The Real Problem With SNL and Casting Black Women

Why Saturday Night Live Isn’t Ready for Black Women

At The Atlantic, Kerry Coddett writes that the real problem with SNL is that their portrayals of Black women are outdated, offensive, and lacking nuance

by The Atlantic, November 11, 2013

The Real Problem With SNL and Casting Black Women

Kerry Washington as Oprah during a recent SNL skit that mocked the show's lack of diversity


Had it been included, last week’s Saturday Night Live episode would have made the findings even starker. Scandal star Kerry Washington appeared in sketches as a nagging girlfriend; a sassy, eye-rolling assistant; and a rageful Ugandan beauty queen. There were no roles where her race and gender wasn’t an issue. It was the opening sketch, though, that called the most attention to the fact that Washington’s a Black woman.

In it, she played Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Beyonce, and the producers apologized to the actress for forcing her to undergo multiple wardrobe changes in one scene. The sketch was a mea culpa on the show’s behalf, a way of addressing recent headlines pointing out that SNL hasn’t had a Black female on its cast for six years. That was a savvy move on creator Lorne Michaels’s part. Kenan Thompson had ignited a firestorm by implying to TV Guide that he blames the lack of diversity on Black female comedians’ chops, saying, “they just never find the ones who are ready.” The text that ran across the screen at the start of last week’s episode said the producers "agree that this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future.”

But the focus on SNL’s supposed inability to find Black comediennes obscures the larger issue. The Kerry Washington episode, and the show’s long history, suggests that Saturday Night Live just doesn't know what to do with Black women. The roles it offers to them fall in line with much of the rest of popular media: stereotypical, demeaning, and scarce.

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