Was SNL’s Take on Sarah Huckabee Sanders Sexist?

Critics are arguing that Saturday Night Live’s spoof of White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took low blows at her weight.

Will Heath/NBC

This weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live took aim at its latest target from the Trump administration, introducing its take on deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Because not much is known about Sanders, who filled in for press secretary Sean Spicer at a handful of briefings this week, Aidy Bryant, debuting as Sanders, filled us in: “My father is Mike Huckabee. My mother is a big Southern hamburger.”

While the sketch later complimented her as more charming than Spicer, it also featured her munching on an apple when the show’s mock press corps suggested she take over for the volatile Spicey.

It was a brief introduction to SNL’s depiction of Sanders that was arguably overshadowed by Melissa McCarthy’s return as Spicer—not to mention an odyssey through the streets of New York City on a motorized podium and a make-out session with Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump.

Still, there are critics calling the show’s jokes at her expense for being in poor taste.

“I will say this: you guys were mean about Huckabee Sanders,” CNN’s New Day co-host Chris Cuomo said on the morning program. “You were fat-shaming her. You were talking about how she looks and what she wears. I thought it was mean, not funny.”

His co-host Alisyn Camerota was less bothered by it, but an eavesdrop of the watercooler conversation in The Daily Beast’s New York headquarters Monday morning revealed an overwhelming majority sided with Cuomo, finding the jokes sexist.

Regardless of where you fall on the matter of offense, it is certainly lazy to go after a woman’s appearance as the sole source of comedy. Surely there are other punchlines—Sanders’ brusque, exasperated demeanor, her poor grasp of the meaning of “atrocities”—that don’t mock her body image.

The devil’s advocate argument—which isn’t that devilish in this case, to be honest—is that the outrage over this is overblown. Re-watching the segment, it didn’t seem like the jokes against Sanders were exceptionally mean-spirited, and, aside from the joke about her mother being a Southern hamburger, seemed to steer clear of her weight.

Maybe critics are projecting simply because Sanders was portrayed by SNL’s only plus-sized cast member and construed that as fat shaming in some regard…which would be completely ridiculous.

Regardless, this is hardly the first time SNL has caught flack for perceived sexism. Most egregious was the segment earlier this season featuring Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway in a spoof of Fatal Attraction.

That sketch caught far more deserved fire. In it, McKinnon’s Conway tries to seduce Beck Bennett’s take on CNN’s Jake Tapper. She threatens to kill him with a knife until he agrees to let her back on TV. Moments later, she falls out of a window and appears to die, only to pull her body parts back together again.

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Casting Conway as the Glenn Close character from Fatal Attraction and depicting her death in such a way was considered sexist, unfair, and even a gift to the administration who would now be able to dismiss more valid criticisms of Conway using this as a mean-spirited example.

More, it was a misjudged escalation of what otherwise been a largely successful portrayal of Conway by McKinnon, taking a lazy leap by arguing that Conway would resort to sexual extortion and violence to maintain her TV star status and warping what had been a shrewd skewering of her dogged willingness to defend Trump.

What’s interesting about the current season of SNL is how female-positive it has seemed to be otherwise, stretching back to its Margot Robbie-hosted episode in October that skewered Hollywood sexism with an “Actress Roundtable.” It’s gone after fake male feminists in a hilarious bar sketch, mocked the burden of feminist anthem songs, and, of course, catapulted Kate McKinnon to superstardom with her smartest-woman-in-the-room impression of Hillary Clinton.

So why do we pounce so hard when it comes to these missteps?

Part of it has to do with both our sensitivity to the show’s portrayal of real people and our concerns that how they’re portrayed could be used to discount criticism against them if they’re too mean. Then, too, there is the problematic history of using stereotypes about women’s bodies and sexuality.

But even the outrage police is inconsistent in its anger. This is the same show that cast John Goodman as Linda Tripp and Will Ferrell as Janet Reno. These castings—possibly some of the cruelest mocking of a woman’s appearance in the show’s history—were so celebrated that Reno herself made a cameo on the show alongside Ferrell dressed in character.

Would that stand today? Most probably wouldn’t have blinked an eye if the show had cast Bobby Moynihan as Sanders instead of Bryant. Is it that the Sanders jokes, as they aired on Saturday night, were realistic enough to be considered cruel, whereas a broader portrayal would be cartoonishly removed from reality, and thus less biting? Maybe, but the idea of turning the dial up and going bigger certainly backfired in the case of the Fatal Attraction sketch.

Perhaps the answer is that this conversation itself is the very point of SNL. The fact that, to some eyes, it oversteps boundaries in its comedy is exactly the point. Pushing comedy to an invisible line is the hallmark of a show that relies on shock and awe to provide the kind of laughs that seize the zeitgeist and arguably move the cultural needle. It’s not an exact science, and it’s not going be palatable for everyone.

It’s why, especially now, in an age where SNL thrives as much off its sketches going viral the next day as it does airing live on Saturday nights, the fun of watching the series each week has nearly been eclipsed by arguing about it after it airs.

A debate over whether SNL is funny or relevant is perennial. What we’re seeing now is an entirely new phenomenon from the veteran show: the ability to feed, week after week, an entire news cycle.