Earlier this week, Merriam-Webster announced its 2022 Word of the Year: gas lighting. The dictionary’s selection of the term – defined as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, particularly for one’s own gain” – was in part a response to public demand: searching for gas lighting up 1,740 percent in the past 12 months. This interest may reflect the fact that gas lighting describes so much, so efficiently. It emphasizes the emotional consequences of lying and captures the destabilizing feeling that can set in when someone or something keeps telling you that your perception of reality is wrong.
Many recent cultural works have attempted to give shape to this feeling. The latest attempt appropriately found its articulation through a mouthless cat. The one from last night Saturday night live, hosted by Keke Palmer, featured the show’s usual mix of topical humor (the evening’s roastees included Herschel Walker, Mitch McConnell and Ye) and wide-ranging observation. But one sketch in particular managed to capture this dizzying political moment by thoroughly professing its absurdities. The setting: an employee training course in a Sanrio store in New York City. The players: two store managers who introduced four new employees to Sanrio’s “official Hello Kitty story”. Among the facts the managers insisted on: Hello Kitty is “a human little girl.” She has a friend named Dear Daniel who actually is a cat. She’s in third grade. She’s also kinda 48 years old.
At first glance, the sketch was a skewer of the ever-expanding commercial Hello Kitty universe, which contains many of the clichés of modern marketing: “collaborations”, children’s items sold to adults, ridiculous brand extensions. Much of the “facts” the executives shared in the sketch were genuine claims made by Sanrio, Hello Kitty’s parent company: The company actually makes the case that its intellectual flagship — mustachioed, pointy-eared, and last-named Kitty — is a human girl. His website, genuinely and somewhat militantly, insists that she was born in suburban London and that she “lives with her parents and her twin sister, Mimmy, who is her best friend.”
But the actual target of the joke, thankfully, wasn’t Hello Kitty herself. (A defining ritual of my childhood was visiting the Hello Kitty sections of stores; the pens and erasers and stationery sets smelled of strawberries and possibilities, and I cherished them. ) Instead, the satire came at the expense of the managers, played by Cecily Strong and Molly Kearney, who treated their training session as indoctrination — and who kept insisting, with Kool-Aid drunken zeal, that the “facts” they told about a fictional one cat conveyed, are indisputable truths. With that premise turned on its head, the sketch satirized the speed at which fandom can become toxic today. It mocked the authors trying to reconstruct their own canons. And above all it mocked the people who think they can understand reality themselves.
The sketch aired the day after Elon Musk – a very rich man and a very poor Twitter administrator – announced new “revelations” about Hunter Biden’s laptop. The “reporting” he teased was neither journalism nor a major scandal. But like Hello Kitty’s executives, he has hinted that he alone has access to the “official” story — that he alone has the authority to establish the facts. The two most vocal trainees in the skit, played by Palmer and Bowen Yang, captured the emotional challenges of accepting the powerful man. Alternately confused and amused and offended, they gaped as more “official facts” were hurled at them. They were even more stunned when managers revealed that despite all the details they claimed for Hello Kitty, Sanrio’s executives had refused to disclose her race. (“She’s of an age, height, pet, and relationship, but she’s raceless?” Yang yells, practically vibrating with confusion.) Her desperation was eloquent. When down is up and up is down, it becomes increasingly difficult—and exhausting—to stand firm.
“Hello Kitty” was a punctuation mark for an episode that indicated how riddled with category errors this moment is. In the frigid public, Herschel Walker, played by Kenan Thompson, referred to McConnell as “Mitch McDonalds” and called a revolving door a “merry-go-round,” with the mistakes drawing attention to Walker’s woefully miscast as a politician. Palmer’s soliloquy culminated in an announcement that she was expecting a child, reversing the intimacy of pregnancy as a media event. (“It’s bad when people spread rumors about you on the internet, y’all,” she joked, “but it’s even worse when they’re right.”) Speaking on Weekend Update, Colin Jost spoke about “the brain fog of the long haul -Kanye” – by comparing Ye, the human, to Ye, the chronic symptom.
A truism of Saturday night live, and satire in general, is that their task is made more difficult when a culture is already making fun of itself. So there is a contemporary logic SNL‘s embrace of absurdity. gas lighting, before it was applied to American politics, was a term for domestic violence: it emphasized the sense of unreality that can arise when a perpetrator tries to convince someone their understanding of the world is wrong. It’s a notion of trauma reclaimed for this political moment – a time of big lies and little lies, and a time when people who claim authority insist that the creature may look like a cat and act like a cat behaves, but she is actually , a 48-year-old girl.