Saturday Night Live, female icons, and impersonation in the time of Donald Trump

Sneha Khale

Feb,19 2017 08:14 57 IST

It wouldn’t be surprising if, at the end of his acting career, Alec Baldwin is remembered more for his portrayal of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live (SNL) than for his roles in Beetlejuice, 30 Rock, or anything else in between. Which is understandable, since SNL has arguably had a greater impact on popular culture than any other show in the history of television. While most TV shows are a form of escape when the world around us doesn’t make sense, SNL reflects real life kind of like how The Hunger Games mirrors real life — except that, instead of children as tributes fighting to death in a dystopian world, we have comedians playacting and being super funny.

(Clockwise from top left) Kate McKinnon as Jeff Sessions; Leslie Jones channels Donald Trump; Rosie O'Donnell unveils her Steve Bannon look; Melissa McCarthy does her Sean Spicer act

(Clockwise from top left) Kate McKinnon as Jeff Sessions; Leslie Jones channels Donald Trump; Rosie O'Donnell unveils her Steve Bannon look; Melissa McCarthy does her Sean Spicer act

And it’s truly a stranger than fiction reality we live in right now — where orange-tinted reality stars are presidents of countries and climate change scientists are being referred to as “a glassy-eyed cult”. Alec Baldwin’s completely on-point and irreverent portrayal of Trump is the perfect antidote to shocked and hurt liberal (read “logical”) sentiments. But there’s something greater that’s in the works at SNL, something that may have started casually, but has now become a deliberate call to arms for everything the Trump administration is throwing at people, especially women (i.e. defunding Planned Parenthood and passing the anti-abortion order) — it’s the rise of the kickass female artist impersonating Trump’s predominantly male cabinet members.

Watching Melissa McCarthy impersonating the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was like being reminded that there really is beauty in this world, after all. Leslie Jones as Trump looked nothing like Baldwin, but damn if she didn’t lead the charge for breaking gender and racial stereotypes. I can’t wait for Rosie O’Donnell’s (who has been Trump’s longtime Twitter nemesis) impending SNL impersonation of Steve Bannon, chief white supremacist and Lenin worshipper strategist of the Trump administration.

Does it matter that these awesome women are taking on the government for its racist, misogynist bulls**t, you ask? Yes it does! Why, you ask? Let’s talk about it, shall we?

When Justin Trudeau was asked who he’d like to be played by, if they ever make a movie of his life, his response was “Meryl Streep”. Remember that this was long before Trump’s infamous “Meryl Streep is overrated” Twitter rant, so it’s not like it was in response to Trump. A noted feminist, Trudeau, when he came to power, put together a gender-balanced cabinet as the most natural thing in the world in 2015. Flashback to Obama’s 8 years in office, during which time, we saw him as the commander-in-chief sure, but also as an amazingly loving husband, and a father to two young girls. His essay on feminism last year was exactly the kind of stuff that made people fall in love with him as their leader.

On the other hand, Donald Trump’s attitude towards women is so appalling, it warrants a sexism tracker that goes back decades. If there’s one thing we can say though — Trump is definitely not biased when it comes to commenting on women; he has verbally attacked women of varied ages, ethnicities, professions, physical types, and economic statuses. So it’s no surprise that McCarthy’s impersonation of Sean Spicer really riled Trump up — but not for the reasons you’d think. According to Politico, “more than being lampooned as a press secretary who makes up facts, it was Spicer’s portrayal by a woman that was most problematic in the president’s eyes, according to sources close to him.” The fact that Spicer was eviscerated by McCarthy and that the video subsequently went viral (because, duh, it was hilarious!), made matters worse in Trump land. Eeks! Raise your hand if you secretly wished that Spicer would just be fired for his clear inefficiency at his job. Sure, it would’ve been good to send him and his incompetency packing, but is Spicer the real problem? Sadly, he isn’t.

When Trump passed the anti-abortion executive order, a photo of him surrounded by his white male cabinet members (essentially, white men taking women’s lives in their hands) created furore online. Steve Bannon was executive chair of Breitbart News — the toxic, online far-right news, opinion and commentary website which, under his leadership became even more alt-right and nationalistic in its approach towards its agenda. One of Breitbart’s many can’t-even-fathom-this-level-of-lunacy articles was published back in December 2015, by none other than Milo Yiannopoulos titled (are you ready for it?), “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” (yup, that really happened!). This is the same guy who was later barred from Twitter when he launched a racist, sexist tirade of tweets against regular SNL cast member and queen of awesome Leslie Jones, in an attack that was so outrageously abusive and personal, it questions your belief in humanity.

Jones was driven to tears, quitting her Twitter account. Subsequently, she starred in the super funny Ghostbusters. Because she’s awesome like that. Recently, she impersonated Trump in another scathing portrayal that confirmed to us that in the post-Trump world, SNL has found it’s political satire mojo once again. These impersonations are not so much about looking like the character, they’re not even about female actors portraying Trump’s male cabinet members. These impersonations are all about nailing the vibe of that character. They’re funny, and they’re targeted at Trump and his delusional sense of self and his fragile ego. And they’re even more enjoyable because we know Trump is watching, and because he hates them so much. Ah, the sweet smell of justice!

Jones, McCarthy, O’Donnell (if she does play Bannon) and even Kate Mckinnon (with her Kellyanne Conway impersonations) are doing more than just comedy and political satire. They’re leading a new movement that has sprung up all over the US and in many parts of the world — where everyone from feminists, SNL, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have been dosed with a shot of renewed vigour. The sale of George Orwell and Margaret Atwood books have skyrocketed. As Maureen Dowd observed, Trump really is making America great again — just not in the way he’d imagined or hoped!

Trump impersonations are never going to cease to be funny. The man, his life and behaviour are all fodder for straight-up audience amusement. It’s a historic time in the history of the US, a national emergency in the making. And the fact that women (celebrities like Meryl Streep, Chrissy Teigen, JK Rowling, the cast of SNL, and millions others who’re marching/peacefully protesting/vehemently refusing to bow down) are leading this movement right from the front is so freaking heartening, so terribly empowering, and just so needed right now. 2017 is definitely going to be a tricky year;  whether or not they decide to have women portray Trump’s entire cabinet, at least we’ve got SNL and its hilarious check on reality to get us through!