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This Week, SNL Supported Women–While Also Undermining Them

The episode, hosted by Jessica Chastain, was a study in contrasts, lauding the Women’s March while mocking it and featuring vapid female caricatures in multiple sketches.

This Week, SNL Supported Women–While Also Undermining Them
[Photo: courtesy of NBC]

During this past weekend’s Women’s March, actor and activist Scarlett Johansson called out James Franco for supporting the anti-sexual harassment initiative, Time’s Up, despite his alleged history of sexual misconduct. Her rebuke should serve as a stark reminder that talking the talk–or in this case, wearing the pin–is not enough. Being supportive means more than paying lip service, but rather acting in a way that’s consistent with your stated values.

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By that metric, Saturday Night Live dropped the ball this week.

Although the show has found a lot of creative ways to cover the #MeToo movement, and even the scourge of hypocritical male feminists, the latest episode undermined its own message. With gender inequality activist Jessica Chastain hosting, and the episode taking place the same day as the Women’s March, the stage seemed set for a bunch of jokes on behalf of women. Instead, the episode lauded the Women’s March while also mocking it, and featured more than one sketch centered around vapid female caricatures.

The very first line of the show is a nod to Donald Trump’s tweet intentionally distorting what the Women’s March is about. “A million women strong, out there to celebrate the president’s first kickass year in office,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Aidy Bryant) says during the cold open. “We did it girls!”

The rest of this sketch consists of White House physician Ronny Jackson describing how not-fat the president is, but the subject of the Women’s March soon returns in Jessica Chastain’s monologue.

This portion of the show mostly plays out just about how you’d expect, for better or worse. Jessica Chastain makes a funny observation about how the characters she portrays tend to have more agency than a lot of the roles women are too frequently offered. After bringing up the Women’s March, the host is joined by Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong to sing Leslie Gore’s empowerment anthem, “You Don’t Own Me.” The number is punctuated with short interludes from other cast members, with jokes pertaining to the Women’s March. This is all fine, save for a gag about Melissa Villaseñor dressing up in hopes of finding a husband at the march. That joke seemed a bit out of tune with the rest of the proceedings, but otherwise, we’re off to a fairly good start.

Although the episode that followed had its stand-out moments–the bonkers Fresh Prince sketch, for one, and this amazing game show fake out–it also had some moments that negated the support for women professed in the monologue, and seem to err more on the of that husband-hunting bit. Chief among them was Michael Che’s jokes about the Women’s March. First, Che salutes the March for “single-handedly saving the pink yarn industry.” If he would have stopped here, it would have been fine. It’s a funny way to describe the event. He keeps going, though, following the thread, or yarn, as it were, to deride women for wearing pussy hats at all.

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“I support the women’s movement but it’s kinda hard to take someone seriously when they’re wearing a vagina hat,” he says. “If Martin Luther King gave a speech wearing a black penis hat, he’d probably still be alive today.”

That in itself is super tasteless since the hats are a symbol of reclaiming a word used by the president bragging about sexual assault. 2. The analogy of a black penis hat makes no sense because MLK wasn’t marching about sexual assault. It’s a symbol (as you point out later) many movements have symbols (as you point out this one isn’t perfect, but having a man make a joke belittling it, feels a little bit like proving the point/need of the hats to begin with).

Dismissing anyone wearing these hats both regurgitates the trope of not taking women seriously because of what they’re wearing, and completely misses their point. These hats were selected as a gesture of reclaiming the word used by the president to brag about sexual assault. Whether it looks kind of silly to a person or not, it means something. The impact of these hats comes in their number. An aerial view of any pussy hat-packed march that took place on Saturday contains large pink clouds–high-density deposits of women registering their disgust with this president.

Furthermore, Che’s analogy of a black penis hat makes no sense. Martin Luther King never made speeches about sexual assault, and using him here as the dignified counterpoint to pussy hats just feels like a man belittling a female-driven movement for its symbology. Anyone who was in a position to give a high-visibility speeches at these marches–Viola Davis, Johansson, and Natalie Portman, among them–may have done so without the hats, but the sheer volume of women in attendance who did wear them were making a statement by doing so, something that shouldn’t be flippantly dismissed.

The other moment in the episode worth singling out is the sketch entitled Taco Math. Its premise is that two women caught up in a new-year-new-you gust of self-improvement cannot seem to figure out how a taco discount works. The sketch is baffling for both how unfunny it is and how ill-suited it seems for an episode so stuffed with references to empowered women.

If the writers found the premise of people being too dense to understand a BOGO taco deal too promising to ignore, perhaps the people at the center of it didn’t have to be women. If they absolutely did have to be women, in order to include host Jessica Chastain, perhaps this episode shouldn’t have also included its recurring parody of The Bachelor, which always features a parade of vapid, damaged women competing for a man’s affection. Taken together, though, these sketches made a one-two punch of women presented as stupid and shallow in ways that recall outdated stereotypes.

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The episode ends in a way that almost comments on my issues with it indirectly. It’s a recurring sketch, in which Kenan Thompson plays a former acting coach from The Jeffersons, directing a scene in a movie. In this case, the movie is about two lawyers (Chastain, Leslie Jones) who realize they are getting paid much less than their male colleagues. It’s a real-world problem, one that Chastain is very passionate about, but here it is used as mere window dressing. The game of the sketch is that Kenan’s character has them act the scene in broad, slapsticky Jeffersons style. It’s a sturdy premise and it gets laughs, but it feels odd to float such an important topic here when it could have been any other serious subject matter undercut by the over-the-top mugging Kenan’s character prescribes. Here, the gender pay gap serves the same function as the Women’s March elsewhere in the episode: SNL is happy to mention it but has nothing to really say about it.

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