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The SNL Effect: Black Women in Film and TV

A Discussion with Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson and Professor Glenda R. Carpio

By Lauren A. Rubin, Crimson Staff Writer

On Nov. 2, Kerry Washington was the ninth black woman to host “Saturday Night Live.” In a self-referential cold open, Washington portrayed Michelle Obama and then Oprah (and a whisper of Beyoncé), acknowledging the lack of black women on SNL’s cast. However funny the sketch was, its ability to deliver comically does not solve SNL’s problems with diversity. In addition to the nine black women who have hosted, in 751 shows over 38 years SNL has had four black female cast members (Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Ellen Cleghorne, and most recently, Maya Rudolph). If a sketch calls for a black woman, she is usually portrayed by a black male cast member (of which there have only been 7 in the show’s history). SNL has answered this troubling discrepancy with a humorous sketch, but does that mean that a real solution is near?

Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson, a fellow in the African & African American Studies Department, and Professor Glenda R. Carpio both teach classes that have deep implications regarding black women in entertainment—Jackson teaches African and African American Studies 139y: “Hollywood and History: Understanding American Slavery Through Film” and Carpio teaches African and African American Studies 112: “Black Humor: Performance, Art, and Literature.” They sat down with The Crimson to discuss Washington’s sketch and its larger repercussions on the future of African American women in Hollywood.

The Harvard Crimson: What did you both think of the sketch?

Kellie Carter Jackson: I didn’t think it was funny at all, and I kind of felt that it was demeaning in the sense that SNL knows that they have no black women on their show, so it was a backhanded apology where they were saying “oh we’re working on it, and in the meantime, we’re going to crack jokes about it.” It felt very disingenuous to have this sketch as a background into explaining why they have no black women. I didn’t find it funny at all.

Glenda R. Carpio: Well, I thought that the writing was not very good. I think it sticks to the formula that black people make jokes about being black; it puts things into racial categories. By the same token, you don’t see a lot of films about black culture that are not about black history. So, it’s a complicated set of issues, but the skit itself stuck to very traditional ways of thinking about race and humor.

THC: In response to the outrage over the issue, SNL actor Kenan Thompson insinuated that black women aren’t ready for comedy, stating that at SNL auditions they had never found any who were. Do you agree?

KCJ: Wow—to me, Kenan’s comment was very problematic because it also shows you how much Kenan is entrenched in the belief in this “good ol’ boys club,” which is not just SNL, but is representative of so many media outlets. If you were to look today on TV shows, you don’t see black women characters on comedy sketches on “Modern Family,” on your big shows that are popular now; I’ve never seen a black person on “The Big Bang Theory.” Even if you think of TV miniseries or film, it’s very difficult to just see black women in general, and I think it’s not just SNL that has a problem. It’s a larger problem, TV and film that has a huge problem of having and cultivating a white-male-privilege identity. And everything else revolves around that, and it’s very very exclusive. Out of 23 writers on SNL, only one is a black woman. I don’t think it’s reflective of the world we live in today—certainly not in 2013 where the United States is becoming more black and more brown. It’s not representative of what humor looks like on a national scale, or at least should look like on a national scale.

GRC: Let’s, for a second, give [SNL] the benefit of the doubt. Not that [black women are] not ready for it—I wouldn’t say that black women aren’t ready, but let’s just try and understand their position. Historically, women in general haven’t had physical outlets to do comedy. Women can be witty and even sarcastic on paper, and that’s a way of doing comedy that’s been safe for women. But take stand-up or sketch comedy, for instance, which relies a lot on body humor—not always, but it often does. This has prevented women from accessing the stage—more so for black women, for the complicated issues of race intersecting that. One iota of truth in Kenan’s statement is that we, as a nation, have not produced enough opportunities for that tradition to grow.

THC: So the main issue is that Hollywood has not created enough space and opportunity?

GRC: I think we don’t have enough venues for black women to think of themselves, from children onwards, in that way. We don’t see them on stage; we don’t have venues for them. Even within the black community, the huge names in comedy are mostly male. The humor adheres in some ways to patriarchal ways of thinking about sexuality and gender.

KCJ: It’s interesting, too, because Maya Rudolph has probably been the most successful black woman on the show, but part of that is because she is somewhat racially ambiguous. She doesn’t just play black women on the show—she’s played Lucy Liu, Barbra Streisand, a whole array of characters. It would be interesting to me to see how skin tone plays into the perceptions of humor and who can play what roles. Maya Rudolph can get a pass because she can somewhat pass. But for other women who have are dark skinned, they get relegated into spaces of what we think a darker skinned woman should look or act like.

THC: Does it make a difference that in recent years the black women that have appeared on the show have been light-skinned (Kerry Washington, Maya Rudolph, Halle Berry)?

KCJ: I think it’s all in terms of people’s perceptions, and that perception of lighter-skinned women is that they’re less threatening and more attractive to wider audiences. Dark-skinned women, in TV and definitely in film, have more aggressive roles—the stereotypical neck rolling and finger snapping and even their weight (they are usually heavy). All of that plays into people’s expectations of what they expect to see and what they think is funny. Maya Rudolph doesn’t fit those traditional expectations, and Kerry Washington, to some degree, doesn’t either. “Scandal” has allowed her to do a lot more than other women, that other black women haven’t been able to do in recent years.

GRC: We often look at these issues from the perspective of the actors, but it is important to look at the shows from the perspective of the writers. Kerry Washington is such a talented actress and could have done a lot more if she had better writing on SNL. So it’s not only a matter of who is going to be funny on stage, but who is also able to imagine the world from a black woman’s perspective and what might be funny from a black woman’s perspective.

THC: Founding producer Lorne Michaels responded that he’s sure this problem will rectify itself but that it’s not a priority. Does this attitude imply that this Hollywood casting process somehow sets black women up to fail? Or is this a societal issue?

KCJ: It’s not so much a matter of black women “coming around,” but the culture changing—the producers, the writers, the advertisers—everything that is involved in making a show; everyone who has power in giving a yay or nay. That culture has to change. Power can seize nothing without demand. Martin Luther King Jr. says “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability”—it requires constant agitation. You can’t just say that in time things will get better and not expect things to be in play to lead up the change. Change and progress are not inevitable. It comes through a demand, agitation, activism, a changing of the culture. Until you start to see more black women writers, more Latina women writers, more Asian women writers—because it’s not just an issue of not having black women—until you can get more representations within the writers and the producers and all of the people calling shots, you’re never going to see a reflection change on camera. Until the culture changes, I don’t see this changing.

THC: So do you think this issue stems from culture or Hollywood?

GRC: They’re mutually constituted—Hollywood creates us and we create Hollywood. We have to talk about what happens when we put race into humor. Humor relies on melodrama and sentimentalism. Americans don’t also go to humor and race and gender because it brings up all the dirty laundry, and I don’t know that you can do that on SNL. You can do that in a medium that is less censored. But what we get when, say, we put gender and race in humor is really edgy stuff. For instance, Richard Pryor’s show was canceled; he couldn’t work within it, because he wanted to bring up things that were not kosher for regular TV, barely kosher for “Comedy Central.” This is part of the problem too—the discourses that we have are limited to feeling about racial issues, but feeling on the surface.

THC: So does the future rely on film as a medium for this progress?

KCJ: The producers are all coming from the same pot. A lot of people who are in film are in TV and vice versa. They’re operating out of the same machine but with different agendas. When you go up to the highest levels, people of color are just not there. In terms of the highest power structure—the CEOs, the people who own the TV stations, the people who own the industry—people of color are just not in there. Until you see changes at the top, those things will filter down somewhat. Or until people push up from the bottom, saying “this is what we want,” you won’t get change. People have to demand. People have been outraged that black women aren’t on SNL; I haven’t seen a real movement or people mobilizing or spotlighting them or creating more shows or venues for people of color. But it’s out there. If you go on YouTube you can find people who would be great on SNL. But people see that as a risk—people won’t find that funny, or it won’t become profitable. Profit is the bottom line at the end of the day, which means you’ll never get the humor you want because being funny is not your main interest, it’s making money. That is problematic.

GRC: What makes money is a safe way of talking about race. Taking chances on representation is always a question of a risk. Take “12 Years A Slave”—a lot of the discussion around it was whether it would make money. It's an interesting question because the film is so invested in getting us to think historically, it’s not about entertainment. You don’t go to see that film to watch passively and enjoy. You might enjoy the artistry but certainly not the plot. So are we talking about entertainment or things that push the envelope? SNL is mainly entertainment. So the question might be, what is a safe way to put black women on stage? Well, looking historically at the subject of “black women in America,” the history behind that is not very safe!

THC: What about someone like Tyler Perry, who is broaching these unsafe topics and has also managed to be very successful?

KCJ: Tyler Perry has done a lot of the black comedies that have come out recently. He’s been hugely successful in the black and outside the black community—it’s not just black people who see his films. But Tyler Perry also operates in a very fixed formula that doesn’t diverge from the same characters. He recycles them a lot—the language, the vernacular, the humor. All of it is very structured and formulaic in terms of what you expect to see in a Tyler Perry film. All of it will have a moral, Christian bend to it. That’s his M.O. I can appreciate the fact that he is providing black people with jobs and visible roles. I can applaud that. I’m not a huge fan of his, because I don’t see myself being represented in his films. A lot of his films are anti-woman, especially his last film “Temptation” which was awful. It kind of said, “if you cheat on your husband, you will get AIDS and die,” which was almost the essential premise of the film—that if you are not this moral woman, that you deserve damnation and every single evil you can imagine. The issue I have with Tyler Perry is the issue I have in a general sense: when you look at white directors, and you look at white men who are making film, there’s a whole spectrum and range—you can pull on Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, and Scorsese. But when it comes to a black film, it’s like Spike Lee and Tyler Perry and that’s it. And when you look at black women directors, it’s like "who?" I don’t mind Tyler Perry, but I don’t want Tyler Perry to be the only story of black comedy or black film. I want the same level of diversity that white audiences have when they see film in terms of how many stories are told, when they’re told—a spectrum of diversity, and not one person can do all that. Even if Tyler Perry was making good films, he can’t do all of that by himself.

THC: You mention Perry’s recycling of characters like Madea, which have been thought to continue perpetuating stereotypes like “the mammy.” What are your thoughts on this?

KCJ: I’m highly offended every time I see a black man dress up as a black women. When women dress up as men, it’s not funny. When men dress up as women, it is a form of mockery that I feel makes women into these ridiculous characters. It’s always oversize breasts and ridiculous wigs; it is the whole notion that women are superficial, ridiculous, frivolous, stupid—all of these negative attributes. No man dresses up as a woman as a compliment—it’s always a form of mockery, always a place of denigration. That goes for Kenan Thompson, for Tyler Perry, for Eddie Murphy. Even when white men dress up as women. For me, it screams farce. It’s hard to find that to be funny the more I become sensitive to issues of imagery and representation and I feel as though the whole man dressed up as a woman thing is tired. You almost expect it when it comes out. Because Tyler Perry perpetuates that with the Madea, and there’s so much around that—she’s a big black women and she’s sassy, all of these stereotypes we think black women are. It’s hard for women to compete for an authentic space when even men are co-opting those spaces, thinking “we can play a woman better than you.” It boggles my mind that men think they can be funnier playing us, than to actually have us playing authentic characters of women ourselves.

GRC: Call me a snob, but I go for, “do you have the chops to do good comedy? Is this actually funny?” Politically correct does not always go hand-in-hand with good comedy. Black humor has only been desegregated since the late '60s—so that’s only about a 45-year period—which is not a long time since black humor has become more mainstream. There are still pockets of black humor that are still in pockets. Some of Tyler Perry’s films live in those pockets, and some of the work he does is in this Christian air that keeps him from writing really good comedy, to be honest. You can’t tell the truth about anyone if you can’t tell the truth about yourself. If you have these blind spots and misogyny, you might make humor out of that and it might be funny to some people, but will it be humor that outlives time? Not sure.

—Staff writer Lauren A. Rubin can be reached at LaurenRubin@college.harvard.edu.

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