The Sisterhood of SNL’s Girl Group
“Oh my god, you have got to see this video,” laughed my best friend as she angled her computer towards me. I looked up distractedly from the Shakespeare I was reading for my lower-division English class: I was worried about the fate of Macbeth and slightly irritated that my friend had pulled me away from my homework. I expected to see a dog video or a Vine, the kind she was always making me watch.
I didn’t expect “Back Home Ballers.” I watched as the door to a teal minivan, emblazoned with the license plate “YRGIRLS,” slid open and an army of Saturday Night Live female legends stepped out. I was sold from the minute Aidy Bryant introduced herself as “L’il Baby Aidy”; I pushed aside my homework and leaned forward on my elbows to be as close to the computer screen as possible.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the seven hilarious women on the screen, rapping about the most nonsensical topic — the pampering that parents give to college students when we return home for Thanksgiving — in the most awe-inspiring way.
The song itself wasn’t only impressive and hilarious; it was unbelievably relatable. Every lyric in the song resonated with me as a new college student. From Kate McKinnon’s introduction of the ridiculously long WiFi password (00000000000000000b45ltngX3331458tdg314w) to Leslie Jones’s masterpiece of a verse about “bowls, bowls, all types a’ bowls,” I found myself nodding along to every second, thinking wow, that sounds so much like my own WiFi password and yeah, my mom has bowls on every free surface in our house!
The fact that these engaging, entertaining rappers were all female didn’t seem significant to me. After all, this was the 21st century. Even though I saw this video during finals week of freshman year of college (after Trump had been elected President), the most formative years of my life had been spent during the Obama presidency. That women still weren’t granted all the same rights as men — in 2016 — was not a topic on my radar. I never considered it particularly trailblazing that this girl group was just that: girls.
The Lonely Island, formed by Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone in the early 2000s, brought the concept of the absolutely ridiculous comedy song to SNL. From “Dick In a Box” to “I’m on a Boat,” these three male comedians sang about an array of absurd and hilarious topics, drawing out laughs from, say, the spectacle of T-Pain on a yacht with Andy Samberg.
But while The Lonely Island deserves credit for introducing a new aspect of comedy to SNL, their boyish lyrics and the male-centric topics of these songs kept women from feeling like these parodies were something to which they could personally relate. Yes — Samberg and Justin Timberlake sang directly to women in the Emmy-award winning “Dick In a Box,” starting off the song by crooning, “hey, girl.” And yes — of course women laugh at the same things as men. From the American Pie saga to classic SNL skits like “Schweddy Balls,” frat-boy humor is not inaccessible to women. (Personally, I’m a huge fan of American Pie, “Schweddy Balls,” and The Lonely Island.) But you can enjoy musical spectacles like “Dick In a Box” while at the same time sensing, uncomfortably, that women are not given the same creative license.
The year after Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider were hired to the SNL staff as full-time writers in 2011, Andy Samberg departed the show. Although this departure meant the end of The Lonely Island’s stint on SNL, the vacuum created by Samberg’s departure opened up a space for Schneider and Kelly to step up.
Schneider and Kelly immediately established themselves as forces to be reckoned with, collaborating with cast members Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon for their first song, “(Do It On My) Twin Bed,” released in 2013. This writing duo, assisted by the capabilities and drive of Bryant and McKinnon, paved the way for a new era in Studio 8H: the era of YRGIRLS.
This era of YRGIRLS has fundamentally changed the scale of comedy for female actors and audiences. Now, hosts like Cameron Diaz — who I personally didn’t know had a musical bone in her body — can do more than just provide comedic relief in a mixed bag of sketches. They have the opportunity to participate in a phenomenon much bigger than themselves: YRGIRLS.
The success of YRGIRLS in “Back Home Ballers” must be at least partially attributed to its individual parts.
To Cecily Strong, whose facial animation as she reclines on a couch in a red fur coat somehow always seems hilariously over-the-top but amazingly spot-on.
To Leslie Jones, whose reliable appearances as a “straight man” character remind her fellow group members — mostly white — to consider the importance of intersectionality, all while singing about how her mom “got bowls for e’rythang / Potpourri and nuts and e’rythang.”
To Vanessa Bayer, whose presence often seems overlooked but whose indelible awkwardness is the glue holding this girl group together.
To Sasheer Zamata, whose inexplicably cool and confident body movements provide something similar to Samberg’s confidence in The Lonely Island.
To Kate McKinnon, whose absolute commitment to her performance sells the song. Without her love of the craft and her love of YRGIRLS, “Back Home Ballers” wouldn’t be the comedic and musical phenomenon it is today.
And to Aidy Bryant, whose decision to christen herself “L’il Baby Aidy” throughout her career as a member of YRGIRLS speaks for itself.
But in addition to attributing the success of YRGIRLS to each of its individual — occasionally rotating — members, this girl group is also bigger than the sum of its parts.
Girl groups inevitably constitute a kind of sisterhood, creating a shared space between the women of the group and the female audience. By establishing themselves as a legitimate musical group, capable of the same accomplishments as the extraordinarily successful The Lonely Island, the women of YRGIRLS indubitably created a sorority — both within themselves and with the audience — from which SNL cannot turn back. And just like all other sisterhoods, this sorority laughs together and commiserates together. The women champion each other’s victories (like “doing it” in childhood bedrooms) and poke fun at each other’s embarrassments (like when guest member Elizabeth Banks reminds Vanessa Bayer that “this is on TV” to prevent her from spilling incriminating details about her childhood crush). But most importantly, this group supports each other and bands together in times of strife.
For several years, the sisterhood of YRGIRLS sang about an array of different, lighthearted topics: an international sex drive in “Dongs All Over the World”; childhood targets of affection in “First Got Horny 2 U”; and the affable pampering tendencies of suburban parents in “Back Home Ballers.” They even tackled a more serious topic in 2016’s “This Is Not a Feminist Song,” exploring the difficulties of championing intersectional feminism in a world where political action always seemed to exclude different marginalized groups. And, in the true fashion of sisterhood, each of these musical productions seemed to bond this girl group more closely together, establishing YRGIRLS as a female comedic juggernaut which redefined comedic possibilities for women.
Finally, women had something we could both laugh at and relate to. No longer surrounded exclusively by frat boy humor, the productions of YRGIRLS all carried the same relatable messages. Yes, women across the country thought, I don’t want to hook up with my boyfriend in the same room as my embarrassing christening dress. Or, you’re right, how can I be a feminist and ensure I incorporate the experiences of women all over the world when I also want to frolic on a beach? No matter the topic, YRGIRLS had a buoyant answer. And women were listening and laughing.
Then came Trump. Suddenly, rather than winning small, quotidian victories under Obama’s presidency, American women were forced to grapple with the realities of the #MeToo movement and a president who seemed to want to disfranchise them of their basic human rights. Many of them resorted to anger: anger against the Trump administration’s seeming crusade to nullify a hundred years of progress for women; anger against men in positions of power, many of whom didn’t seem to be able to resist sexually harassing the women around them; anger that our voices often weren’t heard or listened to when we chose to speak up.
These rapidly changing political and cultural climates also affected the sorority of YRGIRLS. No longer content with singing about lighthearted topics, YRGIRLS banded together in support of each other and women across the world. The shockingly different “Welcome to Hell” was released in December of 2017, a time when new headlines seemed every day to expose another powerful man as a sexual harasser or predator.
I vividly remember seeing “Welcome to Hell” air live in season 43 of SNL. I jumped excitedly in my seat the moment the pixelated video materialized into a shot of my favorite girl group. I couldn’t help but laugh when Cecily Strong opened the scene with a melodramatic eye roll; her nasally “hey there boys!” even paralleled the opening of “Dick in a Box.” I was sure I was about to witness some of the classic YRGIRLS humor I had grown to love so much. But Aidy Bryant changed everything — her pointer finger sporting a Ring Pop, she looked piercingly at the camera and said, “all these big, cool, powerful guys are turning out to be…what’s the word? Habitual predators?” I felt like the bottom had fallen out of my stomach. What opened in the style of an enjoyable bubblegum pop song quickly became something much darker.
My inner turmoil only intensified over the course of the song. Continually torn between laughter and revulsion, I watched, mesmerized, as the girl group I loved so much danced and sang to highlight the perverse truths about how women interact with the world. Kate McKinnon smiled as she rolled around on a cloud, but her eyes seemed to contain a new, bitter wisdom that I hadn’t seen in “Back Home Ballers.” They seemed simultaneously to celebrate the light shed on women’s long history of sexual assault and to express a deep disappointment in the audience for the silencing of this history.
This song is fundamentally different from anything YRGIRLS had previously tackled for many reasons, not just its subject matter. While the jovial songs I had loved from earlier in the group’s career were guided by a joy for life and pure love for comedy, “Welcome to Hell” was laced with a deep current of pain and anger; every action performed by the comedians, every lyric sung or rapped, seemed to be undercut by a poignant sense of irony. This bitter, caustic perspective is fresh for YRGIRLS and pairs appropriately with the vocally-light-but-semantically-dark lyrics. The girl group maintains an image of buoyant fun, spinning in circles over colorful backgrounds, while offering the disturbing but accurate lyric: “this is our hometown, we’ll show you around / Welcome to Hell!”
This girl group’s decision to tackle the painful and confusing realities of the political climate since Trump’s inauguration only further reinforces their status as a symbol of sisterhood. In a time of strife, YRGIRLS chose to diverge from their well-beaten path of lighthearted parodies for entertainment, instead providing women with a falsely cheery means to begin to understand the complicated implications of the #MeToo movement. At one point in “Welcome to Hell,” our beloved L’il Baby Aidy even looks directly at the camera and says, “Oh, and this ain’t a girl group. We just travel in a pack for safety.” The ringleader of this girl group admits that they have been forced to band together for survival, turning their originally playful friendship into a much more sustainable and necessary friendship. We witness the same girl group with whom we had rapped “bowls, bowls, all types a’ bowls” and for whom we had cheered and commiserated in “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” suddenly switch gears and remind us that, although our stories of sexual harassment have been silenced for hundreds of years, we at least have our fellow women to hear us.