Is 'SNL' the New Battleground for Minority Representation?
It is a well-known fact that the United States on television does not represent the United States in reality. From BMI to race to breast size, there is relatively little overlap between your average reality show cast and your average reality subway car. Nonetheless, racial representation on television can fluctuate with the times. Saturday Night Live in particular made waves when they brought on Sasheer Zamata, the first black female cast member since Maya Rudolph. More recently, Latinas have been calling for a place on the cast. The self-proclaimed Comedy Girls posted a video on YouTube on March 13, in which they effectively ask Lorne, "Why no Latinas?" The clip is a response to SNL's recent "Jewelry Party" sketch, a call for Latina representation on SNL, and a two-woman bid for fame. It is partly effective.
Clearly, this video unearths and purports to answer a number of questions that have been bouncing around in the entertainment world. Should shows strive for racial representation that matches current demographics? (Yes.) Do shows like SNL need a representative from each race in order to talk about or perform that race? (Yes.) Are stereotypes, when performed by a member of that community, funny without being offensive? (Yes.) Finally, by demanding representation predominantly based on their race, are these women moving towards an entertainment world that sees past race or perpetuating racial divisions? (To be determined.)
These women have comedic range. They cover a number of common Latina and Latino stereotypes in less than three minutes. They also have a self-awareness that culminates in the joke, "I speak for all [the Latinas]. Read the memo." They tell Michaels, "The truth is, your show and many others stereotype us because you don't know us." For me, though, one joke falls flat. They state, "When you hire us, people will know that you don't hate Latinas." Obviously, they're not launching a discrimination lawsuit against the show, and they don't think that Michaels is actually racist. The unfortunate impact, however, is the implicit message, "Hire us to prove you're not racist. And so you can finally skewer Latin Americans without being offensive."
The problem here is not just SNL's lack of diversity (why are there no Asian-Americans, either?) or the idea of promoting your race to gain a role. What this clip is attempting to grasp is an overall problem with our society. SNL, in this case, is a flashpoint for exploration of America's ongoing race issues, one of which is that not every racial subgroup has equal voice, or a voice proportionate to their demographic size. These two women are approaching the topic through comedy, and through a joking appeal to Lorne Michaels. Comedy is social commentary, and SNL is, perhaps, a show that many praise for its potential for change.
We have to ask, though, will racial representation on SNL be enough? Or are we trying to create "true" diversity in our entertainment so that we can fool ourselves into thinking we've attained it in our lives? Will racial stereotypes, when performed by members of that race, lead us closer to understanding others? Slate writes, "One of the reasons Chappelle abandoned his sketch comedy series at its peak of popularity was that he grew uncomfortable with the response to his racially charged humor from white audiences." There is a fine line between "laughing with" and "laughing at," and racial humor walks that line. Does watching a person perform their race's stereotypes necessarily promote greater understanding?
In short, I both applaud and take issue with the efforts of these two women. As our society progresses in the twenty-teens and beyond, I certainly hope that more voices from diverse backgrounds make their mark on entertainment. I also hope that, while shows like SNL continue to parody society and politics, they don't rely on racial humor or race-appropriate impressions alone from their minority cast members. It clearly won't change the United States from the ground up, but it will allow aspiring comedians to have faith in their ability regardless of race or gender.
Image: Comedy Girls