The photo that emerged last week of the junior senator from Minnesota pawing the breasts of a sleeping woman was heinous, but it wasn’t unfamiliar. Nor was the mugging grin on Al Franken’s face as he grabbed her, or his initial response that he was trying to be funny.
Sexist jokes have long been considered acceptable in American culture — not only acceptable, but funny, in a way that a certain sketch comedy show perfected.
Franken is, after all, not only a politician, but a creator of “Saturday Night Live.” He was one of the show’s first writers in 1975, and he was a producer from 1985 until 1995. While there, he reportedly once pitched a skit about “60 Minutes” correspondent Andy Rooney drugging and raping Lesley Stahl.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that someone who thought that rape could be appropriate material for a network TV joke also thought it would be funny to sexually assault a colleague on a USO tour, eyebrows raised, smile wide. More to the point, though, that sort of base humor is in the very DNA of SNL, where frat-boy bluster and aggressive male sexuality have been enshrined for more than four decades.
On the sixth floor of 30 Rock, women have long been portrayed as sexual conquests, victims or aggressors, live on Saturday nights. During the 1990s in particular, SNL excelled at celebrating male libido and a get-away-with-anything approach to sex, while reducing women to their sexual function. The show consistently cheered male sexuality and reinforced its boundlessness (consent be damned), while shaming women who reached for power or were unlucky enough to be publicly associated with sex.
The SNL writers’ room is famously collaborative, so it’s hard to know how many such bits Franken specifically wrote. But as a writer on 285 episodes from 1976 to 2008, he undoubtedly influenced the zeitgeist of the show during that era.
In the 1991 sketch “Clarence Thomas’ Pickup Technique,” a spoof of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings that centered on allegations of sexual harassment, the Senate Judiciary Committee reduces the whole issue to gags about sex. Joe Biden thanks Anita Hill for talking about “penis size” and “big-breasted women having sex with animals” — to raucous laughs. The joke targets Biden and the committee, too, but what’s supposed to be funny is what they’re laughing at, as well: body parts and raunch.
In a “Weekend Update” segment that same year, Chris Rock savages Hill for rejecting Thomas’s advances. Thomas “could have picked a much better-looking woman to blow his career on,” Rock explains. “He never touched her, and he’s going to lose the Supreme Court and didn’t even get to sleep with her, and that’s the real tragedy.” Again, the laughs: Thomas’ sexual inadequacy is what’s supposed to be funny. SNL imagines that sexual harassment is hilarious and that unattractive women deserve it.
Powerful women were also reduced to their sexual function for laughs. One 1996 skit about O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark portrays her as an erotomaniac or “Fatal Attraction” type — a derogation hurled at women during the 1990s, including at Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky, to discredit them and weaponize their sexuality. Clark, played by Nancy Walls, is less interested in the case’s outcome than forcing fellow prosecutor Christopher Darden to sleep with her, or “take the black Bronco down the 405,” as the show put it. “The only thing I’m guilty of is being extremely horny,” Walls says. “Please remove your pants.”
If SNL women weren’t sexual victims or erotomaniacs, they were not real women at all. Will Ferrell’s career was made in part by his “Janet Reno’s Dance Party” sketches, which rendered the first woman attorney general as a gangly man with an awkward deep voice, skirt and pearls. Eight versions of the sketch aired from 1997 to 2000. In one, Farrell’s Reno slow-dances with Donna Shalala, played by Kevin Spacey.
Ferrell said in an interview that he wouldn’t have played Reno the way he did if she were a “normal woman.” In other words, because Reno didn’t always fit neatly into the stereotypical roles SNL ascribed to women — sexually aggressive like Clark or sexually victimized like Hill — the country’s chief law enforcement officer became a fake woman, just Ferrell in drag.
In the years since Franken left the show, SNL has made strides, with more female writers and cast members, and this has diversified the types of humor showcased on Saturday nights. But the show’s long tradition of shaming women and exploiting female sexuality is hard to ignore, and even harder to excuse, given the revelations about Franken’s behavior. He did, rightly, apologize last week. But he still said the picture was “clearly” intended to be funny, even though he acknowledged that it wasn’t. What’s clear, in truth, is that American comedy culture has used sexual abuse as fodder for too long.
From Franken and Harvey Weinstein to Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, women are reckoning with the painful reality that powerful men recently accused of sexual misconduct have long been the media and cultural gatekeepers in America. They’ve been the arbiter and the lens, determining what is newsworthy, what is socially acceptable and, in Franken’s case, what is funny.
At the moment, the question gripping the Beltway and beyond is whether Franken will remain in the Senate. What Franken did is bad, but this isn’t about bad men. It’s about a bad society. You can tell an awful lot about a society based on what it thinks is funny.
Allison Yarrow is a journalist, a TED resident and the author of the forthcoming “90s Bitch: Women, Media, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality.” She wrote this article for the Washington Post.