Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sexism and Saturday Night Live

[Note: It looks like all videos of this exchange, including the one that I embedded from New York magazine's Vulture, have been taken down for copyright violation. You can, however, view the show at]

I found this exchange on yesterday's Oprah Winfrey Show fascinating. Oprah hosted some of the leading lights from Saturday Night Live, and Jane Curtin, a member of the original cast, spoke about the "misogynistic environment" that ruled the early days of the show, including how SNL icon John Belushi made it his mission to undermine women writers and performers, because "women just aren't funny."

It is interesting how uncomfortable people get when faced with the truth of sexism (any "ism" really). Chevy Chase squirmed. He had first tried to blame squabbling in the writers room on women trying to get "women's issues" onto the show. When Curtin additionally pointed out that, as a woman, she couldn't get a credit card in 1975, Chase snarked, "Yeah, 'cause I was holding you back." Tracy Morgan was quick to point out Tina Fey's success and how far the show has come. Winfrey chimed in that young women today are probably astonished to hear about this sort of gender marginalization. When faced with hard discussions about sexism or racism or homophobia, etc., people are often quick to a) minimize the past and b) celebrate just how "post-ism" we are today.

It is true that we've come a long way, baby. But I am not surprised by sexism. Right now, in my own state of Indiana, men are trying to legislate what women can do with their bodies. And for tired sexism dressed as comedy, one need look no further than...Saturday Night Live, which seems to showcase less compelling work for its female performers than it did in 1975 or under the reign of Tina Fey. And I won't even get into how marginalized black women are on SNL--Never part of the cast (but for a handful of players that came and went), always the butt of stereotypical jokes and nearly always played by men.

But something about Curtin's story of not being able to get a credit card struck me. Sometimes it's the little things that truly illuminate how a group is marginalized. As I'm reading The Warmth of Other Suns, it's the million petty ways that Jim Crow oppressed black folks that stay with me. The not being able to try on clothes in a clothing shop...the entering the back door of a movie theater to sit on hard makeshift chairs. Just yesterday, I learned about some of the conditions that precipitated the Stonewall Riots in New York, including attempts to prevent gay people from drinking in local bars. And then this--this refusal to grant a woman the same financial rights as an adult male, which, as I think about it, is no small thing.

I am just glad that Curtin spoke up about her experience, because it's easy to think of women's equality and other civil rights movements, in terms of abstraction, when really they're about real people in real situations, like a female writer on a popular TV show watching a much-ballyhooed star destroy her work because he believes people like her have no right to share his space.

Sidenote: I would love to hear Garrett Morris (who made a brief taped appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show) talk about his experience. Even as a kid watching SNL, I viewed him as tokenized. I have a feeling SNL was/is no racial paradise either. 


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