Every day seems to bring a new headline about sexual harassment. It’s crucial to talk about how commonplace this abuse is, but it’s becoming more difficult to do so without becoming exhausted or desensitized. It’s what makes Saturday Night Live’s recent exploration of harassment — a visually soft, musical number from Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Leslie Jones, and Melissa Villaseñor, with guest Saoirse Ronan — feel like a warm shower after a roll through the mud.
Over the weekend, SNL debuted a catchy pop culture parody tackling the unending wave of sexual harassment allegations. This movement seems to have started with Harvey Weinstein, but the ripple has traveled far beyond Hollywood, and into industries and locations across the world. As the song title aptly puts it, “Welcome to Hell.”
Musical comedy is nothing new for SNL, and the show has touched on feminist issues in group parodies before. But the biting juxtaposition of bubblegum pop and sexual harassment feels more like an outtake from the CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which regularly uses musical comedy to deconstruct thorny subjects like mental health and sexism. “Welcome to Hell” is a dead ringer for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s man-hating anthem “Let’s Generalize About Men,” where series co-creator Rachel Bloom and company examine the pitfalls of the male population — and mock the way women talk about them.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend built its reputation on this sort of egalitarian satire, where its frustrated female characters declare that all men are emotionally stunted children while simultaneously acknowledging that this is absurd hyperbole. (“There are no exceptions / All 3 billion men are like this / All 3.6 billion men.”) It plays on stereotypes from both sides: the women engaging in their proclaimed “primal ritual” of drinking and complaining, the men putting up a tiresome cry of “not all men.” The SNL song, on the other hand, represents a more literal case of ideologies clashing. Its staff can write and perform songs about harassment, but the show has also invited notorious abusers like Casey Affleck to host. (Louis CK has hosted the show four times.)
“Welcome to Hell” is parody, but only in how it chooses to deliver its information. Dressed in pink or pastel and sporting sweetheart looks, these performers do their best bubblegum pop impression while addressing a harsh reality: harassment has always been part of women’s lives. “Oh, this been the damn world,” Strong sings of the recent headlines. Jones pops in to say, “But you do know that it’s like a million times worse for a woman of color, right?” The short even demonstrates some self-defense tactics women are taught: McKinnon holding her keys between her fingers to thwart would-be attackers, or Strong demonstrating acting so crazy, would-be molesters will decide she’s “not worth the trouble.”
The grief people may feel over House of Cards being “ruined” after Kevin Spacey was fired, or whatever surprise they may experience at learning how widespread harassment is, pales in comparison to the frustration that acts as the song’s throughline. Why didn’t women say something? “Well, we definitely did,” Ronan says. “For hundreds of years.” It’s the understatement of the century.