It's been a long, cold winter for SNL — and unfortunately for the classic sketch show, the cold snap started early and it's not over yet. After announcing that the talented Sasheer Zamata would be joining the cast in 2014, SNL also released the names of two black women writers who will help fill the void left by departing player Seth Meyers. LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones join the SNL writers Monday, but unfortunately, the series' issues still aren't fixed.
After weathering months of criticism over filling out the rather empty cast with four white men and one white woman and after longtime SNL player Kenan Thompson said there weren't any black comediennes who were "ready" for the show, SNL was in boiling hot water. In response, the show held secret auditions to find a black woman to join the cast and found Zamata, Tookes, and Jones. And while these women are incredibly talented (just try to watch Zamata's web series with Nicole Byers "Pursuit of Sexiness" without mainlining the entire thing) and absolutely deserving of their latest successes, the process of finding them was made into such a spectacle that SNL's celebration of their talent borders on disingenuous.
Because the criticism of SNL's lack of diversity — at least from some critics — is a more nuanced and layered issue. The problem is not just that SNL hasn't had a black comedienne on the show since Maya Rudolph, it's that since its inception, there have been only four women of color in the cast. Something, whether it be Lorne Michaels and Co.'s mentality or an unwelcoming environment, has kept the pool of SNL players to white men and women with a only a handful of black men, including Eddie Murphy, Tracy Morgan, and Chris Rock.
And the issue isn't exactly as new as it seems. The vehement criticism of SNL's lack of diversity came about after cast member Jay Pharoah lamented it himself in an interview with The Grio in which he suggested a possible addition to the cast:
Her name is Darmirra Brunson… why do I think she should be on the show? Because she’s black first of all, and she’s really talented. She’s amazing. She needs to be on SNL. I said it. And I believe they need to follow up with it like they said they were going to do last year.
Even before the internet became swept up with the issue, Pharoah was fed up with the lack of diversity — so much so, that he was even holding the series to a promise to remedy the issue.
The problem is not simply the all-white 2013 additions to the cast however, SNL responded as if it is by holding sudden auditions to find a single black woman to add to the cast almost immediately. In a way, they side-stepped the issue: Whoops, we messed up, here's a band aid so the internet stops hating us.
We came out on the other side with "victory" in Zamata's hire, but one that undermines her talent because her success doesn't necessarily change the mentality that's allowed for a largely homogeneous cast to prevail on SNL for the past 38 years. All SNL's new hire proves is that they're listening — not that they've learned anything.
Of course, the series and Michaels found themselves between a rock and their own history; there was no way SNL could truly win after such founded criticisms were lobbed. So yes, despite adding three very talented women of color to its roster, SNL will continue to be on watch. We will continue to ask the series to be better and to put forth a greater effort to achieve diversity — hell, the show still fails to represent the Latino and Asian communities — because diversity is not a one-stop shop. Despite some corporate distortions of the term, diversity isn't something you just pencil in and move on from until the next complaint comes in; it's something that becomes a part of everything you do.
Now, just because SNL's recent fixes don't count as their "win" doesn't mean the changes are not valuable. Talent is being recognized — even if the hand giving the pat on the back is being puppeted by the internet's rage — so it's only fair that we give SNL the chance to show that this act of good faith is just the first of many changes the show will continue to make. It's up to Michaels and Co. to ensure these new hires aren't just a one-off band aid, but the dawn of a better SNL.