Last weekend Saturday Night Live provided the grieving left with a surprising moment of solace following the election results. For the cold open, Kate McKinnon, dressed as the recently defeated Hillary Clinton, sang the recently departed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” while accompanying herself on the piano. Social media exploded in praise of McKinnon’s performance with testimonies from viewers who were moved to tears; grateful to McKinnon for providing a moment of catharsis at a time when hope and optimism seems impossible for many. What I am particularly interested in is how McKinnon’s performance fits into a long tradition within queer performance and resistance. To explain why and how let’s start with a basic questions about what exactly it was that McKinnon did during the cold open.
Was it a joke? SNL is, by definition, a comedy show and thus it’s reasonable to assume that its content is mostly comedic. McKinnon, known primarily as a character actor, became famous of the past year for her impersonation of Clinton. So, right off the bat, the audience has two signals that point to a comic interpretation. However, despite these comic signifiers, the performance simultaneously contains distinctly serious elements. McKinnon’s performance is minimal and reserved. Beyond the costume she gives little “performance” of Clinton: McKinnon focuses her attention on the piano, which she plays as she sings her own voice, occasionally turning to acknowledge the audience and camera. There are no physical gags, altered lyrics or comic asides to the audience. And then there’s the choice of song. Underlining the air of grief and loss evoked by the visual representation of Hillary is “Halleluiah”, perhaps the most iconic pop song about grief and loss of the twentieth century, made all the more tragic by the recent death of its writer, Leonard Cohen. This multiple layers of irony beg another question about the performance:
Was it satire? Using an artist’s own work in their memorial in and of itself creates an ironic layer. However, when that elegy is then used to express the metaphoric death of hope felt by so many after Trump’s presidential victory, and is sung by an actor dressed as the defeated Clinton… that’s a lot of layers. However, irony alone does not a satire make. U of T’s own Linda Hutcheon explains when she unpacks the popular confusion of the difference between satire and parody. To paraphrase, parody is an intertextual (so two or more sources) product that plays on a coincidental relationship between those sources. This relationship does not necessarily have to mock or even criticize either sources. Satire, on the other hand, requires some level of criticism, thus its popularity as a tool for cultural criticism.
West Side Story, for example, is a parody of Romeo and Juliette. The secondary “text” in question is the modern setting of a gang war in twentieth century New York. The musical succeeds as a parody because the audience accepts the parallel between waring noble families and gangs. It is particularly strong because it also finds these similarities between subjects which initially appear to be opposites: nobility vs street gangs, classic literature vs modern entertainment. West Side Story is not, however, a satire. It does not critique, challenge or mock Shakespeare’s text nor the contemporary setting in gangland New York.
Thus, while satire frequently uses parody to get its point across, not all parodies are satiric. In other words, to parody something does not necessarily mean to mock or criticize it. So while McKinnon’s performance accesses multiple layers of meaning and irony, it does not disparage its source. The depiction of Clinton is neither mocking nor critical and the inclusion of Cohen’ song, while ironic, is played sincerely. As such, McKinnon’ performance can be classified as parody, though not satire.
So what does this have to do with queer performance? Whether or not McKinnon or her audience realize it, this ironic memorial is actually participating in one of the most important queer cultural traditions of the twentieth century: queer parody.
In her early ethnography on drag culture, Mother Camp, Esther Newton noted that one of the foundational aspect of gay culture was blurring the lines between tragedy and comedy. Newton noted, however, that rather than providing pure escapism from or mocking the tragic element, “[t]he humour does not cover up; it transforms” (113). The tradition of gay parody (sometimes labeled Camp, but that’s for another blog post) not to undercut tragedy with comedy, or to condemn the tragic by comically mocking it, but instead to use combine these paradoxical responses performativity as a site of survival and resistance.
Scott Bergman explains that “In a pre-Stonewall word, camp functioned as an argot that provided an oppressed group some small measure of coherence, solidarity, and humor” (13). In the face of constant oppression and dehumanization, camp allowed for solace and mourning without foreclosing on hope and resistance. Scott Long extends this idea when he notes that a melancholic camp performance, “even at its most pessimistically conceived- still asserts a kind of hope: it is a system of signs by which those who understand certain ironies will recognize each other and endure” (90). Not only does camp mix grieving with an act of resistance, its use of “coded language” has historically also served to unite isolated members of the queer community. The coincidences in queer parody have, historically, necessitated audiences bring their own queer cultural literacy to the experience. Drag shows, for example, play on their queer audiences’ existing cultural knowledge but going to a drag show won’t explain why a performer dressed as Little Edie singing “I Dreamed a Dream” is funny or relevant to queers. It plays on cultural knowledge that is generally unsanctioned by dominant culture. By physically representing that culture, queer parody provides its audience with a much needed sense of community and solidarity in a world that isolates queers.
So what exactly did Kate McKinnon’s Clinton cold open do? It drew connections around recent tragic events facing supporters of the left. It memorialized a political loss, and politicized a death and in doing so provided a sense of solidarity and meaning to this implicated in this mourning. It united all those who feel marginalized by the rise of the alt-right by drawing on mixing multiple liberal cultural symbols in a single performance. Most importantly, I would argue, it used elements of comedy to temper the melancholic subject matter with hope. Susan Sontag, the original camp scholar, has said that “One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that ‘sincerity’ is not enough” (10). In this case, in the face of overwhelming fear, McKinnon’s queer parody responds with hope and provides solidarity in much the same way her queer ancestors have been doing for generations.
Cameron Crookston is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies and the Mark S Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. His researh looks at drag and queer cultural memory