This weekend on Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon washed ashore in Themyscira, the island of female warriors that bore Wonder Woman, and asked the question on everyone’s mind: “Who all here’s a lez?”
The sketch tore through the queer female community like a pandemicand with good reason. It featured a long, sensuous kiss between McKinnon (dressed as a soft-butch, geeky lesbian) and host Gal Gadot (in full Diana Prince costume). But it wasn’t a Britney and Madonna-like TV stunt, a tease for male viewers. This kiss was different: It was done with queer women in mind, and the LGBTQ community recognized that with belligerent excitement. “Themyscira” signaled a renaissance of the lesbian gaze in media, as well as a queer perspective that’s been increasingly prevalent on the sketch comedy show in recent years.
It’s not often we get to see an open mouth lesbian kiss on network TV. When it’s done right, it’s positively revolutionary.
In 1975, film theorist Laura Mulvey coined “the male gaze,” a now-ubiquitous phrase used to describe “the idea that films and advertisements [are] created to please a heterosexual male audience.” In other words, many female characters have beenand continue to belasciviously objectified, stripped of both clothing and character traits for the purpose of pleasing men. The Wolf of Wall Street, for example, was heavily criticized for this.
Recently, the term “female gaze” has gained traction, as female creators have shifted the focus to the male body and female pleasure. In Magic Mike XXL, characters played by Jada Pinkett Smith and Andie MacDowell act as the observers and consumers of pleasureassumed stand-ins for a female audience.
But what transpired on SNLis a bit different than watching Jada thirst for abs like a Crossfit convert. Women viewing women as sexual objects inherently differs from the way that men view the female form. As a nearly decade-old essay published in Autostraddle argues, not all appreciation of women’s bodies is objectification. Lesbians “objectify” women less exploitatively because they view them as equals.
That egalitarian spirit was what made SNL’stake on Wonder Woman’s lesbian subtext so joyous. The sketch begins with McKinnon and Aidy Bryant, who play former girlfriends, getting shipwrecked on the all-female island of Themyscira. “It looks like we found a whole island of us,” McKinnon’s character observes. The duo tries to decipher whichif not allof the Amazons are queer, concluding that the island’s very premise is “super gay.” The women all insist they are straight, until Diana suggests she kiss one of them to see if she feels something.
The kiss is dramatic and steamy, but the real kick is McKinnon’s reaction: Her character tries her very, very hardest to remain apathetic.
— Saturday Night Live (@nbcsnl) October 8, 2017
The sketch was delightfully trope-free, never stooping to make its central lesbian duo caricatures. It was practically earth-shattering to see a butch-presenting queer woman on TV who wasn’t used for comic relief; even Bryant’s over the top, half-shave wig felt like a knowing wink to lesbian hairstyles, not mockery. “Themyscira” tackled situations that lesbians know all too well, including being used as “guinea pigs” that straight girls toy with.
It was clear that this sketch was written byor at least heavily influenced byqueer women. That sense of inclusion starts with the actors themselves.
McKinnon, an out lesbian, has been a regular cast member on SNL since 2013. Numerous characters in her repertoire are either explicitly or subtextually queer. The two-time Emmy winner has played celebrities Ellen Degeneres and Justin Bieber, the latter a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that many lesbians are doppelgangers of the Biebz. McKinnon’s bespectacled cat lady in the recurring “Pet Rescue” commercial had a will-they-won’t-they with guest hosts Charlize Theron, Kristen Wiig, Amy Adams, and Melissa McCarthy.
Although the show isn’t perfectand has been criticized for exploiting gay male effeminacy for laughsSNL has long made an effort to include LGBTQ voices in the room. This is thanks in large part to Paula Pell, also an out lesbian, and her gay writing partner Jamie Anderson; the pair have written for the show since the 1990s. Pell has been responsible for many of the show’s best lesbian sketches, including a 2008 skit where Ellen Page realizes she’s a lesbian after attending a Melissa Etheridge concert. Pell and Anderson also wrote “Homocil” together, a fake commercial marketing a drug for parents who think their kids are gay.
The influence of queer women on SNL has been especially pervasive over the last year. Last season, the show aired “Fire Island,” which took on LOGO’s reality show of the same name. The program depicts a group of men sharing a beach house on the famous gay resort. The SNL version imagines a lesbian version of the program, one that stands in stark contrast to the drama and debauchery of the LOGO show. Fittingly called “Cherry Grove,” SNL describes the lesbian edition as “about a group of affluent lesbians one beach away.” The skit tackles lesbian stereotypes in a way that feels close to homewith jokes about lactose intolerance and needing to feel “seen.”
The paragon of SNL lesbian’s gaze transpired in a fake commercial for Totino’s.
Featuring Kristen Stewart and Vanessa Bayer as lovers who have a chance meeting at a Super Bowl party, the February 2017 skit satirizes aggressively dramatic lesbian movies (e.g., Blue is the Warmest Color). Bayer hosts a football viewing party for her husband and his bros, all of whom mock and ignore her. One of the bros brings along his sister (Stewart, playing the perfectly named “Sabine”), who shamelessly seduces Bayer in the kitchen. Their torrid romance, complete with pizza rolls, is taking place right behind all the “hungry guys,” who are perfectly oblivious.
The skit is mocking their cluelessness, not lesbian passion. Featuring excessive lens flare and screeching violins, the sketch luxuriates in close-ups as the audience watches desire unfold through their eyes. The make out is hilariousbut also sexy, passionate, and real. (It also happened to coincide with Stewart, whose sexuality has been a source of speculation for years, announcing she is “so gay” in her opening monologue.)
The gaze in the Totino’s sketch is strongly reminiscent of the passion Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s star-crossed characters shared in Carol, one of the most acclaimed films in cinema’s recent queer renaissance. Natalie Wilson of Ms. Magazine describes their romance similarly, noting, “Carol and Therese gaze at one anotherand we gaze at themfar more than we listen to or hear them.” This, she argues, allows us to “‘see’ lesbian desire.” This gaze is intensely humanizing: Women are viewed as fully formed people, with a breadth of knowledge and experiences rather than merely sexual objects.
Saturday Night Live has fully come into its own as a powerful catalyst for LGBTQ inclusivity, which is a cause for celebration. Gadot and McKinnon, clearly having the time of their lives, enjoyed the playful kiss just as much as their queer fans did. As Diana Prince herself once said: “When it comes to procreation, men are essential, but for pleasurenot necessary.”