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.

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!”

One of the most notable episodes of Vance’s season was in spring of 1986 when Oprah Winfrey hosted. In the cold opening, Vance played Celie (from The Color Purple), who is working as Lorne Michaels’s personal assistant. Vance tells Michaels that if he wants Oprah to play stereotypically black roles he should beat her. The sketch ended with Oprah putting Lorne into a headlock. Later on in that same episode, Vance sang “I Play the Maids,” in a musical parody about the black actress’s frustration over being typecast on film and television. So in that instance, as with Washington’s opening sketch last weekend, Saturday Night Live tackled the plight of black actresses head-on. Yet the writers continued to pigeonhole Vance until her departure in 1986.

Ellen Cleghorne as Queen Shenequa. (NBC)

In 1991, Ellen Cleghorne joined the SNL cast and was the first black comedienne to last more than one season; she lasted four. She had been a fixture in the New York City stand-up comedy circuit, and was discovered by SNL producers after appearing in two episodes of In Living Color. Throughout her tenure on the show, Cleghorne performed various celebrity impressions and had two recurring characters of her own: Queen Shenequa and Zoraida. Queen Shenequa was an Afrocentric social critic who dressed in African garb and provided commentary with an eye roll and a neck twist—affectations that reinforce the stereotype of the loud, sassy black woman. Cleghorne also played Zoraida, a pushy Latina NBC page, who wore not one but two big gold hoop earrings in each ear. Zoraida was known for behaving aggressively towards celebrities, even asking Joe Pesci in one sketch, “What makes you think I wont cut you?” Cleghorne departed Saturday Night Live in 1995.

It would be five more years until Saturday Night Live hired another black comedienne. A biracial beauty from Gainesville, Florida, Maya Rudolph lasted on Saturday Night Live for seven years; her ability to pass for white, Latina, and Asian undoubtedly contributed to the actress’s longevity on the show. She could impersonate not only Oprah Winfrey and Tina Turner, but also Barbra Streisand, Lucy Liu, and Jennifer Lopez. As a black woman with fair skin, Rudolph was able to escape the stereotypical caricatures assigned to her comedic predecessors. She left the cast in 2007 and now, for the first time in SNL history, show has gone more than five years without a black female cast member.

Maya Rudolph as Barbra Streisand. (NBC)

How to explain SNL’s long, persistent history of alternately ignoring and boxing in black women? As the Essence survey shows, it’s part of a broader phenomenon in pop culture. With few black directors, writers, and producers behind network shows and feature films, Hollywood’s all-white boys club continues to dominate most of America’s cultural conversation. The SNL writers’ room is no exception. Out of 23 current staff members, only one writer is black.

With the advent of YouTube and digital media, if SNL isn’t finding great talent, it’s probably because the casting methods have lagged behind the times. Millennial black comediennes might be getting overlooked because their progressive characters don’t fit roles the show is used to. Perhaps it’s not that black women aren’t “ready” for SNL; it’s that SNL isn’t ready for a black woman. And it won’t be—until the show is ready to change the roles it asks black actresses to play.