Poststructural cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard argued in 1981 that the world is just simulacrum: those things that are meant to be representation (a word that he would have cringed at the use of) are, in fact, hyperreal. He uses the example of Disneyland: it does not represent America; it is America. Today’s simulacra have exceeded the hyperrealism anticipated by Baudrillard, due in part to contemporary America’s post-ironic sarcasm and satire.
In the 1990s, artists and writers, particularly postmodern genius David Foster Wallace, became tired of American culture’s obsession with the emptiness of irony; we had taken it too far. In 1993, Wallace told Larry McCaffery, “It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end.” But today, we’ve taken it to the next level. By ironizing the ironic, we have looped back to sincerity.
A 2007 Pew Research Study shows that viewers of “fake” news shows like The Daily Show (then with Jon Stewart) and the now defunct The Colbert Report “have the highest knowledge of national and international affairs.” (It’s worth noting that viewers of Fox News ranked “near dead last.”) These “fake” news shows are, in their irony and satire, more truthful and more informative than the “real” (i.e. mainstream) news. In the same vein, Saturday Night Live’s coverage of the 2016 presidential election season has, in its satirization of what will undoubtedly come to be known as one of the most contentious elections in modern history, provided some of the only honest critique of the presidential candidates. Though it is obviously a left-leaning broadcast (not that there’s anything wrong with that), SNL critiqued the candidates in ways that the mainstream media, and even the alt-media, could not, or perhaps simply would not. Satire reveals and amplifies a truth that the “truth” is not capable of.
Maybe as Americans we don’t want to hear the truth in a sincere way. Maybe Americans “can’t handle the truth.” Maybe Americans are more comfortable laughing off the truth than being frightened by it and its implications. For several weeks, Saturday Night Live’s cold opens featured Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton, reenacting and satirizing the most recent presidential debates and scandals. McKinnon’s Clinton was more clearly sympathetic than Baldwin’s Trump; McKinnon created a character of a Clinton who was funny and likable, but did not ignore many of the critiques of Clinton: lack of humanization, fixation on her past political achievements, and heightened confidence–some would say cockiness–in her own presumed pending victory. Looking back, that last part is particularly ironic. McKinnon made a caricature of Clinton, yet, like Clinton herself (at least for some of us) was still endearing.
Baldwin’s caricature of Trump was well-written and well-performed, but problematic in that Trump is his own caricature. Unlike McKinnon’s exaggeration of Clinton’s most salient characteristics, be they positive or negative, Baldwin was sometimes just doing an impression, not a caricature. Trump’s words and actions over the past year have been so outlandish and unbelievable that to present them in hyperbole would go beyond satire and just be over the top. The satirized simulacra of the debates over the past month were something that we all looked forward to (well, except for Donald Trump). Baldwin and McKinnon brought out the best, worst, and funniest in Trump and Clinton and, for the first 5 to 10 minutes of SNL’s cold opens, made us forget that what they were portraying was real life.
But SNL and like-minded satirical and “fake” news programming are not mere escapism. And when Donald Trump was, to the surprise of even Trump himself it seems, announced the President-Elect of the United States, we witnessed a choked-up Hillary Clinton giving a concession speech, appearing more sincere than she had all election season. For three days, America was left wondering what SNL would do. How would they cold open? For many marginalized Americans–people of color, Latinx Americans, Muslims, women, members of the LGBT+ community, immigrants, refugees, and so on–this is not funny. And to exaggerate any part of it would exaggerate the marginalization of a huge chunk of contemporary America.
So the job of SNL, and most visibly Kate McKinnon, herself a member of the LGBT+ community, was to continue its honest, hyperrealistic portrayal of current events. America has gotten used to post-ironic satirical sincerity: the sincerity achieved through ironic simulacra of the real world. But what happens when the satire turns to pure sincerity? This past Saturday’s cold open of SNL was surprisingly sincere, though not without some performative simulacrum. McKinnon appeared alone on the monologue stage at a piano, dressed as her Clinton character. The show opens with cameras zoomed in on McKinnon’s hands on a piano, their reflection in the piano’s glossy finish. This image fades out to McKinnon, clad in classic Clinton pant suit and wig, sitting at the piano, alone, singing Leonard Cohen’s iconic “Hallelujah.” In a tragic coincidence, Cohen passed away on Monday, one day before the election. His death has, for obvious reasons, been overshadowed. Had McKinnon not been in costume, the cold open may have appeared a simple tribute to Leonard Cohen.
SNL fans are used to McKinnon’s immersions in her characters not only through costumes, but in her subtle but clear facial changes. This past Saturday, though McKinnon donned her Clinton garb, her face was markedly un-Clinton. In her first verse, McKinnon smirks, showing off her signature dimples; winks; and bobs her head to add some levity to an otherwise somber tone, which this week gave new accuracy to the “cold” in “cold open.” With the line “And love is not a victory march,” McKinnon gets visibly emotional, something she’s never done as Clinton, and never fully regains her composure expertly displayed in the first minute of her performance of the song. Though she is in obvious costume, it is impossible not to see McKinnon coming through the mask.
The song’s next verse blurs the line between McKinnon and Clinton: “I did my best; it wasn’t much. / I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch. / I told the truth; I didn’t come to fool ya.” Seeing the emotion in McKinnon’s face makes it near impossible for any sympathetic viewer to not feel similarly. It is at this point that both Baudrillard and Wallace’s theories,though highly academic and maybe difficult to access, prove true. There is simultaneous simulacra and “real,” simultaneous irony and sincerity. No longer winking and smiling but tearing and choking up, McKinnon reflects the emotions of herself, like-minded Americans, and Clinton herself. At the cold open’s emotional peak, McKinnon as Clinton sings, “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the lord of song / With nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah’.” Visibly moved, McKinnon’s eyes close and her voice cracks.
The cold open’s last moment has McKinnon turning to the camera, still as Clinton, saying “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”
Here is the ultimate moment of satirical simulacrum made sincere. At this point, it is ultimately unclear if we are hearing a message from NBC, from SNL, from Kate McKinnon, or from Hillary Clinton herself. Because of the way Americans have learned to “read” satire, though, the sincerity is real.
The defeat that Trump’s election has made so many Americans feel is because many now fear that they won’t be heard. The same could be said of the aftermath of many elections, but Trump’s insults during his campaign were much more pointed and personal, so many justifiably feel personally attacked. Seeing the vulnerability in Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton juxtaposed with a promise of perseverance is the hope that many Americans needed after seeing Clinton herself become visibly vulnerable, politely urging Americans to give Trump an “open mind.” Sincere moments in satire, which in itself has become a medium of sincere truth, add an extra layer to the emotional moment of SNL’s cold open.