Sumpin’ Turrrrble: SNL’s Keenan Thompson Performs Minstrel Act

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse, originally published at The Coup Magazine (blog)

I didn’t get a chance to see the entire episode of Saturday Night Live this weekend, but I came across a segment clip from NBC’s website that made my blood curdle. SNL’s guest this week was the young actress of Juno fame, Ellen Page, whose comedic timing proved powerful yet equally disturbing in a piece with Keenan Thompson, the only black member of the cast (Maya Rudolph, who is half black-American, half white Jewish, identifies as multiracial), entitled “Virginiaca Goes to Baby Gap.” You can see the full video of the sketch here, but I’ll give you a little re-cap:

An overweight black woman who, only for lack of a better term, would be characterized as “ghetto” stumbles out of breath into a Baby Gap store (as it’s on the second floor) with a pastry in hand. She practically sexually harasses the Baby Gap employee (played by Andy Samberg). Her step-daughter, played by Ellen Page, corn-rowed, permed, and wearing a tracksuit, enters the store, demanding to try on spandex pants she’d like to wear as booty shorts. Angered that the Baby Gap employee won’t allow her to try on the pants for fear that she’ll stretch out the merchandise (as it’s meant for BABIES), Page’s character and Virginiaca name drop (as Virginiaca’s new husband is a wealthy white aluminum tycoon, the daughter of whom she has clearly “corrupted”) in hopes of getting their way. After a slew of aural and visual stereotype guest appearances (including the “booty back and forth” dance and repeated overt and unwanted flirting with the sales guy), the segment ends with the sales person quitting and Virginiaca in all fours on a merchandise stand continuing her “booty back and forth” dance in the store.

While SNL has engaged in black/brownface before, including having light-skinned Latino Fred Armisen play presidential hopeful Barack Obama, and Darrell Hammond play Jesse Jackson and Geraldo Rivera,they were impressions, albeit good ones, and I never found offense in having the best cast members for the job portray important members of our society who happened to have darker skin than theirs. Yet when I saw the “Shopping with Virginiaca” sketch, which apparently is a regular segment on the show, I felt something different. Keenan Thompson, though black, was performing a blackface minstrelsy routine that went far beyond basic impressions of famous people. He was poking fun, sure, but in a way that ultimately cements what black women are and how we are viewed by the general public.

The routine was all the more significant in its meaning when I first saw it as I had just ended a conversation with a white colleague regarding how much I tire of the negative images of black women on tv that are so powerful that I can’t help but wonder whether or not people expect this behavior of me when they see me on the bus, on the subway, or in the street, no matter how I am dressed, how I speak, my job titles, or what school I went to. The stereotype precedes me. It walks 10 feet ahead, greeting those who pass by before I can say a word. And shame on you, Keenan Thompson, for making the stereotype strong enough to tackle me down before I can open my mouth to interrupt its first impressions.

This is not the first case of BMID: Black Men In Drag to which I object, however. We have Eddie Murphy’s racist, sexist, and size-ist portrayal of an overweight black woman named Rasputia in Norbit, his sad attempt at comedy that featured a thin, light skinned love interest played by Thandie Newton. Murphy’s portrayal of middle aged and older black women in his Nutty Professor films can be considered equally incensing, as both the mother and grandmother of the Professor are either prudish or overly randy, respectively, and display little shame when it comes to bodily functions and even less concern about their personal appearance. Tyler Perry, known for his portrayal of an older black woman in his Madea series, can also be included in this category, as the Madea character, while at times inspiring and imparting essential wisdom with a certain sagaciousness that comes with old age, nevertheless fits the stereotype of an overly emboldened, loud, and larger-than-life black woman bearing an attitude bigger than her body.

Latoya Peterson wrote on this phenomenon in a piece entitled “Real Women (of color) Have Curves” :

. . . the whole idea of large black women as a stereotype has unfortunately already come to fruition. The antagonist/”female” lead of the recent movie “Norbit” cashes in on this oversexed, overconfident, over-sized black woman stereotype and was laughed at all the way to the bank. In discussing this article with a friend of a different race, she noted that it wasn’t just the size of black women that contributes to the stereotype – it is also the personality attributed to a black woman of that size. She rightly pointed out that black women over 200 pounds are normally portrayed in the media as being loud, sassy, and completely overbearing – a negative reinforcement to the positive body image many large black women seek to represent.

She goes on to discuss the general acceptance of women of color who happen to be “of size,” and ultimately, much larger than their white female counterparts, for whom starvation is rendered the end-all, be-all as they infinitely approach the accepted social norms and expectations for white female beauty. Considering that the characterizations of larger black women tend to be negative and the very fact that many black women in the United States tend to be on the larger side, at least more so than white women, it’s no wonder that the stereotypes are so disturbing. It’s yet another way to create an identity pigeonhole, one coupled with physical and behavioral attributes that one needs not to look far to witness in media and then ultimately apply in real life, whether or not the associations made are accurate.

With that said, in reflecting on the SNL piece once again, I can safely say that I am more than disappointed. Will there ever be a time in which comedy can rely on more than stereotypes or humor at the expense of others to exist? I also wonder whether or not black women, their very femininity, intelligence, and happy existence threatened by such negative portrayals, will be able to face a day when others don’t see the stereotypes first?

*SNL cast member Keenan Thompson pictured above.