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SNL “Addresses” Diversity Controversy – Black Girls Still Rock

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Amidst cast controversy and Kerry Washington just generally being awesome there was a lot of buildup to the actress’s first hosting stint on Saturday Night Live this past weekend.

Turns out the actress is not one to fall into the category of black women actresses/comedians who simply aren’t ready for that high profile gig.

In fact (!) her debut delivered SNL’s highest ratings this season.

Washington is uber-talented and fun to watch– but the material she was given to work with was a bummer.

The skit that garnered the most attention after the lights dimmed and the show was over was the cold open featuring Washington playing Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey (and Beyoncé) while having a back and forth with President Obama (played by Jay Pharoah) which addressed SNL’s diversity controversy head on. As Washington played exasperation at all the costume changes required for her to play all these black women, the skit was interrupted by a message from the producers:

The producers at Saturday Night Live would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight.  We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because SNL does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future. Unless of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.

The skit then ended with an Al Sharpton cameo wherein the Rev appeared to ask “What have we learned from this sketch?  As usual, nothing.”

I don’t know, guys…

I wasn’t thrilled about this opening.  On the one hand it’s a positive that they addressed the controversy at all but on the other hand it was done in a way that made it the story.  Maybe that would have been the case regardless and maybe this was an attempt to address it, crack some jokes, and move on with the rest of the show.  If that’s the case- then for me, mission not accomplished.

The lack of diversity over at SNL isn’t funny.  The message from the producers fails to acknowledge that there are also no Asian Americans or Latinos on the show either.  To attempt to turn this into a tongue and cheek “whoops!” sort of moment when the show’s been without a black female cast member since 2007 just strikes me as an attempt to deal with it in a way that doesn’t actually deal with anything.  The whole thing felt awkward to me because this accidental “‘whoops’ didn’t see you there” is still very much a real thing.

People are currently voting in New York City and today- in 2013- Public Advocate Tish James is poised to be the first black woman to hold city-wide elected office.

The first one ever.

A few years ago– lots of folks celebrated Hillary Clinton as the nation’s first woman to run for President as if Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 Presidential run never was.

Stuff like this happens and all the time.  As a black woman, it’s really demoralizing.  It’s hard to talk about without making it seem as if you blame other people for it– I personally don’t– it just is what it is and it will be ’till it isn’t.

Luckily the magic of the internet makes it easier to seek out info that just might not make it to your average history class, as well as content that just might not make you feel crummy and pigeonholed.

Soraya Nadia McDonald sums it up nicely over at The Washington Post:

Today’s television viewers are savvy and smart. They have every right to be impatient. The Internet has dissolved the magic that used to disguise “SNL’s” deficiencies. We know uproariously funny black women exist. We know it’s possible to write entertaining sketch comedy that doesn’t rely entirely on stereotypes because there are people who are already doing it. They’re only one click away.

Go where the love is.

Along those lines, this weekend also marked the celebration that is BET’s Black Girls Rock.  The brain child of former DJ Beverly Bond, what began as an organization in 2006 has beautifully blossomed into a yearly television tribute to black women past, present and future.

Years ago, when describing the inspiration for the program, Bond said:

I want our young girls to be inspired to not settle for being less than their best selves. I want them to feel proud of who they are and who they can be and who we have been.

As a black girl, the act of maintaining the belief that you rock given the influx of media depictions that suggest otherwise, and the implication of all the places that couldn’t manage to find one black girl who was good enough to make the cut- or couldn’t be bothered to mention any of the black girls who had done similar work– is a perpetual bummer.

The power of hearing and being encouraged to embrace the fact that you rock despite all that cannot be underestimated.

It might not be coming from SNL- but it’s coming from somewhere, and for now, that’s a great thing.

Rock on, girls.

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Sara Haile-Mariam

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