With Thanksgiving around the corner, 'tis the season for Saturday Night Live to feature skits depicting the potential awkwardness surrounding our family dinners.
During his fifth turn as an SNL host, Will Ferrell was the centerpiece of a skit entitled "First Thanksgiving." He portrayed a grumpy, skeptical man meeting his granddaughter's boyfriend for the first time at their family's Thanksgiving dinner. The only issues with the skit are that his family is supposedly Native American, his granddaughter is Pocahontas, and the visiting boyfriend is John Smith. Melissa Villaseñor, Beck Bennett, Maya Rudolph, and Fred Armisen also star, none of whom are indigenous. Non-Native actors in these roles causes enough concern (and, honestly, is never OK), but even more eyebrow-raising are the additional problems woven in the script.
The skit attempts to flip white supremacy on its head, as Ferrell's character—decked out in a long wig and full traditional Native attire—represents a fervent Republican, full of allusions to President Trump's white nationalist ideals and his policies. When Ferrell suggests everyone around the table share what they're thankful for, he begins: "I'm thankful for our land, and our great and mighty chief. And let's hope he finally builds that wall." When the rest of the family asks where he's been getting information on the "palefaces" invading their land, his response is plain and simple: "Fox" (but a literal fox, get it?) Then he teases Pocahontas for getting her news from "a peacock" (NBC, we presume). Pocahontas defends the European colonizers—or "illegals," as Ferrell's character so distastefully nicknames them—saying, "They're just regular, hard-working people seeking refuge."
The skit doesn't outwardly mock Native people, but in its ill-conceived analogy, it suggests that we're supposed to be on the "Republican" side of this story; white people are positioned as the "immigrants" who are bringing over "diseases and guns." Ferrell's character is supposed to be mocking Trump supporters, but he still makes valid arguments against colonization. As one Twitter user explained, it "accidentally suggested the white nationalist crowd has a point." It's a bad look to say the least.
While this skit was surely well-intended, the execution was very poorly realized. To use the exploitation of Native Americans as a vessel for jokes about right-wing ideals is extremely dangerous and offensive, however accidental. The skit made light of the genocide that decimated Native peoples, not to mention it only brushed over the massive age gap between Pocahontas and John Smith: Rudolph's character points out that Smith is nearly 30 while Pocahontas is 12—close to their real ages at the time—and everyone is just OK with it.
Ferrell attempted to redeem the skit's controversy in the end by breaking the fourth wall to give a disclaimer. "If you're anything like me, you know there's a lot of problems in this crazy, crazy sketch," he said, facing the camera under a spotlight. "I mean, white actors playing Natives? What is this, 2014?" So...you're telling me the writers knew this sketch was problematic and racist, but they just ran with it anyway? Ferrell's brief monologue didn't address the colonialism the jokes referenced, instead offering a cliche about contrasting political opinions between family members and delivering an anticlimactic punchline about bowel movements.
Making a joke of indigenous people on television only encourages other white folks to do the same, and it's deeply disappointing to see these well-regarded comedians participate in it. If SNL is supposed to exemplify peak comedy, then they should've been able to convey their intended messages without cultural appropriation; if anything, this only reaffirms why we desperately need more diversity in media. So, this Thanksgiving, please enjoy spending time with your families—but don't forget that you're stuffing your face and watching football on stolen land.