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SNL’s many faces of Hillary Clinton: What they say about us

Hillary Clinton Snl20Copy

“There’s always a little truth in it,” Hillary Clinton admitted to Good Morning America’s audience during her live town hall when asked about Saturday Night Live’s impressions of her throughout the years. She laughed, “and it is kind of like watching an archeological dig to see my different hairstyles!”

Nine SNL performers have impersonated Hillary over the past 25 years; six of them have been SNL cast members: Jan Hooks, Janeane Garofalo, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Vanessa Bayer, and Kate McKinnon. The impersonations began resonating with audiences in the late 1990s during the Lewinsky scandal, when Gasteyer’s ball-breaking Hillary, the ultimate Betrayed Woman, castrated Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton with her eyes. It was with Poehler’s impersonation that Hillary stepped out of Bill’s shadow—at least on SNL.

Each performer has made Hillary her own. McKinnon’s, for instance, relies heavily on the physical comedy—for instance, wrestling with a New York City subway turnstile—she has been known for since her days performing on The Big Gay Sketch Show. By contrast, Jan Hooks’s 1991 Hillary was physically rigid; she was the stoic yet judgmental counterpart to Hammond’s devilishly charming Bill. Hillary herself acknowledged the contrast in her GMA appearance: “I’m not a natural politician. I’m not, you know, the gregarious, kind of affable person—I point to my husband and Barack Obama, who are just unbelievably charismatic and effective,” she said. “I like to do the work. I am the person who likes to get things done . . . Actually, that’s exciting for me, but it doesn’t make good TV. It’s a little bit slow and boring.”

These performances are caricatures of Hillary. The art of impersonation, however, reveals less about the person and more about the culture. Comedy is social commentary. It is produced when the social fabric has been stretched, tested, and, temporarily, subverted through performance. And the Saturday Night Live impersonations of Hillary actually say more about us than her. They reflect what we think not only about Hillary but about women like her—ambitious women with power in their grasp.

Because powerful women aren’t funny—they are terrifying.

Prior to Hillary’s own political career as an elected official, the SNL versions of her were written generally as the pragmatic foil to the primary comedic character of Bill Clinton. She was the nagging, judgmental wife, called a “she witch” in a 1997 sketch. She was chilly, as opposed to saxophone-playing, thumbs-up-giving cool, as in a 1993 sketch featuring Hooks. She was not seductive or persuasive; she was brutally honest. The 1990s versions of Hillary were not in themselves funny; the humor, rather, was found through the composite scene of the heterosexual married couple, as depicted throughout the history of American television: the hard-working, serious wife and the slacker, jokester husband.

Beginning with Gasteyer’s Season 25 Hillary—the US Senate candidate of 2000 Hillary—the character changes. No longer the foil, she became the societal threat—gently, at first, and then monstrous by the time we get McKinnon’s impersonation. Hillary was now the politician. There was no man capping her ambition. 

The portrayals have reflected cultural anxieties about unrestrained, intelligent women who desire and have power. To show how out-of-sync, unsavory, and almost nonhuman this type of woman is, she is made wooden and robotic. Her statements are repetitive, as if programmed. We see moments of this in McKinnon’s Hillary, but the origin of this robotic Hillary is Gasteyer’s Hillary in 2000. In a sketch from February of that year, this unnatural woman is presented through the dichotomous “old Hillary” and “new Hillary.” The archness of her character is further exacerbated by the malingering, cool, camera-loving and pizza-chomping Bill, who, this time as her comedic foil, hangs out in the background while Gasteyer’s Hillary speaks about how she’s become more of America’s woman:

“The old Hillary was rigid and awkward. The new Hillary is loose and easy … going,” Gasteyer’s Hillary says in a monotone voice. “The old Hillary was a strident women’s libber. The new Hillary has had her eyes done. The old Hillary was dykey and threatening. The new Hillary is motherly and warm. The old Hillary was driven by blind ambition and fueled by rage over her wasted potential and her husband’s chronic skank-pronging. The new Hillary has shorter hair. People of New York, I want to be your senator.”

The joke, of course, is that the old Hillary is the new Hillary. The cultural fear about the deceptive, two-faced woman is subdued by Gasteyer’s fantastic performance of showing that the old “dykey” Hillary, “driven by blind ambition and fueled by rage,” is obvious to the eye. We can laugh in relief—that woman can’t dupe us!

The difference between Poehler’s and McKinnon’s impersonations highlights a profound cultural shift in society’s view of Hillary Clinton, and of ambitious women like her. The two comedians embody very different types of comedy. Poehler’s is comedy as social critique, as satire. Her Hillary voices the frustrations that all women feel when they are overlooked, disregarded, and cast aside because of their gender. Certainly, as Ali Elkin wrote at Bloomberg, these “impressions of Hillary tend to be built around the psychological wound of losing,” which all women can relate to by the very fact of systemic oppression. Poehler’s motivation is to punch up at the system, and at the sexist glass ceiling that hinders capable and qualified women.

Women’s historic sense of exasperation at injustice was expressed through Poehler’s Hillary, especially her laughter. This was made unabashedly clear in the now legendary sketch from September of 2008 with Poehler’s Hillary and Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. Both decry sexism in American politics, but Hillary mockingly expresses her shock to hear people suddenly care about sexism—conveniently after she has dropped out of the race. When Fey’s Palin comments that anyone can be president if they want, Poehler’s Hillary breaks into a hysterical fit of laughter, saying in between laughs, “Yeah. You know, Sarah, looking back, if I could change one thing, I probably should’ve wanted it more!”

McKinnon’s Hillary, by contrast, doesn’t punch up—it punches Hillary. Whereas Poehler’s Hillary performed a critique of gender oppression through satire, McKinnon’s Hillary is Gasteyer’s Hillary on steroids, “fueled by rage” and driven by unbridled ambition. She is the realization of America’s mythic Lady Macbeth. Fatal flaw: ambition. She laughs maliciously at her political enemies. “I wasn’t born yesterday,” McKinnon intones. “I was born 67 years ago. And I have been planning on being president ever since. There will be no mistakes in my rise to the top!” She tells America that she will be her own vice president, because her hunger for power is insatiable. “I think you're really going to like the Hillary Clinton that my team and I have created for this debate,” she says, seething with this hunger. “She’s warm, but strong; flawed, yet perfect; relaxed, but racing full-speed toward the White House like the T-1000 from Terminator.”

Ah, the robot. The awkward bodily poses. The forced, toothy smiles. The pressed pantsuits. The killing machine with the deep, villainous laugh that sounds like shouting. She always shouts. She is the paragon of male castration anxiety. Rather than satire, McKinnon’s method draws from the much older concept of humor espoused by the likes of Plato and Aristotle, and finds definition as “the superiority theory” with Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century: “… the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others,” he contended in Human Nature.

McKinnon’s Hillary oozes this superiority. We laugh because she is ghastly. She discomforts us. In this regard, SNL’s Hillary of 2016 is the product of a reality in which a woman is becoming uncomfortably close to the presidency.

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