NBC’s weekly sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL) first aired on October 11, 1975, a little over a year after Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. In its infancy, SNL tackled biting and even poignant political satire, including a 1976 sketch entitled “Nixon’s Final Days” — written by staff writer (and now U.S. Senator) Al Franken. It depicted Nixon as embittered and broken, envying Abraham Lincoln for the way his presidency ended and forcing Jewish Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to pray with him.
Donald Trump’s numerous “conflicts of interest” and outright falsehoods as president have gotten him labelled “Nixonian,” and accordingly, SNL and numerous late night comedians have sharpened their teeth for even more satirical bite.
But it’s interesting that the two most recent comedic takedowns of Trump — Stephen Colbert calling Trump’s mouth “Vladimir Putin’s cock-holster” and last night’s kiss between Trump and his embattled White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on SNL — have both featured homoerotic twists. Both have been written off as “gay jokes, but they’re both been far more subversive than merely implying that Trump is gay.
Sensitive LGBTQ people and homophobic right-wingers latched onto Colbert’s joke as an instance of homophobia. His joke was undeniably crude and “relied on cheap homophobia and misogyny,” but its true power stemmed not from the idea that Trump and Putin are gay for each other (a theme which has been repeated internationally), but that Trump. a powerful businessman, would submit to another man power in an act that traditional straight men find icky.
That brings us to last night’s SNL sketch. If you haven’t seen it, take a look. It’s eight-minutes long, but arguably one of SNL‘s most ambitious sketches: it features Spicer feeling deeply hurt and searching for Trump on a mobile podium after a reporter suggests that Trump has been feeding him lies.
The sketch itself is surprisingly angry and emotional, almost playing out like a drama. In real-life, Spicer is reduced to all sorts of self-degradations as Trump’s mouthpiece, and Spicer can’t be under any illusions that journalists or the American public actually trust him.
But SNL goes much further than Colbert’s joke because it actually shows the President using gay sex, not as means of affection, but a means of control. When Spicer succumbs to Trump’s advances, there’s no indication that either man is actually gay. (They’re both married, after all). It’s that they’re willing to use gay sex to get what they want. It’s an act of power, not pleasure; as one commenter said, “It’s the difference between sex and rape.”
SNL also pulls off a subversive bit of quasi-Shakespearean genderfuck by having Melissa McCarthy play Spicer, a male character. When conservative viewers see Trump and Spicer kiss (do conservative Trump-supporters even watch SNL as much as the president does?), they’re reacting both to the image of an older president grabbing a younger woman as well as him accosting a younger male employee.
For viewers uncomfortable with gay kissing, McCarthy as Spicer provides a comfortable reassurance that “Trump” is actually kissing a real-life woman. If Spicer’s character had been played by an actual man, the sketch could be read as more disrespectful and transgressive. But a man played by a woman keeps drawing attention to itself in a circular way: Trump is kissing a man who is a woman who is a man who is a woman. It’s quite queer.
SNL has featured lots of same-sex kisses in the past, but we’re less sure that they have ever depicted a sitting U.S. President having a gay/bisexual smooch let alone one so coercive and queer.
In short, both SNL and Colbert’s jokes hit their satirical targets on a deeper level because they address the use of gay sex as a dynamic of power and domination by ostensibly straight people who use it to control others. It’s especially damning (and plausible) to depict Trump as a sycophantic “deal broker” willing to do whatever he needs to get the job done, even if that job is a blow job.
(Thanks to Topher Williams for additional analysis for this post)