Can Satire Fix 'SNL's Diversity Issue?

This past Saturday, Nov. 2, the star of Scandal, Kerry Washington, hosted Saturday Night Live . Obviously, the SNL writers used the appearance of a black woman hosting to exhaust every single black female stereotype they could in a slew of sketches that were tepid at best. Perhaps the humor would not have been lost on me if it weren't for the brazen, apathetic ballsiness with which SNL approached the race issue in Washington's episode. The cold open starred Jay Pharoah playing Barack Obama, and Washington playing Michelle; he jokes, "I feel like I haven't seen you in years!," a tawdry wink at the fact that SNL has not had a black female cast member since Maya Rudolph left (sob) in 2007.

Then Taran Killam enters, playing a presidential aide, and informs the Obamas that Oprah Winfrey is here — at which point Washington has to leave the stage, to come back as Winfrey, and then again has to leave to dress as Beyonce. During the time she's off-screen, this message scrolls: "The producers of SNL would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests 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 this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the future… unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”

It's almost like a punch in the gut — not only are the producers of SNL aware that they have a glaring lack of diversity in their cast, but they reduce it to "not ideal" and promise that they'll get to it "eventually," as if representing black women in their cast was akin to replacing the head on their electric toothbrush. Sure, it's important, but they don't really give a shit because it doesn't affect them THAT much. Lorne Michaels recently told the Associated Press, "It’s not like it’s not a priority for us. It will happen. I’m sure it will happen." Ah, such compassion! Such gusto!

As Kendra James notes over at Racialicious:

Sure, SNL addressed their lack of Black women directly in the cold open, but joking about the glaring absence really loses all effectiveness if you don’t take steps to fix it immediately after ... [the] joke could only retain legs if at the end of the show they’d announced the addition of a full time Black female cast member.

Exactly. The cold open, and the gratuity with which the rest of the episode's sketches were so blatantly about black women — WE HAVE ONE FOR A MINUTE — were a scant offering to alleviate the firestorm that SNL has rightly faced for being so deaf to critics of their diversity issue. This comes after the controversy when Kenan Thompson, one of the show's two black stars, said earlier this year that there just aren't any black women ready for the SNL stage.

Blah. While I was happy to see Washington host the show, what was the point of the self-awareness in the episode when there is no real promise of a coming change? At the end of the cold open, the real Al Sharpton appears: "What have we learned from this sketch? As usual, nothing." SNL, which used to be an edgy pioneer, is clearly becoming dated and, obviously, incredibly white-washed. Their attempt to absolve themselves from the "race issue" that now permeates every episode was weak, lazy, and did not honor the very real critiques of the show as an institution that does not support diversity.

Where to go from here? Will they hire a black woman to be a permanent cast member? According to Lorne Michaels, yes, some time soon, probably. But by the time they add that woman... who will be watching the show? Saturday Night Live is no longer a venue for scathing cultural commentary as it once was; as we saw on Saturday's episode, the only barbs it has left to offer are at itself. And I don't think they are in on the joke.

How long as an audience do we have to hold on to hope that they'll change their ways? At some point, we have to just turn the TV off.

Image: NBC