This week, Saturday Night Live hired three African-American women to prominent positions: Sasheer Zamata as a cast member and LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones as writers. Zamata is the show’s first black female cast member since Maya Rudolph, who departed in 2007, and Tookes and Jones are the show’s first black female writers since Vanessa Middleton, who was briefly on the show’s staff from 1992 to 1993. It’s great to see SNL making more diverse hires, but it’s disappointing that producers were shamed into adding the show’s first black female writers/performers in years by the recent wave of criticism that came SNL’s way for its lack of diversity. Zamata, Tookes, and Jones almost surely wouldn’t have gotten these jobs at this time if not for the diversity uproar. It’s definitely a good thing that SNL, which has always been a white-person-dominated institution, is embracing non-white comedic voices, but it’s still upsetting that the show’s producers didn’t want to make this move on their own and seem to be at least partially motivated by getting that criticism to stop.
Just a quick recap: in August, SNL hired six new white featured players – five of which are white guys – and it prompted a ton of disapproval over the cast’s lack of racial diversity from the press and people on the internet. Things got worse after comments by Kenan Thompson, prompting SNL to address the matter on-air in an episode hosted by Kerry Washington and to hold two showcase auditions of mostly black female performers, making headlines after an Instagram photo of one of the auditions went viral.
One thing that’s odd about these recent hires and auditions is how they’re all black women, whereas many other minority groups are completely underrepresented on the show. SNL may have a black woman in the cast now, but it doesn’t have a single Asian person of either gender, a gay male cast member, or a Latino cast member (featured player Noël Wells is a quarter Latina), not to mention the show’s lack of diversity when it comes to age, religion, and disability. Black women have always been left out of SNL, but there are plenty of other groups the show is continuing to leave out, most of which they never included in the first place. To be fair, the bulk of the press’s criticism before SNL started holding those showcases was about how the cast doesn’t feature a black woman and they were just responding to that, but that’s not the only minority group that isn’t represented on the show.
For all the heat SNL has taken for the lack of diversity in its cast, its writing staff has traditionally been even more white dude-dominated, so the show hiring LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones, its first black female writers in over two decades, is a big step forward. Tookes and Jones will be two of three African-American people on SNL’s 24-person writing staff alongside standup Michael Che, who was brought on full-time in the fall. They’ll also be two of seven female writers amongst the 24. Not that Tookes and Jones will be writing exclusively for Zamata, but it’s good to know she won’t be the only black female working on the show.
A downside to the way SNL went about this is that this very public hiring will put a lot of pressure on the new cast member/writers, with accusations of tokenism flying around. Hopefully, the show will incorporate diverse performers/writers into their regular auditions in the future, rather than holding unusual racially-targeted auditions like they did this year.
Although the casting process being hyper-focused on black female performers was a bit discriminatory in its own way and it took a bunch of internet criticism to force SNL’s hand here, this is still a major step in the right direction for the show. It’s safe to assume that next time SNL needs to beef up its cast, they’ll keep this in the back of their minds and won’t just hire five white dudes again. It would have been better if SNL bosses wanted to diversify the show on their own and not due to outside pressure, but at least it’s happening.