The Real Problem With SNL and Casting Black Women

It's not that black women aren't ready for Saturday Night Live. With its limited, stereotype-reinforcing roles, SNL doesn't seem ready for them.
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Kerry Washington as Oprah during a recent SNL skit that mocked the show's lack of diversity. NBC)

An Essence survey published last month revealed what many black women already know: Pop culture doesn’t depict them accurately. The ones polled by the magazine (with the help of a research firm) said the other black women they know tend to fall into positive categories like “Young Phenom” or “Acculturated Girl Next Door.” But images of black women “on TV, in social media, in music videos and from other outlets,” the survey found, were “overwhelmingly negative,” conforming to stereotypes like “Gold Diggers, Modern Jezebels, Baby Mamas, Uneducated Sisters, Ratchet Women, Angry Black Women, Mean Black Girls, Unhealthy Black Women, and Black Barbies.”

Had it been included, last week’s Saturday Night Live episode would have made the findings even starker. Scandal star Kerry Washington appeared in sketches as a nagging girlfriend; a sassy, eye-rolling assistant; and a rageful Ugandan beauty queen. There were no roles where her race and gender wasn’t an issue.

It was the opening sketch, though, that called the most attention to the fact that Washington’s a black woman. In it, she played Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Beyonce, and the producers apologized to the actress for forcing her to undergo multiple wardrobe changes in one scene. The sketch was a mea culpa on the show’s behalf, a way of addressing recent headlines pointing out that SNL hasn’t had a black female on its cast for six years.

That was a savvy move on creator Lorne Michaels’s part. Kenan Thompson had ignited a firestorm by implying to TV Guide that he blames the lack of diversity on black female comedians’ chops, saying, “they just never find the ones who are ready.” The text that ran across the screen at the start of last week’s episode said the producers "agree that this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future.”

But the focus on SNL’s supposed inability to find black comediennes obscures the larger issue. The Kerry Washington episode, and the show’s long history, suggests that Saturday Night Live just doesn't know what to do with black women. The roles it offers to them fall in line with much of the rest of popular media: stereotypical, demeaning, and scarce.

The show’s diversity problems go back to its very start. During the first season of SNL, which debuted in 1975, there were nine cast members, including three white women (Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner) and one black man (Garrett Morris). For the next five years, whenever a sketch called for a black woman, the part would be played by Morris in drag. Some of his celebrity impressions include Diana Ross, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tina Turner. In 1980, Eddie Murphy became the second black man to join, and Yvonne Hudson would be SNL’s first black woman.

Hudson only lasted for one season and never had any prominent or recurring characters. Instead, she played stereotypical, subservient black women; it was as if the writers didn’t think she could convincingly play anything else. Hudson’s various (and sometimes, uncredited) roles include a maid, a nurse, a slave, and a character listed on IMDB as simply, “Black Woman.” Hudson was fired at the end of the season along with a slew of other cast members.

Vance as Cabrini Green Jackson. (NBC)

SNL would go another five years before it would see its next black female cast member. Danitra Vance, who on the Season 11 premiere, was a classically trained Shakespearean actor who also performed at the famed Second City Theater. One of Vance’s two recurring characters was a 17-year-old welfare mother who gave advice about pregnancy.  In her debut sketch, Cabrini Green Jackson (Vance) introduced herself by saying, “I'm 17 years old, and I have two children. I speak for teenage mothers … just-about-to-be-mothers, and … don't-wanna-be-mothers—I been all three!” while holding up an “I Don’t Want A Baby Coloring Book.” A character straight from the hood, her name Cabrini Green references a famous housing project in north Chicago. In another sketch, “That Black Girl,” Vance plays LaToya Marie, a black actress who will do anything to get famous, saying “I'll finally be out of poverty, but I'm already out of ... integrity!”

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Kerry Coddett is a comedian in New York City, an Upright Citizens Brigade Diversity Scholar, and the creator of the sketch-comedy web series The Coddett Project.

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