Earlier this week, Merriam-Webster announced its 2022 word of the year: gaslighting. The dictionary’s selection of the term—defined as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage”—was in part a response to public demand: Searches for gaslighting rose by 1,740 percent over the past 12 months. That interest might reflect the fact that gaslighting describes so much, so efficiently. It emphasizes the emotional consequences of lies, capturing the destabilizing feeling that can set in when someone or something keeps telling you that your perception of reality is wrong.
Many recent works of culture have tried to give shape to that feeling. The latest attempt, appropriately, found its articulation through a mouthless cat. Last night’s Saturday Night Live, hosted by Keke Palmer, displayed the show’s usual mix of topical humor (the night’s roastees included Herschel Walker, Mitch McConnell, and Ye) and broad observation. But one sketch, in particular, managed to capture this dizzying political moment by thoroughly conceding to its absurdities. The setting: an employee training at a Sanrio store in New York City. The players: two store managers who were familiarizing four new hires with Sanrio’s “official Hello Kitty story.” Among the facts that the managers insisted on: Hello Kitty is “a human little girl.” She has a boyfriend named Dear Daniel, who actually is a cat. She is in the third grade. She is also, somehow, 48 years old.
The sketch was, on its face, a skewering of the ever-expanding Hello Kitty commercial universe, which features many of the clichés of modern marketing: “collabs,” children’s goods sold to adults, ludicrous brand extensions. A good portion of the “facts” the managers shared in the sketch were real claims that Sanrio, Hello Kitty’s parent company, has made: The company really does argue that its flagship bit of IP—whiskered, pointy-eared, and surnamed Kitty—is a human girl. Its website really does insist, earnestly and somewhat militantly, that she was born in the suburbs of London, and that she “lives with her parents and her twin sister Mimmy who is her best friend.”
But the real target of the joke was not Hello Kitty herself, thankfully. (A formative ritual of my childhood involved visiting stores’ Hello Kitty sections; the pens and erasers and stationery sets smelled of strawberry and possibility, and I cherished them.) Instead, the satire came at the expense of the managers, played by Cecily Strong and Molly Kearney, who treated their training session as an indoctrination—and who kept insisting, with Kool-Aid-drunk fervor, that the “facts” they were imparting about a fictional feline were inarguable truths. With that upside-down premise, the sketch mocked the speed with which, fandom, today, can turn toxic. It mocked the authors who try to retcon their own canons. And it mocked, above all, the people who think they can retcon reality itself.
The sketch aired the day after Elon Musk—a very rich man and a very poor steward of Twitter—advertised new “revelations” about Hunter Biden’s laptop. The “reporting” he teased was neither journalism nor much of a scandal. But, like the Hello Kitty managers, he intimated that he alone had access to the “official” story—that he alone had the authority to determine the facts. The sketch’s two most vocal trainees, played by Palmer and Bowen Yang, captured the emotional stakes of the powerful man’s assumption. Alternately confused and amused and offended, they widened their eyes as more “official facts” were flung their way. They grew even more baffled as the managers revealed that Sanrio’s executives, despite all the details they have claimed for Hello Kitty, have declined to specify her race. (“She has an age, height, pet, and relationship, but she’s raceless?” Yang yells, practically vibrating with confusion.) Their despair was eloquent. When down is up and up is down, it becomes ever more difficult—and exhausting—to stay steady.
“Hello Kitty” was a punctuation mark to an episode that suggested how riddled this moment is with category errors. In the cold open, Herschel Walker, played by Kenan Thompson, referred to McConnell as “Mitch McDonalds” and called a revolving door a “merry-go-round,” the mistakes drawing attention to Walker’s woeful miscasting as a politician. Palmer’s monologue culminated in an announcement that she was expecting a child, thus reframing the intimacies of pregnancy as a media event. (“It is bad when people on the internet spread rumors about you, y’all,” she joked, “but it is even worse when they’re correct.”) On “Weekend Update,” Colin Jost discussed “the brain fog of long-haul Kanye”—likening Ye, the human, to Ye, the chronic symptom.
A truism of Saturday Night Live, and of satire as a whole, is that its task is made more difficult when a culture already makes fun of itself. There’s a timely logic, then, to SNL’s embrace of absurdity. Gaslighting, before it was applied to American politics, was a term of domestic violence: It emphasized the sense of unreality that can descend when an abuser tries to convince someone that their understanding of the world is mistaken. It is a term of trauma, reclaimed for this political moment—a time of big lies and small, and a time when people who claim authority insist that, though the creature looks like a cat and acts like a cat, she is, in fact, a 48-year-old little girl.