NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” is being lauded this week for casting an African-American woman for the first time in many years.
But the hiring of Sasheer Zamata leaves as much to condemn as there is to commend.
Yes, there’s insufficient diversity of all kinds on TV. Anything that remedies that shortcoming deserves kudos. The prevailing whiteness of the medium even as the United States continues to be transformed by profound demographic trends is just plain ridiculous.
But there are right ways and wrong ways to fix the situation, and Zamata’s casting amounts to blatant tokenism. Not calling out “SNL” for its sin would only encourage other shows to follow a bad example.
Why SNL Did This Now
The timing of Zamata’s ascension is curious: Not only is it unusual for “SNL” to make a cast addition midseason, it’s hardly coincidental the hire comes on the heels of criticism regarding the absence of an African-American woman on the series from “SNL” cast members Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson. That in turn spurred other critics to voice their displeasure.
As if “SNL” couldn’t make its concern over the criticism evident enough, it did so last year in a funny, though painfully self-conscious sketch starring an African-American guest host, “Scandal” star Kerry Washington.
It’s hard not to conclude “SNL” feared that there was a backlash building at a vulnerable time. The program has been struggling to find its footing during a rebuilding season after several years of key cast defections.
An Overreaction Based on Overestimation of Criticism
But let’s not confuse some isolated complaints with a bona fide groundswell of negativity, like the tsunami that’s enveloped the Washington Redskins over its team name. PR types can argue “SNL” moved proactively to head off any chance of that happening, but here’s the thing: That wasn’t going to happen.
“SNL” is one of these cultural institutions that is criticized for, well, everything, at any given time, but typically goes about its business. Statements of apology are very few and far in between.
‘SNL’ Made a Spectacle of Its Diversity Efforts
Which is why what executive producer Lorne Michaels & Co. chose to do next created a false urgency: “SNL” proceeded to orchestrate a midseason casting initiative strictly for African-American women, culminating in Michaels going public with the effort in a New York Times story.
Now you can argue in this day and age that it would have been impossible for “SNL” to conduct such a search without being noticed. But the minute the show threw open its doors to the process–another rarity–this became a spectacle. It wasn’t just that “SNL” wanted to right a wrong; it wanted to be seen as righting a wrong.
And that has become a diversity travesty.
The Additional Casting Measure Was Discriminatory
The primary problem is the move to demonstrate “SNL” isn’t prejudiced was in and of itself an act of prejudice. While “first black woman in five years” makes for a compelling soundbite, it’s not as if “SNL” has no African-Americans at all. But lost amid all this attention on African-American women is that there currently are no Hispanics or Asians of either gender on “SNL,” which has also been the subject of criticism.
Making finding a black female in particular a priority over other racial groups sets up an absurd hierarchy of diversity needs. Think of how much more sense it would have made if “SNL,” having felt so compelled to make such a public demonstration of its diversity outreach, hadn’t excluded anyone who wasn’t a black female and just made it a casting call about finding another funny person of any type.
Instead, “SNL’s” micro-targeting of a subsegment of the population comes off like a staged gesture, noblesse oblige intended to be perceived as “the right thing” more so than being that in actuality.
What’s all the more absurd is that “SNL” could have offered some justification for its racial targeting. What was interesting about the the New York Times article was that Michaels felt the need to make clear that there was no specific need to bring in an African-American woman when it came to playing characters or impersonations devoted to black women like, say, Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey.
Avoiding a Rationale for Singling out Black Women Was Pointless
It’s strange that Michaels would eschew that as justification, presumably out of concern that he would be seen as skewering African-American targets. But if Michaels is saying there’s no particular reason to bring in black female talent, there’s no rationale for slighting other racial groups.
Strangely, “SNL” didn’t want to be seen as trying to become less predominantly white in general; the show was fixated on one type for no apparent reason.
The criticism of the absence of black women on “SNL” presumably rests on two notions: One, there’s a wealth of black female talent being denied arguably TV’s most prized comedic showcase; second, lacking female talent keeps “SNL” from adequately satirizing a world in which there are many prominent black women.
This is where there’s a distinction to be made between the criticism of “SNL’s” whiteness and that of fictional TV shows like HBO’s “Girls.” The latter became a lightning rod because the lily-white world that series presents seems inconsistent with the incredible racial diversity of the region in which it is set, Brooklyn, N.Y.
But when it comes to “SNL,” its detractors may not end up liking what representation means on a show meant for mockery. Whether its fictional caricatures or impersonating real-life figures, the risk for increased stereotyping is real.
“SNL’s” critics should recall the aphorism, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Zamata Is Left Tainted
You have to wonder how Zamata herself is feeling right now. Because no matter how talented this young woman is, the special circumstances surrounding her hire put an asterisk next to her name that wouldn’t have to be there had she just been brought in during the traditional casting process.
If it took a supplemental measure for her to make the team, a nagging unanswered question is left looming over her: Did “SNL” relax its strict standards for admission in fear of public pressure?
Where is the Real Reform for ‘SNL’?
It’s not as if Michaels is saying the opposite, which is that there is some kind of fundamental flaw in his casting process because he hasn’t made public any sense of needing to rectify that process. The existing system wasn’t reformed, just patched with a one-time compensatory move.
If “SNL” standards were relaxed, then the show may have very well added someone who really isn’t up to snuff, which only sets up Zamata for failure. It’s an additional pressure neither she nor the show needs because if she can’t hack it, this special initiative is going to look misguided in retrospect.
“SNL” can be a tough place for talent to get a toehold; the added pressure on proving she merited the special circumstances that brought her into the fold isn’t going to help her any.
Cowed by criticism, “SNL” rushed to plant a black woman in its midst and made that happen as transparently as possible for the world to see its responsiveness. If the essence of that action was a pre-emptive exercise in crisis management, the significance of its outcome is worth questioning.