Saturday Night Live's Contribution to the Erasure of Black Women in Comedy
By Sam Stroozas
Black women are often left out of the conversation of comedy because of their intersecting identities. Oppression relies on stereotypes and marginalization that will allow the privileged group to reign within any discourse, and set the oppressed group back to a colonial-era view of representation. In particular, Saturday Night Live has felt the heat from society for their lack of black female comedians. They have had many black men, and many white women on their show, but they fail to see the ways that their ignorance of the black female identity has created an unsuitable atmosphere for black female comedians.
When SNL premiered in 1975, the cast of seven had one person of color. It was not until 1980 that Yvonne Hudson was cast as the first black woman. She had minor roles, and little airtime that lasted through her tenure until 1984. After her departure, SNL cast Danitra Vance, a black lesbian on the show. Many of her skits existed around her identities and failed to focus on the fact that she was a strong comedian. She starred in skits such as, “That Black Girl” and “Shakespeare in the Slums.” SNL was deeply dedicated to maintaining negative racial stereotypes that would further isolate black women from the social discourse.
Vance lasted one season on SNL and died shortly after in 1994 from breast cancer. In an interview with her family after her death, they commented on how Vance felt about her role on SNL, “She resented routinely being cast as a maid or a prostitute. More than anything, she wanted to work to communicate the inner lives of black women, real black women, not stereotypes.”
Vance left a legacy of what black female performance could look like through a comedic lens. Her discontent towards SNL highlights the notable struggle Vance experienced as a queer woman of color. When implicit biases are reinforced through stereotypical roles and lines for black women on television, it becomes easy for people to quantify them in stereotypical roles rather than unique identities.
Ellen Cleghorne, who joined SNL in 1991, served as just that - a tokenized representation of inaccurate historical black female portrayal. Cleghorne entered the SNL social realm in an important part of its regressive nature that embodied the White Male complex, “Hailing from the black housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Cleghorne endured the show at the height not just of its whiteness but of its frattiness, going up against the sophomoric boys club of David Spade, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider.”
Cleghorne lasted four years on SNL and primarily starred as “Queen Shenequa.” She was coined as the ‘soul sister’ of the show and wore mock African garments and talked about ‘growing up in the projects’ and relied on black stereotypes to fuel her character. By continuing the isolation between white and black characters on the show, Cleghorne created a divide in the mind of SNL viewers. This further proves the average white viewer’s level of discomfort in seeing black comedians mainstreamed in comedy; it was simpler to stick to the status quo and see them as an ‘other,’ rather than as a person existing in the same discourse as white comedians.
Maya Rudolph joined the cast in 2000 and served as the interchangeable actor for black, jewish, latinx, asian and white characters. Rudolph's malleable nature caused her to have retention as a comedian on the show, “...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.”
With Rudolph representing the infrastructure of internalized racism on the show, she was able to create a sense of exclusion to actors who actually held the identities she was acting as. Her privilege within her biracial identity is never discussed, even though she benefits from the system of colorism. She is dedicated to the cause of representation for women of color in comedy, but her success led to the downfall of truly intersectional representation. Her moldable characters proved to the average viewer that equal representation was not needed.
Kerry Washington guest starred on SNL during the criticism they received post Rudolph's departure. In one episode, Washington played Michelle Obama, Oprah and Beyoncé - allowing SNL to claim that they met their quota of black female representation for the year from a guest star, rather than hiring another black female comedian.
From 2007-2014, SNL did not have a black female lead. In 2014 they hired two, Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones. SNL struggled to utilize Zamata unless it was for ‘celebrity impersonation.’ Many of Zamata’s youtube videos explore her identity issue with not being seen as urban enough, “Her comedy isn’t rooted in black culture, but in the clash of cultures that goes on daily in the demilitarized zone around America’s color line—in other words, the kind of racial humor that would go over at a place like Saturday Night Live.” She was hired during the peak of the diversity issue SNL was facing, and regardless of the fact that they knew their tokenism was a continuing issue, the most successful of Zamata’s skits were rooted in the ostracization of her racial identity. Zamata quietly left SNL in 2017 and was given no camera farewell.
Jones has remained a character on SNL, despite her mocking of slavery, Jones said in a Weekend Update skit, “The way we view black beauty has changed, look at me, I am single right now, but back in the slave days I would have never been single. Back in the slave days, my love life would have been way better. Massah would have hooked me up with the best brother on the plantation and every nine months I would be in the corner having a superbaby. I would be the number one slave draft pick.”
Not only is Jones not a slave, she also mocked the horrible reality that many black women faced during the peak of slavery in the United States. Black women did not ‘hook up’ with others, they were brutally raped and forced to produce more children to increase the slave workforce. Jones defended her statement on Twitter saying, “If anybody should be offended it’s white folks cause it’s what they did, Y’all so busy trying to be self righteous you miss what the joke really is.”
Jones attempted to erase the experience of thousands of black women and blame it on white fragility. Her continuation on SNL defines how comfortable America is with the minimizing of racist history and colonization.
Ego Nwodim recently joined the cast for 44th season in 2018, debuting as the seventh black female comedic on the show. There has been little coverage on her development as a black women in the regressive nature on SNL’s diversity issue.
In Black Looks: Race and Representation written by bell hooks, she quotes filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, “Images play a crucial role in defining and controlling the political and social power to which both individuals and marginalized groups have access. The deeply rooted ideological nature of imagery determines not only how other people think about us, but how we think about ourselves.
hooks then adds herself, “I ask that we consider the perspective from which we look vigilantly asking ourselves who we identify with, whose image we love, And if we, black people, have learned to cherish hateful images of ourselves, then what process of looking allows us to counter the seduction of the images that threatens to dehumanize and colonize.”
SNL undoubtedly continues to have a racial bias against black women, and reinforces not only the stereotypes that they must encounter in society, but also contributes to the constant erasure they face in media.