#politics | SNL and the Women of the Democratic Primary Race


Tina Fey, left, and Sarah Palin appear on Saturday Night Live Season 34

When I was seven, everything I knew about the 2008 election came from moments I sneaked of Tina Fey and Amy Pohler playing Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, respectively, on Saturday Night Live. In 2016, things became more comical as the content of the show then supplemented what I had already absorbed through the news. In both cases, it’s clear to me that SNL was, and is, a powerful mechanism of political communication. 

The power of SNL is not a moot point. When Chevy Chase portrayed President Gerald Ford in the 1976 election cycle, Ford himself claimed that the impersonation might have contributed to his election loss. Dana Carvey’s George H.W Bush caricature is still remembered today. Fey’s portrayal of Palin in 2008 was so proliferate that many people thought Palin actually said “I can see Russia from my house” – one of Fey’s lines that might have influenced the election.

Politicians often recognize this clout and try to capitalize on it, further reinforcing SNL’s influence. During many campaigns, candidates have appeared on the show. Take Barack Obama in a cold open in 2007, John McCain the weekend before the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton ‘bartending’ with Kate McKinnon in 2015, and Donald Trump hosting a show in 2015. The only reason why politicians – not comedians – would go on a comedy show is to bolster support through an entity they deem politically powerful. 

With this power established, it is important to evaluate how SNL uses its power. In political satire, all politicians are subject to over inflation of their personalities and decisions. However, as the nation enters a primary election cycle wherein five women are running for the Democratic nomination (two of whom are polling in the top five), specific attention must be paid to how female politicians are portrayed by SNL

One must start by evaluating how female politicians are perceived in the United States: double standards exist. A 2015 Pew Research Center corroborates this, noting that the public perceives that women “have to do more than their male counterparts to prove themselves” politically. One double standard that female politicians face is likeability; if a female candidate is unlikable but qualified, voters will not vote for her as they would a male candidate. Candidate likeability plagued Clinton’s campaign in 2016 and has already been related to Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 cycle. Similar to likeability is the perception of female politicians as aggressive, two Yale professors found that “voters are less likely to vote for female politicians when they perceive them as power-seeking, though male politicians are not penalized.” Third, physical appearance of female candidates can often become a topic of discussion – a topic that, whether complementing or belittling of the candidate’s appearance, will negatively affect the voters’ perception of the candidate’s qualifications – a narrative the media can often magnify.

SNL has augmented and played into these double standards. Take Fey’s portrayal of Palin in 2008. Fey’s impersonation had many sexist undertones. In the Vice Presidential Debate sketch, ‘Palin’ asked “are we not doing a talent portion?”, holding a flute as if she were in a beauty pageant. When Palin herself appeared on SNL, Alec Baldwin told her that she was “way hotter in person”– would he have uttered that to George W. Bush or Barack Obama?

SNL again played into the double standard when portraying Clinton, exaggerating the unlikability narrative. In the 2008 Palin/ Clinton sketch, ‘Clinton’ (portrayed by Pohler) referenced her “cankles” and at one point screamed: “I didn’t want a woman to be President, I wanted to be President!” Simply put, a male candidate would never bring up his “cankles,” and he would be ambitious, not power hungry. 

In 2016, Kate McKinnon tried to highlight Clinton’s more compassionate side, but still focused on her rigidity. ‘Clinton’ would always stress her relatability, however in a way that was (comically) never relatable, and rather cold: she ran on the beach in a pantsuit, referenced “laborers like [her] own human father” in the first Presidential Debate sketch, and struggled to “attemp[t] a casual lean” in the second.

 The point: SNL has  played into sexist double standards that undermine female politicians, something SNL writers needs to consider as they satirize the Democratic Primaries. This is not to say that female politicians should not be satirized. However, SNL has an opportunity to change the national conversation about women in politics, and can do so by not playing into traditional gender stereotypes.

In their season opener, ‘Elizabeth Warren’ (Kate McKinnon) told the crowd that she hopes they “enjoyed hot girl summer because now it’s school librarian fall.” ‘Kamala Harris’ (Maya Rudolph) rhetorically asked “can I successfully seduce a much younger man? You better[…] believe it.” As a comedy show, SNL can blow up perceptions of candidates. But, on that Saturday night, the manner in which they were blown up was sexist. Warren’s bit focused on her appearance and tepidness. Harris was blatantly sexualized. 

Certain parts of the impersonations I have discussed are funny, but they also have a negative impact. I was a young, impressionable girl when I saw the Palin/Clinton sketch, and it shaped my earliest perceptions of them, of politics. There are more young girls like me, not to mention an entire country whose perceptions of female politicians are shaped by what they see on television: SNL, consider this as you sit down to write next week’s show. 

Image Source: Flickr/TaraLivesOn





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