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SNL, Leslie Jones, and the Slavery Joke

SNL Sketch1

Leslie Jones and her SNL sketch

So, have you heard about all of the backlash towards Saturday Night Live and the Leslie Jones slavery skit? According to Arit Jones of the Wire:

On Saturday, Jones made her debut on “Weekend Update” as an image expert commenting on Lupita Nyong’o crowning as People’s Most Beautiful Person. Jones was one of the three black women added to SNL (two as writers, one as an actor) after criticism of the show’s lack of black women reached a fever pitch, and this was her first time on camera. She joked about how she would have been “the No. 1 slave draft pick,” because of her size and strength, whereas in modern times she’s single for those same reasons.

Let’s back up here. I need to add in some context. If you didn’t already know, Saturday Night Live came under close scrutiny after Kerry Washington’s performances on their show back in November 2013.

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Kerry Washington as Michelle Obama. One of the many characters she played on SNL.

She had to play several black female characters because SNL had absolutely no diversity on their show. After her performances, SNL actually issued an official apology to Washington stating:

The Producers at “Saturday Night Live” would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests only because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because “SNL” does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree that this is not an ideal situation, and look forward to rectifying it in the near future…unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.

Since SNL officially admitted to not even having ONE black woman on their cast [which is unbelievably ridiculous], they hired sketch comedian Sasheer Zamata [who is hilarious]. However, this hire alone did not resolve the systemic exclusion of people of color, namely Black women, from the framework of SNL. They hired three more Black women after Zamata.

Now let’s discuss the Leslie Jones incident while keeping the context in mind. Jones created her own sketch in response to Lupita Nyong’o being named People’s Most Beautiful Person.I must admit that the sketch can be offensive, and even painful to watch; however, several black women and black feminists have different takes on the issue. The skit essentially consisted of Jones stating that she would have an easier time being desirable and finding love if she lived during slavery. She states, “See, I’m single right now, but back in the slave days, I would have never been single. I’m 6 feet tall and I’m strong.”

While this might seem extremely inappropriate and offensive [considering slavery and rape is not funny], we have to mindful of the context of the conversation. I really don’t think Jones is making fun of slavery or rape. I think she is pointing to the ways in which black women are still marked as less-than and not desirable. She says this after asking her white co-host to imagine a scenario where he sees her and Lupita in a club together. She asks him who he would pick? It’s implied that he would choose Lupita. In essence, Jones is pointing to the ways that dark-skinned larger women are still not  depicted as being desirable in mainstream culture today. This is especially important to mention since we’re in the midst of a faux-lupita movement where white america’s obsession with her gives the impression that ALL black women are equally desired. If we look at the ways Gabourey Sidibe and Lupita are handled, we can see how this is definitely not true.


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Gabourey Sidibe

It’s no surprise that in mainstream media culture,  Black women, particularly larger dark-skinned black women are not desirable. We all know they’re usually reduced to cliche, commercialized tropes consisting of long weaves, big booties and big boobs, or they are falsely accused of being welfare queens who can’t stop having children. The media has definitely helped circulate this image while not granting black women access to creating their own images, or even speaking up against the tropes. So, I find it a bit commendable that Jones was bold enough to call out the radicalized sexism in mainstream America. She even called out the white gatekeepers of television by stating“Hell, I don’t like working for you white people right now and y’all pay me.”  She was able to show how not THAT much has changed since slavery for black women, alluding to the idea that we might still be as or even less desirable than when we were enslaved.

In particular, I thought her quick discussion about black male sports stars  was awesome. She likened LeBron James choosing a sports team to being a slave and choosing a plantation to work on. That was quite golden if I might say so considering I think mainstream sports culture eroticizes the black male strong body. 


While Jones did have some super strong critiques and points in her sketch, I think it was a bit distasteful and inappropriate for SNL to air it, especially considering their history of excluding black women from their cast. There are many different ways this skit could have gone, and I was disappointed after I watched it. [I didn’t really think it was too funny either]. Jamilah Lemieux of Ebony states:

It’s disturbing to imagine that Jones’ own understanding is so limited that she actually believes do ‘better’ with men if forced breeding were on the table—that she actually doesn’t understand that mating between enslaved Africans was often under duress—and, also, even if there was some shred of humor in this routine, that SNL is the wrong venue for it. It was White co-star Colin Jost who she asked “Who would you pick, me or Lupita?” (The “I don’t want either of y’all!” was so awkwardly written all over his face, btw.)

I do agree that SNL is the wrong venue for the skit. The skit was not executed well and would have been consumed and interpreted differently if it was released on a more progressive, diverse outlet. While I get that SNL is trying desperately to look more diverse, this just didn’t really cut it for me. While there are a few gems in the piece, I think SNL should have thought twice about airing it. In reality though, Jones uncomfortably told her own truth on a mainstream venue that regularly renders women invisible and her voice was heard.

Dr. Brittney Cooper, co-founder of Crunk Feminist Collective and a writer for Salon states:

It would therefore be incredibly easy to write off Leslie Jones’ larger premise, but I think that the convenient truth about shoddy execution of the joke and its facile analysis exempts us from having to deal with more inconvenient truths about the persistence of colorism and sizism within African-American communities. 

Thus, I understand why Jones’ skit was cringe-worthy, but I also understand it to be part of the growth process of this moment..Jones chose an extreme (and inappropriate) comparison to demonstrate just how undesirable she has been made to feel.


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  • Whitney

    It’s not a matter of large black women being viewed as undesirable. It’s large women in general. Look at Hollywood actresses. Very are large figured. The few that are e.g. Melissa McCarthy, are in comedic roles. Granted, this is also often true with large men as well, but less so. The Honeymooners comes to mind. I come from Hawaii and in Hawaii, mostly among Pacific Islanders e.g. Tongans,Samoans, Fijians, Kanaka Maoli etc. larger women are usually preferred by men, and are also mostlyvin control in many families, that lean matriarchal. I’m a coach/trainer in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting. I train with world class female athletes. Some are petite and have very low bodyfat and are of course treated didferently by society at large ( but not within our gym or sport) very differently than superheavyweight champions like Cheryl Haworth. Things are getting better. Recently, a great documentary sbout Cheryl has been released and she is a role model amongst women, especially larhe figured women and girls in athletics. She is a very different image than for example elite femalw soccer players, with images such as when Brandi Chastain famousky ripped off her shirt after a win to display rock hard abs, so to speak. Elite athletes like the very large Gold medalist Rulon Gardener never get the kind of endorsements that thin athletes do. American culture only accepts a certain amount of fat AND muscle (look at the ridicule of Ms. Williams the tennis goddess for her mesomorphic physique) and it accepts much less on women vs. men, but only SO much for either. Heavily muscled athletes are often referred to as freaks, for example, although we obviously accept more on men vs. women. Elite women swimmers in cold water events w/o wetsuits HAVE to have substantial bodyfat to succeed, such as English Channel swimmers, but they aren’t goung to be in SI’s swimsuit issue anytime.