Last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” sketch, Picture Perfect, received a lot of attention for its (lack of) portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad.
In the segment, which features actress Reese Witherspoon alongside SNL’s usual cast, contestants play pictionary by drawing a picture of a person, place, or thing in the hopes that their teammates could correctly guess what their doodle was meant to portray. The game goes by smoothly until one contestant is asked to draw a “trendsetter:” Islam’s prophet Muhammad. Hesitant to draw the prophet, who some Muslims prefer to not be depicted in artwork, the man tries to stall, even when he is faced with a million dollar prize. “I don’t want to!” he says, “I want to go home!” After reading the clue, the second teammate also insists, “I won’t do it!” and pretends to drop his pen. Luckily for the contestants, Reese’s character still guesses “the Prophet Muhammad?” before they have to draw the holy prophet.
The skit makes an important commentary in the wake of the “Draw Muhammad” event in Texas earlier this month, hosted by the now well-known anti-Muslim activists, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. The duo encouraged their supporters to draw violent and lewd caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and awarded $10,000 to the winning pic. After the contest was targeted by two Muslim shooters, who were taken down by police, a national discussion about Geller and Spencer’s activities, intentions, and well-lined pocketbooks arose.
The sketch is smart because pokes fun at both the “powerful” and the “boogeymen,” said Dean Obeidallah, a Muslim comedian who writes a column for the Daily Beast. It not only chides those who make money off of grand, offensive gestures (like Geller and her colleagues), but also those who overreact to being offended (like the shooters who attacked the cartoon event.)
In the sketch, the contestant is tempted to draw the prophet because he’ll make a billion dollars if he does—a not-so-subtle reference to the big bucks made by Geller’s group for encouraging insults and prejudice towards Muslims.
Obeidallah praised SNL for the way they tackled the topic, saying it “raises an important issue about freedom of expression and the fear some Americans have about drawing the Prophet Muhammad” while not “demoniz[ing] Muslims.” Obeidallah, who created the comedy show, “The Muslims Are Coming!“, and has lined the New York subway system with his own, punny ads to combat Geller’s, has worked with SNL in the past, advising them on their material dealing with Arabs or Muslims. He says the show’s creators are always intentional about not using their humor to further demonize already marginalized groups.
“[SNL’s] comedy about political and societal issues,” he says, “always punched up, not down, meaning it took aim at people in power, not minority groups.” That’s what the recent pictionary segment did successfully.
The SNL skit, which ultimately didn’t depict Islam’s prophet, leaves viewers with a subtle, but important take-away: Just because you have the right to offend someone, doesn’t mean you should.
That’s not just a message for groups like Geller’s but also one for American society as a whole. Taking SNL’s advice will help us achieve the more pluralistic, less Islamophobic society we strive for.