The news today that Miley Cyrus will host the second episode of this season of Saturday Night Live is hardly surprising. There’s nothing the show likes more than to be timely, and with Cyrus, old white men in the media who can’t stop writing foolish things about her, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour conspiring to extend her time in the news cycle, it would have been difficult for Saturday Night Live to resist the opportunity. The really interesting question, though, isn’t whether Saturday Night Live should have invited her or not, since that’s one decision that’s already been made, but rather how the show handles Cyrus’ appearance, from the skits they include her in, to the way they frame her musical performance on the show.
As the critic Ryan McGee pointed out when Saturday Night Live cast for this season was announced, the lack of a black female cast member (the cast includes two men of color, Jay Pharoah, and Kenan Thompson, and one woman of color, Nasim Pedrad) meant that the show simply couldn’t do a Michelle Obama skit unless they were working with a guest star who could pull it off. It also means the show doesn’t have the capacity to deal with one of the most important critiques of Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs and in the video for “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus’ use of black women’s bodies as a venue for her own sexual self-expression and re-branding away from her image as a child star, subjugating their personhood to her professional self-interest. I suppose this means that Cyrus won’t have the opportunity to enlist an SNL regular in the parade of provocations she seems determined to keep up, which is something of a relief. But in the balance, it’s a reminder that SNL has limited itself with its casting in ways that are unfortunate.
If SNL does intend to address the VMAs, though, the show would do well to find ways to address the complexity of Cyrus’ performances and the range of critiques of them. It’s all well and good for the show to, say, tee off on Richard Cohen’s Washington Post column suggesting some sort of link between Cyrus’ performance and the Steubenville rape case. But it would be unfortunate if SNL suggested that the reaction to Cyrus’ performance was merely a case of the Olds Not Getting The Kids These Days and left it at that. Standing up against slut-shaming and addressing the ways in which public displays of sexuality can be both racialized and commercialized aren’t actually mutually exclusive, and if SNL wants to do the former, it should find a way to do the latter.
It might also be nice if they found a way to bring Robin Thicke–who’s been largely left out of this discussion even as he’s used both black and white women’s bodies in similar ways in his videos this summer, and even as he was Cyrus’ partner at the VMAs–into the conversation. Taran Killam must have some supremely self-satisfied grins and the ability to dress like Beetlejuice somewhere in his repertoire. Cyrus may have, at least to a certain extent, youth to blame for her recent campaign of provocation. Thicke, whose most recent cause seems to be informing the public about the size of his penis, has no such excuse for his participation in the VMA performance, and SNL could do a service by asking where he is in all of this.
Similarly, I’d be curious to see a thoughtful use of the Saturday Night Live Band during the show. The Band doesn’t perform with musical guests–Cyrus will bring her own musicians–but they do sometimes provide music for sketches. It would be fun to see them find a way to comment on Cyrus’s performance with their song selections, whether they decide to bring the work of some black artists to greater public attention, or whether they bust out some music by artists who have been accused of cultural appropriation in the past.
I’m sure there are other ways SNL can find to keep the balance of the show interesting rather than letting it be subverted to whatever Cyrus thinks her overall project is at the moment. But it would be awfully nice for the show to put on a reminder that you can blatantly chum for an audience, and be interesting and substantive once you’ve got the eyeballs you were looking for.