I was left with a strange feeling yesterday after watching the replay of last weekend’s Saturday Night Live. Part of it was from the fact that Chris Pine had to sing almost every time we saw him in the episode, which was weird. But it was mostly due to the sketch where a group of tough, masculine auto mechanics all came out to each other as closet RuPaul’s Drag Race fans.
SNL has been experiencing somewhat of a resurgence of late, owing almost entirely to guest stars and their scary accurate impersonations of our current crop of political evil doers. But, despite this recent boost in popularity and budget, the show remains primarily a cis, hetero, white boys club that I’ve only been watching to catch glimpses of Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Leslie Jones. The show demonstrates some self awareness of their homogeneity — from the opening monologue comparing (in song) Hollywood’s current crop of leading men named Chris to each other, to the awkward reappearance of production designer Akira Yoshimura playing Sulu in a Star Trek send up sketch — but this awareness is a little hollow when it’s commented on but never corrected.
It was the Drag Race sketch that left a bad taste in my mouth, though. At first I thought I was feeling off simply because seeing such deep mentions of the show on SNL (“I believe it’s Trinity the Tuck Taylor”) was weird. I know none of them are really Drag Race fans, so publicly sharing our inside jokes felt wrong.
What was really bothering me, though, was that this was another example of the show taking a tone-deaf approach to lampooning popular culture by using an oppressed community as the butt of the joke. I was bothered by the fact that the punchline of the sketch, what I was supposed to be laughing at, was how zany and wacky it was for these supposedly butch, masculine men to suddenly be aping the mannerisms and gestures of femmes. It bothered me that I wasn’t in on the joke, merely the one being laughed at.
The whole thing felt really false. I don’t believe for a second that any one of those people ever knew who Trinity Taylor was before they read their script. I also can’t believe that no one from the show’s production team spoke up about the sketch’s tone deafness and appropriative nature. And there should be no doubt that appropriation is the name of the game here.
Even RuPaul’s Drag Race has had some growing pains when it comes to appropriation. Over the years, Ru herself has had to eat a little crow over using transphobic concepts and terms. But the show has adapted, and sometimes even uses its platform to remind fans of the art of drag just where a lot of those sassy mannerisms and that catty language came from – QTPOC drag and ball culture.
What it really comes down to is authenticity. A sketch about queer and trans people that centers white, cisgender, heterosexual men, however complimentary their actions and language, is still inherently inauthentic. That’s not to say that those same men can’t, or shouldn’t be, fans of the show. But how hard would it have been to invite Sasha, or Alexis, or Aja, or Peppermint, who all live in New York, to be part of a sketch about them and their show? I can’t imagine how amazed and proud I would feel to see a sketch about Drag Race or Drag Queens star a black trans woman like Peppermint. I suppose that wouldn’t really help promote Chris Pine’s movie career, though, would it? (Don’t get me started on the fact that Warner Brothers seems to be using Chris Pine to promote Wonder Woman instead of Gal Gadot.)
You see, it’s not about whether or not some people found the sketch to be innocuous or funny. All sorts of people find racist and homophobic jokes funny. It’s that some communities of people are unsafe, and sketches like this can make them more unsafe.
In a worldwide political climate that’s seen the local re-emergence of populist movements bent on the subjugation and destruction of historically oppressed peoples, it may not seem like this is something that one should get too outraged about. And yet, it’s this very thing, this micro-aggression, this casual display of disregard for who’s the butt of the joke, that ends up paving the way for more egregious behavior. Or, in short, if it’s ok for SNL to poke fun at queer people, then it must be ok for everyone else to do it, too. And that will continue to be true until the day when I can hold hands with my partner while we’re walking outside without fear of being called faggots by some random drive-by.
So until that day, Saturday Night Live, please stay in your own lane.