person on any given American street, and I am certain they will have had some experience with Saturday Night Live. Whether they watch it now, have watched it, or viewed just one skit, it is hard to separate Saturday Night Live from American culture. Lorne Michaels created Saturday Night Live, or SNL, in 1975. The show is a satire — it parodies American culture and politics. Fictional media is becoming increasingly relevant in the world of American politics; political satire has become a defining part of the show, especially during election years. Political scientists have gone so far as to say SNL affects the outcome of elections. The “Fey Effect” is widely known: young Republicans and Independents were less likely to vote for the Republican Ticket in 2008 if they had watched Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live (Kliff). Skits have mostly affected women and how they are portrayed. Most recently, the show has distanced itself from some of its usual controversial topics to avoid being called hypocritical. The reason for this distance is the lack of diversity in the show’s cast; women and people of color have not been appropriately represented in the show. Additionally, the varied intersections of these communities leave some people in the comedy world behind. For this analysis of SNL, it is important to know the difference between female humor and feminist humor. “Female humor [is] self-deprecating, while feminist humor is sarcastic and assertive” (Lauzen). Unfortunately, the majority of skits enact female humor instead of feminist humor. Saturday Night Live has led the world of comedy since its creation in 1975 and has been an essential part of American culture. While approximately 7 million people tune in to the show every week, SNL’s portrayal of women, or lack thereof, has hurt women of all races in their ability to progress in society, the world of comedy, politics, and more. For too long, SNL has used female humor instead of feminist humor. It is important to look at the mistakes that have been made and to promote an increase in the number of women and women of color in the famous weekly show.

SNL is well-known for perpetuating a hostile work environment, and this atmosphere is one of the main reasons why there is lower-than-average minority representation. In 1994, Janeane Garofalo left mid-season during the “boys’ club” reign because “she was relegated to playing generic, sexist characters” (M. Robinson). Her characters included mothers, wives, and helpless young women. Jane Curtin also commented on the SNL culture when she called out her co-worker John Belushi for his blatantly sexist comment: “Women are just fundamentally not funny” (M. Robinson). Additionally, Julia Louis-Dreyfus “straightened her hair for (a) role. The next day, a producer called her into his office and said a bunch of NBC executives were turned on by the look” (M. Robinson). One would think that since the era of Garofalo, Curtin, and Louis-Dreyfus the SNL studio would have become more welcoming towards women. Sadly, this is not the case. Tina Fey recounts in her book Bossypants, “Fallen chastised Poehler for an unladylike bit, Poehler curtly replied ‘I don’t [expletive] care if you like it’” (Lauzen). While the date is not given, the three were in the cast from 2001 until 2004. This behavior is keeping women out of the world of comedy, which highlights a greater issue of the patriarchal structure of white male oppression of women in society. 

Speaking of the domination of white men, it is important to recognize the cast “white out” from 1987-1989, as shown in Figure 1 (Lee & Troy). For two entire seasons, there was not one person of color in the cast. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident; in 2013, there was not a black female cast member the entire season either. In response, Kenan Thompson refused to dress in drag until SNL hired a black female comedian (M. Robinson). He is credited with saying, “The show did not even have someone to play Michelle Obama in a sketch. But boy, were there plenty of white guys available to play Matthew McConaughey” (Blevins). SNL finally hired a black female cast member, but avid SNL supporters claimed the reason for the lack of representation was due to an absence of black female comedians. This is not a valid excuse for a show that is supposed to be leading America in progress to equality, not regression. Black women are not the only important groups woefully underrepresented in SNL’s cast — the show had not had a Latina cast member until this past year. The gender parity problem has remained constant as well. In 1975, a woman could be denied the right to participate on a jury, and women could be excluded from the draft. American culture has come so far, yet SNL has maintained the same level of female representation, which is a shame for a program so crucial to our culture. As shown in Figure 2, the number of females in the SNL cast has stayed the same since 1975. Most people look at the recent increase from season 36, which was very low in terms of women cast members but do not consider the historical composition to determine that it is almost exactly the same as 1975. 

The cast is not the only area of the SNL organization that has a diversity problem. The hosts and writers have been mostly white since 1975. Figures 3 and 4 show the composition of the race of hosts: 90 percent of all hosts are white (Lieberman). Seasons 6, 7, 14, and 36 had all white hosts. It is incredible to think the 1980-1981 season had the same level of diversity as 2010-2011. “It would be easy to assume that the show’s record on racial diversity among hosts has improved since its inception. After all, the show premiered in the decade following massive civil rights protests… But no upward trend appears” (Lieberman). In addition, “there hasn’t been a Latino or Hispanic SNL host since Sofia Vergara in 2012” (Lieberman). This fact is not shocking, especially when the host breakdown by gender is usually 70-30 in favor of the male hosts (D’Addario). Women of color as hosts are especially rare. In terms of writers, the storyline is the same, often with limited gender or racial diversity. Furthermore, in over four decades, there have only been three head female writers. The first female head writer was Tina Fey, and she did not assume the role until 1999 (Lauzen). Not surprisingly, the year after Tina Fey held this position, SNL had the most women ever in their cast. This is not coincidental; women and people of color are going to represent women and people of color better than a group of men. As season 43 is upon us, the pattern of the lack of diversity in SNL writers continues. Out of seven new writers, all but one are white (J. Robinson).

The portrayal of women in SNL affects the general public as well. The skits rely heavily on traditional gender norms and sex stereotypes for comedy; for instance, “Natalie’s Rap”, released in 2009, is a song in which Natalie Portman is ridiculed for not being the perfect role model for kids (Strause). Portman is masculinized and shown as the “crazy female” stereotype. She sings, “Yo, shut the f*ck up and suck my d*ck” (“Natalie’s Rap” 00:00:22-00:00:24). The language and the implication that she has male genitalia is “funny” because it goes against sex stereotypes. Women are supposed to be quiet and submissive, the opposite of Portman’s behavior in this sketch. Aidy Bryant shows this female humor again in the skit “Sean Spicer Returns.” Bryant, as Sarah Huckabee, says, “My father is Mike Huckabee and my mother is a big southern hamburger” (Strause). She is also seen eating an apple with a knife, which is characteristically “un-ladylike.” The reporters in the sketch point out that Huckabee is more qualified than Spicer, but Spicer comes back and kicks Huckabee off the podium, and Huckabee just complies. However, sexist behavior in this sketch is often overlooked by Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious Spicer impression. In SNL sketches, “a powerful woman is the object of ridicule, not emulation, with humor called upon more to enforce than to challenge social norms” (Falk). This happens again in the sketch “Jake Tapper.” The sketch portrays Kellyanne Conway, played by Kate McKinnon, as violent and over-sexualized, everything a woman should not be according to society (Zilber). She throws knives and is seemingly turned on by being on the news. She is also shown as less than human; she drops out of a window, stands up, and explains how she only has three lives left. Once again, a woman in a position of power is ridiculed for acting like a white male with power. The next paragraph will introduce one specific example of a woman with power repeatedly ridiculed on SNL for having power and having ambition—Hillary Rodham Clinton.

When portraying politicians, SNL tends to focus “on the candidates’ failure to uphold traditional masculine and feminine ideals rather than critique the candidates’ level of competency in upholding presidential ideals” (Weinhold & Bodkin). Hillary Clinton is no exception to this. A total of 9 people have played Hillary Clinton on SNL, and each person has played her as strong, violent, and un-feminine, going against every stereotype commonly portrayed on television. In one sketch, Hillary Clinton is seen punching a wall when she loses the primary. “Most people would not think it funny if a male candidate in the privacy of his home punched a wall after losing a primary” (Falk). The humor of this sketch is that Clinton is violating a traditional gender norm for women. In the skit “Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Address the Nation”, Hillary is again seen as aggressive and driven for what she wants—the presidency. Women are not supposed to be too ambitious, so when Clinton doesn’t comply with gender stereotypes, SNL shows Clinton as masculine. In the same skit, Clinton says, “I invite the media to grow a pair, and if you can’t, you can borrow mine” (“Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton” 00:05:11-00:05:17). Like “Natalie’s Rap”, the writers are indicating that Clinton has male genitalia because a woman who is ambitious or aggressive cannot really be a woman. Clinton’s ruthless ambition is shown once more when she tells Palin (Tina Fey), “I didn’t want a woman to be president, I wanted to be president, and I just happen to be a woman” (“Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton” 00:03:38-00:03:41). Clinton is seen as anti-feminist and cruel. The satire of SNL does little to move the conversation beyond the personality and the sexuality of the presidential candidates. All of the political skits in the 2016 election year were based on non-conformity to gender roles. Clinton’s strongest traits, her aggression, her ambition, and her professional manner, become the punch line of Saturday Night Live’s jokes, and all because she doesn’t submit to the American culture’s stereotypical woman. 

Saturday Night Live is a major cultural artifact in America. It is important to analyze the show to determine what it says about our society and culture, especially based on what Americans find humorous. Obviously, we have a long way to go before equality is possible; although only a few skits were analyzed in this essay, there are so many more that reflect the same message: women are meant to be submissive. Women aren’t as important in a society based on the percentage of women in the cast, and it’s even worse for women of color. SNL has become bolder in the past three seasons. They critiqued the Oscars in the “Oscars So White” sketch and made fun of the lack of diversity in The Bachelor in the “Bland Man” sketch, yet the cast of Saturday Night Live has had the same percentage of women in the cast as it did in 1975. As a young girl, I remember watching SNL skits on a desktop computer with my friends. I look back to the days of laughing at Andy Samberg singing “I threw it on the ground,” and I am struck by how few role models I had through the show. What few women were in the cast were highly sexualized and portrayed as “scary.” I knew I didn’t want to be like them—I needed to be quiet and lack ambition. I did not want to be laughed at, made fun of, or mocked. In my experience, everyone has an SNL story; I hope one day they can be positive ones unlike my own experience and those of many other girls my age of all races and sexualities. It is time for a change in the cast of Saturday Night Live, but more importantly, it is time for a change in American culture. 

Figure 1. The breakdown of the cast of SNL by race and gender from 1975 to 2014.

Figure 2. The composition of SNL cast members by gender from 1975 to th present.
Figure 3. The percent of SNL hosts by race from 1975 to 2016.
Figure 4. The analysis of SNL hosts by race, data from 1975 to 2016.

Works Cited

Blevins, Joe. “Read This: How a Controversy over Diversity Ultimately Helped SNL.” AV News, Onion, Inc., 26 Jan. 2016, news.avclub.com/read-this-how-a-controversy-over-diversity-ultimately-1798243563.

D’addario, Daniel. “Where Are All the Female ‘Saturday Night Live’ Hosts?” Salon, 3 May 2013, www.salon.com/2013/05/03/where_are_all_the_female_saturday_night_live_hosts/.

Falk, Erika. “Stereotypes as the Basis for Humor in Saturday Night Live Parodies of Hillary Clinton.” Research in Depth, Media Report to Women, 2017, illiad.bc.edu/illiad/BXM/illiad.dll?Action=10&Form=75&Value=903957.

Kliff, Sarah. “The Tina Fey Effect.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 Mar. 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/the-tina-fey-effect/2012/03/09/gIQAwmjO1R_blog.html?utm_term=.6e34515b047f.

Lauzen, Martha. “The Funny Business of Being Tina Fey: Constructing a (Feminist) Comedy Icon.” Feminist Media Studies, Routledge, 16 Nov. 2012, www.tandfonline.com.proxy.bc.edu/doi/pdf/10.1080/14680777.2012.740060?needAccess=true.

Lee, Youyoung, and Troy Dunham. “38 Years Of SNL’s Diversity Problem, All In One Chart (INFOGRAPHIC).” The Huffington Post, HuffPost News, 17 Jan. 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/17/snl-diversity-problem_n_4611546.html.

Lieberman, Mark. “’Saturday Night Live’: More than 90 Percent of Hosts Are White – Why These Numbers Need to Change.” IndieWire, 10 Aug. 2016, www.indiewire.com/2016/05/saturday-night-live-more-than-90-percent-of-hosts-are-white-why-these-numbers-need-to-change-289051/.

Robinson, Joanna. “How Saturday Night Live’s Diversity Push Has Given the Show Its Political Edge Back.” HWD, Vanity Fair, 24 Jan. 2016, www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/01/snl-diversity-oscars-so-white-parody-bachelor.

Robinson, Melia. “23 Times Women Made History On ‘Saturday Night Live’.” Business Insider, 17 Jan. 2014, www.businessinsider.com/history-of-women-on-saturday-night-live-2014-1.

“Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Address the Nation.” NBC, NBCUniversal Studio, 13 Sept. 2008, www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/sarah-palin-and-hillary-clinton-address-the-nation/n12287.

Saturday Night Live, director. Natalie’s Rap. YouTube, 16 Aug. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=-A0iftflme4.

Strause, Jackie. “Mike Huckabee Says ‘SNL’ Parody of His Daughter Was ‘Sexist.’” The Hollywood Reporter, 16 May 2017, www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/mike-huckabee-snl-parody-daughter-sarah-huckabee-sanders-was-sexist-1004374.

Weinhold, Wendy M, and Alison Fisher Bodkin. “Homophobic masculinity and vulnerable femininity: SNL’s portrayals of Trump and Clinton.” Feminist Media Studies, Routledge, 28 Mar. 2017, www.tandfonline.com.proxy.bc.edu/doi/pdf/10.1080/14680777.2017.1304720?needAccess=true.

Zilber, Ariel. “Liberals Slam SNL for ‘Sexist’ Skit Parodying Conway.” Daily Mail Online, 13 Feb. 2017, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4218282/Liberals-slam-SNL-sexist-skit-parodying-Conway.html.