How SNL Got Race Right In Its Miley Cyrus Shutdown Sketch–And Wrong In Its ‘Fifty Shades’ Riff


Credit: Mirror Online

Saturday Night Live‘s sketch that remakes Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” as a commentary on the Republican Party’s conduct in shutting down the government has been getting a lot of attention. While I’m in agreement that there’s something self-indulgent and out-of-control about the Party’s conduct, I feel like portraying Michele Bachmann in particular as sexually loose is sort of obvious and self-defeating:

But I have to admit that the moment I most appreciated in this skit was the one that’s a critique of Cyrus, rather than of Congress. When the clip gets to the moment in Cyrus’ original video for “We Can’t Stop” when Cyrus was spanking twerking black women, a sequence that prompted a great deal of criticism of Cyrus for treating African-American dancers as props rather than as the friends Cyrus claims they are, it diverges from the original video for “We Can’t Stop.” Rather than continuing with the party atmosphere, the dancers look at Taran Killam, who’s standing in for Cyrus, like he’s completely and utterly insane.

They maintain active roles in other parts of the clip. But when Killam as John Boehner tries to treat them like props and part of his rampage, they’re having no part of it. That’s a great riff on both the Republican handling of the shutdown and Cyrus’ chosen method of establishing her new artistic identity, which have more in common than the outrageousness of the rest of the clip might suggest. If only it was as easy and effective to shut down potential cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children with a definitive side-eye as it is to point out to someone that their invasion of your personal space is a no-go.

Given the sharpness of that moment, it’s revealing that another skit in the same episode offered up a meta-commentary on Saturday Night Live‘s own racial limitations. Nasim Pedrad, who’s Iranian-American, ended up in makeup to make her skin darker so she could play Aziz Ansari, who is Indian-American. It’s as if the show has absorbed the lesson that it shouldn’t have white actors play characters of color, but missed entirely that it’s wrong to conflate non-white people of different origins. The sketch is an illustration of what many commentators have identified as a limitation of Saturday Night Live‘s overwhelmingly cast. The example that’s most often been cited is the fact that the show doesn’t have a regular on staff who can play Michelle Obama on a regular basis, but this sketch is a reminder that the problems are legion.

And the presence of these two sketches in a single episode is an illustration of how learning one thing about race–like that white people manipulating black women’s bodies is a historically freighted act–isn’t the same thing as knowing all things, or behaving right in all circumstances. It’s easy to comfort yourself that if you do one thing right you can’t step wrong. But that’s hardly the case, and Saturday Night Live seems to have put on more of a clinic in that idea than it intended.