By Emily Shields

On this past week’s episode of Saturday Night Live, there was a skit that parodied the government shutdown by retitling the Miley Cyrus song “We Can’t Stop” to “We Did Stop (The Government).” The skit blamed the Republican Party for the shutdown, depicting Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann as throwing a “house” party and as The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher John Farly puts it, “having their way with Uncle Sam” (Farley). It isn’t a new phenomenon for SNL to parody politicians, but it got me thinking about the amount of influence SNL has had on politics, particularly over election cycles. My verdict? While the influence may not be favorable for political candidates, the influence is extremely important when it comes to increasing political participation in young people.

As Jason Zinoman of the New York Times said, “When it comes to stamping a politician in the public consciousness, Saturday Night Live has no equal.” SNL has become such an impactful part of pop culture, leading the political scene in deciding which characteristics of political figures are worth poking fun at. So much attention is paid to nailing the accuracy of hair, costumes, accents, mannerisms, that the public often has a hard time deciphering an SNL parody character from the actual political figure. (Zinoman).

Perhaps the best example of this lack of differentiation is the “Fey Effect,” referring to Tina Fey’s portrayal of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Fey was so convincing as Palin that the iconic fictional line, “I can see Russia from my house,” has actually been attributed to Palin herself (O’Carroll). The “Fey Effect” was turned into a study, “Political Comedy Shows and Public Participation in Politics,” and results showed that “young adults who watched Fey’s portrayal of Palin were more likely than non-viewers to hold negative views” of Palin (Jacobs).  The study showed significance, as 33 percent of independents during the 2008 election cycle said that Fey’s portrayal of Palin was hurting the McCain-Palin ticket (Sands).

Now you’re probably asking yourself why this is good for political participation. If SNL is creating negative perceptions of politicians, wouldn’t that just turn the public away from engaging in politics altogether?

In the research study, “Political Comedy Shows and Public Participation in Politics,” Xiaoxia Cao and Paul R. Brewer examined the correlation between political comedy shows like SNL, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, and political participation. The findings  showed an overall positive correlation (Cao, Brewer).

In explaining for the correlation, the researchers found that these shows, which essentially use humor to create negative perceptions of political figures, are effective in instilling negative information in the minds of viewers, which in turn could “motivate viewers to participate in politics by triggering anxiety about the current political situation and future political outcomes” (Cao, Brewer). This seemed to be the case with the “Fey Effect.”

The results of the study are especially important for increasing political participation in young people. About a quarter of people aged 18 to 29 are receiving their political news from shows like SNL (Gugie). In addition, the Pew Research Center found young voters were significantly less engaged in 2012’s election than 2008’s, with young voters lagging further behind older voters and showing less of an intention to vote (“Youth Engagement Falls; Registration Also Declines”). Therefore, with an evident lack of political engagement among young people and so many young people getting their news from SNL, SNL possess’ the power to motivate young people, even if that comes at the expense of mocking politicians.

Political participation doesn’t solely mean having the intention to go out and vote. For younger people, political participation can mean going online. By motivating young people to  post a politically-themed viral video to a friend’s Facebook wall or retweet something a political figure said, SNL is able to act as a platform to get young people to think, talk and address the negative information received from the show.

In addition, since young people are very much an essential part of the viral video equation, if young people share politically-themed videos, whether they be the actual SNL skit or a related topic, there is an opportunity to inform and motivate peers. With 59 percent of young people saying the internet shapes who they are, this opportunity is profoundly important (Rosen).

Whether “We Did Stop (The Government)” gets young voters motivated to research the government shutdown remains to be seen. However, I did see the video posted all over my Twitter feed, showing that it did create a semblance of political participation. While some may think SNL’s take on politics ruins political reputations and essentially makes a joke out of politics, I believe that SNL is a positive influence on young people, with the majority being apathetic, in creating motivation to participate in politics.

Works Cited:

Cao, Xiaoxia, and Paul Brewer. “Political Comedy Shows and Public Participation in Politics.” Oxford Journals. n. page. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://ijpor.oxfordjournals.org/content/20/1/90.full>.

Carter, Bill. “Open Season on Politicians at “SNL”.” New York Times. n. page. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/13/arts/television/saturday-night-live-parodies- presidential-campaign.html?_r=1&>.

Farley, Christopher. “‘We Did Stop’:Miley Cyrus Mocks Government Shutdown on ‘SNL’.” Wall Street Journal . n. page. Web. <http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/10/06/miley-cyrus-mocks-government-shutdown-on-snl-with-we-did-stop/>.

Gugie , John. “Smack of Reality 2: Political Comedy Shows Influence Young Voters.” Yahoo!. n. page. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://voices.yahoo.com/smack-reality-2-political-comedy-tv-shows-influence-550747.html?cat=40>.

O’Carroll, Eric. “Political Misquotes.” Christian Science Monitor. n. page. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2011/0603/Political-misquotes-The-10-most-famous-things-never-actually-said/I-can-see-Russia-from-my-house!-Sarah-Palin>.

Jacobs, Tom. “Was Sarah Palin’s Image Hurt By Tina Fey? You Betcha!” Pacific Standard. n. page. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://www.psmag.com/politics/was-sarah-palins-image-hurt-by-tina-fey-you-betcha-40288/>.

Sands, David. “As Tina Fey soars, Sarah Palin struggles.” Washington Times. n. page. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/oct/8/tina-fey-soars-sarah-palin-struggles/?page=all>.

Rosen, Rebecca. “59% of Young People Say the Internet is Shaping Who They Are.” Atlantic. n. page. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/59-of-young-people-say-the-internet-is-shaping-who-they-are/259022/>.

“Youth Engagement Falls; Registration Also Declines.” Pew Research. n. page. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://www.people-press.org/2012/09/28/youth-engagement-falls-registration-also-declines/>.

Zinoman, Jason. “Comedians in Chief Mustn’t Be Prudent.” New York Times. n. page. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/13/arts/television/saturday-night-live-parodies-presidential-campaign.html?_rhttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/05/arts/television/comparing-fred-armisens-snl-obama-to-dana-carveys-bush.html?pagewanted=all=1&>.


One thought on “Saturday Night Live, Political Participation and Young People

  1. Pingback: Participatory Politics and the Youth Vote | Talking Politics

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