Everyone’s second favorite member of Keenan & Kel made waves on and off-line recently after giving an interview to TVGuide.com in which he suggested the reason there are no black women on SNL is that “(in the audition process) they just never find ones that are ready.” Even though the current Nielsen ratings of the show seem to suggest that SNL isn’t ready for SNL, Keenan Thompson’s comments deserve some analysis. After all, how could a black man so easily dismiss the women of his own race? Turns out, the answer to that question is easier than it seems.
Ever since black women have been allowed on television screens in the United States, they have been marginalized to a ghastly extent. In the early days of broadcast television, black women were cast almost exclusively as maids – but not the fun French ones with frilly uniforms and seductive smiles. These maids were docile, of low intelligence, and prone to bursts of emotion and surprise designed to appease and entertain a largely-white American audience. These maids were also overweight, unattractive, and their only humor rested in their inability to correctly conform to the standards of life and beauty that America demanded at the time.
Even after the diversification of the United States, black women were still restricted in the roles they were allowed to play on television and film. They were angry and oppressive mothers, silent secondary-characters, destructive harlots, or absent altogether. Arguably worse, they were (and still are) portrayed by black men in over-the-top drag (shout out to Eddie Murphy and Tyler Perry!) who make more of a mockery of black womanhood than their original oppressors. It wasn’t until Oprah Winfrey’s TV-movie 1989 The Women of Brewster Place that a wide range of black womanhood was put on display for a national audience in a contemporary way unadulterated by the consumed stereotypes and derogatory visions of bigoted directors, cast, and crew. It hasn’t been until even more recently that black women have earned starring roles in network television shows, with Kerry Washington (Scandal, 2012 – present) and Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow, 2013) making their presence known on ABC and FOX, respectively. But they aren’t on TV to make people laugh.
Black women who want to make people laugh have had to take alternative routes. Issa Rae (who is currently working on a new series for HBO after her comedy I Hate L.A. Dudes – which was co-produced by Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes – was rejected by ABC in August) began her creative journey by creating and posting several comedic webisode series, most notably the wildly successful “Awkward Black Girl.” Franchesca Ramsey – most known for her YouTube hit “Shit White Girls Say To Black Girls” and an active uploader – is another black woman comedian who even auditioned for SNL (and lamented about the bad experience on her Twitter account, @chescaleigh). But to list all of the black women comedians taking over the Internet with modern and clever comedy would be wasteful (and insulting) considering how many talented individuals are out there attempting to disperse their work and make their names known. If you have doubts, Google.
But even outside of low-stream media, black women have been making successful rounds in the comedy circuit on mainstream television and movies for years. Even though names like Aisha Taylor, Wanda Sykes, and Queen Latifah are the only ones on immediate-recall for most, there are scores of other talented black comediennes making audiences laugh around the country. Again, consult Google.
So, are black women ready to overcome a history of representative oppression and ignorance to make audiences fall out on SNL? Probably not.
This season, only four of the sixteen SNL cast-members are people of color. None of the new features are one of the minorities, and in the entire 39-year history of SNL, only four black women comedians have ever been featured as cast members. “Coincidence”, “chance”, and “oops” my ass – this is intentional. SNL is not an entertainment structure that black women have been or are able to operate within. It’s writers and talent would rather opt for a black-man-in-drag than find an actual black woman. And if Americans still find it funny, why kill a machine that works?
The real problem here isn’t even really Lorne Michaels, SNL, or Keenan Thompson – it’s a society poised to strike down the unfamiliar and to maintain a hierarchy where black womanhood – or to be more accurate, woman-of-color-hood in general – must be kept wrapped up in a second-class existence where they can’t be “funny” or “sexy” or “smart” in the way that their white and male counterparts are. Until that issue is recognized, discussed, and eradicated, a black woman will never be ready for SNL.
But who knows – maybe a black woman on SNL is exactly what’s needed to help kick-start the revolution. Time will tell.