This week comedian Leslie Jones found herself in the middle of one of the latest social media debates about race. Her brief segment on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update invoked images of slavery, sexual exploitation, and the complete dehumanization of black people. To many, few things about these themes are laughable. This is understandable. But the situation does not deserve one big stamp of disapproval.
Ultimately, Jones' comedy bit was an interesting commentary on how society assesses black women's beauty and their value--two things that are, sadly, often thought to be one in the same. As a woman who is tall, black, and let's say, sturdy her segment pointed to the slavery era as perhaps the only moment in American history that someone like Jones was considered valuable and a sexual being--a truly perverse irony and a sad statement on how some women feel they are viewed by men, mainstream magazines, and popular culture.
This issue is a difficult one to discuss. And for Jones it appears to be part of her personal truth, one that is likely painful to a certain degree. You have to admire any woman who has the audacity and the bravery to "go there" in front of a small comedy club audience, much less to pitch it in front of her largely white colleagues (who can't personally relate to the subject matter) and to perform it on a major network show.
The sketch seemed to reflect Jones' own point of view, and likely one shared by others who, even during the current Lupita frenzy, still feel like they fall outside of the all-important standard of beauty. There may be understandable questions about the means Jones used to express this point, but the subsequent social media conversation raises some other important questions. Is there an intention to effectively shut Jones down and push her to the side as an "embarrassment"? If yes, that ironically seemed to be the underlying point of her sketch in the first place--that women like her are unfairly relegated to the shadows of our culture, falling outside of what is deemed desirable or acceptable. Should women play a role in doing this to other women, black women to other black women?
I'm sincerely posing these questions as questions. The reason is that I had a hard time laughing at the bit. I respected what Jones was saying through her art form but I also understood and respected the subsequent criticism (slavery and sexual exploitation are sensitive topics that don't easily lend themselves to comedy). There very well may be circumstances in which it might be appropriate to try to shut Jones down. But this probably wasn't it.
The primary reason for this conclusion is Jones' apparent intention and what she was seeking to communicate.
Another reason is the potential impact of the anti-Jones narrative on efforts to increase diversity. It has been said that the sketch evidences a bad outcome to long-term efforts to diversify the talent at SNL. However, it can be argued that the exact opposite is true. Realizing the full potential of diversity requires creating spaces where everyone has the ability to be herself (or himself), bringing together multiple viewpoints and perspectives. And true equality occurs when black people can just be who they are--that means not walling off significant parts of self and only sharing them in secret with other black people.
If Jones was being herself that is not bad thing. Bad is: 1) Jones sitting in a writers' room and feeling that her job depends on her ability to offer up jokes that Will Ferrell might write or 2) one of Jones' white colleagues writing offensive jokes for her to perform while ignoring her feelings of discomfort. I suspect that neither of those scenarios happened here.
And then there is another important subtext to the conversation--sometimes women, people of color, and those of us at the intersections are accorded less latitude in the workplace. If a backlash is viewed as a failure on Leslie Jones' part, there may be less willingness to put her material on the air, especially when it speaks to her views as a black woman who doesn't look like, or have the power of, a Beyoncé. And as much as we all love Beyoncé, there is far more to say about being a black woman in America. Losing that voice, and similar voices in parallel contexts, would be a shame.