Kate McKinnon ushers in better lesbian representation on “Saturday Night Live”

Saturday Night Live has been a part of American culture for five decades and, in that time, the show has done a handful of gay characters and stories (mostly male-focused). When LGBT themes are part of a show, rarely are any actual LGBT people a part of it. That’s why the addition of Kate McKinnon to the SNL cast has been such a positive force for not only the gay community, but for viewers who look to the show to have its finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Like it or not, gay people are part of pop culture, too.

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Since Kate, an out lesbian, joined the cast last year, she’s done impressions of real life out women including Tabatha Coffey, Ellen DeGeneres and, just this past week, Jodie Foster. Obviously someone need not be a lesbian to impersonate one, but Kate has a talent for speaking and acting in someone’s likeness so well that she can easily go from an Australian reality star to the distinctive voice of Ms. Foster just as she can deliver the sensual yet confusing Spanish of Penelope Cruz.

So is it a coincidence that SNL has been embracing more lesbian characters and impersonations the same time they’ve brought on an out lesbian cast member?

Certainly the show has parodied other lesbians before, with straight women (or men) playing the part. Abby Elliot did Rachel Maddow a few times before leaving the show, and she did a fair job at attempting the pundit’s sarcastic speaking out of the side of her mouth. She also did her best Melissa Etheridge in a 2010 musical skit that didn’t require much more than a wig and brown leather jacket, and a appearance as k.d. lang that looked nothing like the crooner. Horatio Sanz and Bobby Moynihan have both played Rosie O’Donnell but it was because they could mirror her look better than her vocal inflections. Rachel Dratch and Amy Poehler tried to do Indigo Girls in a sketch with Sheryl Crow and Lance Armstrong (clearly a while ago), but despite their being famous for songs like “Galileo,” their personalities aren’t as recognizable to mainstream America, at least not in the same vein of Ellen or Jodie Foster. (Props, though, to Kristen Wiig‘s great Suze Orman.)

Billie Jean King has been played twice, once by Tim Kazurinsky in 1982 and more recently by Fred Armisen in 2003. Nora Dunn and Fred Wolf both did renditions of Martina Natrilova. Kyle Machlachlan, Rob Schneider have also done k.d. What was so funny about any of it? Oh well, those women are lesbians! Isn’t that comical?

A major difference in when Kate does an impersonation of a lesbian celebrity, their sexuality is not the point (minus Jodie Foster, since that was obviously the point of her own speech they were parodying.) Her Ellen wasn’t about being a lesbian; nor her Tabatha Coffey. They were characters like any other on the show, serving a thematic purpose rather than the butt of a joke ala “Look, ma, it’s a lesbian! Hilarious!”

Firstly, it’s not really that hilarious at all. Secondly, it’s lazy writing. But hopefully Kate McKinnon’s being able to envelop herself in the character and completely perform the essence of the famous person will challenge the writers (which includes out lesbian Paula Pell, who has been with the show for 17 years) to be inclusive while also being funny vs. trite.

Skits about lesbians in general have existed on the show in similar ways, where lesbians are funny because they are lesbians. For instance, this sketch inspired by Ellen DeGeneres‘ coming out.

Cheri Oteri did several takes as “Mickey the Dyke” in the ’90s including this “Wymins Poetry Night” sketch where Jeff Wolf as Martina looks absolutely nothing like Martina.

If you compare this sketch to those of Portlandia‘s at the feminist bookstore Women & Women First, there’s a slightly more intellectual approach to the way the lesbians or feminists come across. Even their recent sketch about Martina Navratilova had the real Martina as a part of it — and not one word was said about her being a lesbian. If you have to explain it, it’s not funny!

Perhaps SNL‘s recent development is related to the fact that we have more well known out lesbians in society. No longer are k.d., Martina and Melissa the few that can be namechecked on mainstream network television shows. But where SNL has frequently kept up with the times in other areas, it seemed to be lacking in positive portrayals of LGBT personalities.

Jodie Foster has been impersonated on the show before by both Janeane Garofalo and Helen Hunt, but Kate was able to nail it better than the other two talented actresses. Is it because she’s a lesbian herself? Probably not. But could it be that Kate, unlike some of her straight counterparts, might see more to a lesbian personality and play to something other than the fact that they are just lesbians? How can someone be inspired to “act like a lesbian” when there is no one way that lesbians act? Nothing against Abby Elliott or any of the aforementioned SNL players, but there was a flatness to a lot of their impersonations, which could also be because of poor writing. And if Kate’s talent inspires better writing of lesbian celebrities and vice versa, than SNL is winning and so are viewers.