Former Attorney General Janet Reno died on November 5, leaving behind the kind of long, complex legacy that so often accompanies working in public service for decades. Under President Bill Clinton, Reno became the longest-serving attorney general in more than 150 years of that position’s existence.
But even a cursory Google search of Reno’s name inevitably brings up another aspect of her career in the public eye: Saturday Night Live’s portrayal of her as an awkward and childish wallflower, as performed by Will Ferrell in drag.
The most popular sketch to star Ferrell as Reno was “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” which recurred on SNL four times between 1997 and 2001. Ferrell would bop and thrash around with a bunch of high schoolers in a concrete basement to the Knack’s “My Sharona” to let off some steam.
Occasionally, his Reno would even entertain other politicians, like Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala (played by Kevin Spacey in simpering drag) and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (played by the man himself).
In this sketch and others where SNL depicted Reno barreling through press conferences and lusting after the president, Ferrell deepened his baritone to a bass, blinked rapidly, and threw his body from one side of the room to another like an anxious second-grader talking herself into throwing a tantrum.
Reno herself ended up guest-starring in the final “Janet Reno’s Dance Party” four years after Ferrell began impersonating her in 2001 — on her last day in office. Reno told the St. Petersburg Times that the sketch reminded her “how important humor is,” and that appearing on the show seemed like a decent last-day-in-office activity.
Then again, what was she supposed to do as the subject of constant mockery but try to play along?
Janet Reno’s tenure as attorney general attracted criticism, admiration, and endless jokes about her appearance
Reno had been the subject of jokes about her height (6-foot-1), her demeanor (brusque), and her appearance (irrelevant) since she became attorney general in 1993 and was launched into the national spotlight. Late-night hosts took particularly pointed aim, sensing an easy target in a woman who towered above her male colleagues and expressed open disdain for the idea that she should soften her blunt rhetoric to make others feel more at ease. (As she famously put it, she didn’t “do spin.”)
One particularly representative example came from Jay Leno, who referred to an appointment decision Reno had to make as “her toughest decision since ‘boxers or briefs.’”
In 1998, in an exhaustive look at the sexism that plagued Reno from the start, the Washington Post’s Liza Mundy talked to Ferrell about his impression, which presented Reno as both a ball-busting Amazon (almost literally in one sketch, which saw her compete against Giuliani in a boxing match) and a frivolous little girl in the face of President Clinton’s charms. Reading his quotes in 2016 is ... a trip:
If the attorney general were a man, would we be doing this sketch? Probably not. And let's say if a Madeleine Albright, a short little, quote “normal” woman was the attorney general, I don't know if we. ... It's weird. I hate to break it down into something as simple as the fact that she's tall, but it's almost as simple as that.
Hey, at least Ferrell was honest. Most people who denigrate women politicians based on a lack of traditional femininity dance around the truth. In fact, most of the bias surrounding female politicians is subconscious; a 2013 study by the Women’s Media Center found that any commentary about a woman politician’s appearance, whether positive or negative, made people less likely to vote for her.
According to Ferrell, though, his impression of a woman who was “perceived as almost asexual” at least gave her “the benefit of the doubt,” because SNL chose “to portray her as being repressed and dreaming about — men."
God forbid Reno be anything other than a heterosexual woman. Then the show might really have had too much material to mock.
Janet Reno could take a joke. But that didn’t make one-note spoofs on her appearance and gender any less sexist.
Reno finally appearing on SNL and joking around with Ferrell seemed like a blessing. At the very least, it became a reason people could unequivocally love Ferrell’s impression without thinking too hard about how it played into the barrage of sexist jokes and complaints lobbed Reno’s way while she was in office.
Even today — after her death — Reno’s New York Times obituary minimized the sketch’s unfortunate significance by explaining that “she got the joke.” (There’s no telling when or if this obituary might’ve been prewritten, but the fact is that this paragraph was published in 2016.) A Time piece counting down “6 Things Janet Reno Will Be Remembered For” concluded with SNL’s “iconic” take on her. If Reno herself could laugh at the sketch, the logic goes, why can’t we?
Whether or not Reno actually liked or understood the impression doesn’t change the fact that she was lampooned for being herself: a less than traditionally feminine woman who was just trying to do her job in a male-dominated arena while under constant scrutiny that had nothing to do with her actual performance in office. And in the 20 years since, SNL’s hulking, emasculating impression of her has aged pretty poorly. [Insert hacky Reno joke here.]
Of course, we’re coming to the end of a presidential election that’s featured Hillary Clinton’s head on gleeful “Life’s a Bitch; Don’t Elect One” T-shirts, so maybe we haven’t evolved as far past this unimaginative spin on powerful women as I’d like to think.