SNL's George Zimmerman jokes were offensive — is that the point?
Last night, Saturday Night Live opened with a skit about Donald Trump looking for a new VP candidate with the help of Chris Christie. The skit implicitly mocked a number of former Republican front-runners including Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush and Christie himself, whose desperation for the role of vice president was almost painful to watch.
The skit eventually landed on a joke about “a guy from a swing state, Florida. He’s half-Hispanic with a proven record for standing up for himself.” Christie was talking about Marco Rubio, but Trump mistook the description for George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin — adding to an ongoing conversation about police brutality toward black Americans. Zimmerman recently tried to auction off the gun he used to shoot Martin.
The joke was at Trump’s expense. Christie quickly tells him that having Zimmerman as a running mate is a very bad idea. However, many viewers were still upset at the joke, which they felt was in poor taste. Zimmerman's shooting of Martin, an unarmed boy, was and is a traumatic event that ties into much larger histories of violence. He recently tried to capitalize on this act of violence, and people were willing to indulge Zimmerman's psychopathic whims. Is it too soon to joke about him in any capacity? Is SNL benefitting from his heartless acts by using him as a punch line for a joke without explaining why he is such a divisive public figure?
The question is certainly tricky and difficult to solve. On one hand, many on the right fear censorship, arguing that comedians should be free to make jokes, that humor is a way to discuss politics and that those arguing for trigger warnings and more careful speech may regret their position if it is turned on them and their ideologies are silenced. Certainly, SNL's political content in the past has been daring, refreshing and sharp. As a high schooler, I remember being introduced to Sarah Palin via Tina Fey's portrayal of her before I knew anything about the campaign.
But on the other hand, just as comedians are free to make jokes, aren't critics free to criticize them? Aren't audiences free to be offended at crass, insensitive material? And how do we casually talk about issues like police brutality without making light of them?
Personally, I felt that the joke was clearly mocking Trump's judgment rather than advocating for Zimmerman in any way. We see Christie adamantly declaring that Zimmerman is a horrible choice for running mate. Conversely, it is Trump who comes across as unintelligent and unaware.
Still, the skit could have done a better job telling audiences why Zimmerman is a bad choice instead of casually using him as a punch line. Because the gravity of his actions was not addressed in any manner, the skit does feel lazy and perhaps unaware of the impact that even hearing his name could have on viewers. While we must allow space for all kinds of comedy, we must also work to ensure that the media we consume is ethical, intelligent and productive.