White People Problems: Participation and Diverse Representation

(From last week’s SNL episode; found @ http://thumbs.mic.com)

Recently, it seems that the “participatory turn” has allowed consumers to make their voices heard about personal and political issues in the media. This case is made especially clear with the issue of diverse representation in the media, especially regarding the depressing lack of actors of color (and especially women of color) chosen for major roles on mainstream television (the HBO show “Girls,” with its purported desire to represent the female millennial experience and its total lack of non-white main characters, faced heavy viewer criticism for this). This lack of representation is not new, but the way that content creators are hearing viewers’ demands for better, more diverse representation is new, and relates to the audience’s ability to voice their opinions and connect (especially via social media) with content creators.

Saturday Night Live is a great example of this. In the past forty years, SNL has only had four black women as cast members, and after Maya Rudolph left the show in 2007, SNL ran for six years without a black woman in the cast. For the 2013 season, six new comedians were hired for the show; not one of them was a black woman. Keenan Thompson, a cast member, explained this lack of women of color by saying that the SNL producers “just never find ones that are ready,” a comment that sparked an outpouring of annoyance across the Internet. Fans of online comedy knew plenty of black, female comedians who were more than ready for SNL – Why were they not hired?

Eventually, SNL had to answer to the public outcry against the lack of diverse representation on the show; first, with a parody of this problem performed by host Kerry Washington, and later, by hiring comedian Sasheer Zamata to join the cast. While this one new cast member will not solve the problem of SNL’s historical lack of diverse representation in its casting, it does show the power and possibilities of audience participation in mainstream television.