Why Appearing on SNL is Different for Women Candidates


As we welcome Saturday Night Live back to the airwaves, we’re reminded that, over the past 10 years, making an appearance on the show has become a political rite of passage for many presidential candidates. Barack Obama and John McCain both made cameos (McCain had two) prior to the 2008 election, and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had cameos during the 2016 Democratic primary. Donald Trump even hosted an episode during the 2016 race. With a record number of women currently running for president, it’s worth asking the question: are male and female candidates judged differently when they use humor?

In the past, conventional wisdom has suggested humor does not work as well for women on the campaign trail as it does for men. This bias against women using humor goes beyond politics; a recent study suggests that being funny may reduce a woman’s “perceived effectiveness and opportunities for career advancement.” We know from Barbara Lee Family Foundation research that, for women running for office, effectiveness is important: women need to work twice as hard to prove their qualifications, while men are assumed to be qualified.

However, research shows that voters also like women candidates and officeholders who show a sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously. The right kind of humor can help to create a bond with the voter. In funny ads that worked for women, they were often the “straight” person in the humorous situation. Women were not presented outside the role of the candidate, or in the comic situation themselves. If any of the women candidates this cycle appear on SNL, research shows they should be mindful of balancing humor with seeming credible, something male candidates don’t have to worry as much about.

In 2018, we saw a record number of women run for office, unapologetically as themselves, rather than trying to fit into an outdated template. And record number of women were successful. As 360-degree candidates, women candidates have the opportunity to show who they are as human beings, rather than simply talking about their resume, and this includes sharing their sense of humor. One female presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, is already getting into the SNL spirit:

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