SNL skit Winter Formal: Humour or ableist?

Trigger Warning: There are details in this post some may find disturbing and distressing.

On Saturday, January 15, 2022, Saturday Night Live aired a skit called Winter Formal. The characters spend 4 minutes and 19 seconds promoting their winter formal shop and making derogatory comments about the son. Close to the end, the mother says her son is this way because she drank while pregnant. Many of us found this skit contained language that was bullying, toxic, discriminatory, abusive and ableist. Using disabilities, in this case, Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, as a joke is not funny. Have we learned nothing about inclusion and being decent human beings?

As the mother to a young adult with FASD, who has had a life so far with painful rejection, this not only made me incredibly sad but also angry and frustrated. How did this skit pass through each stage with no one flagging the material as inappropriate? There is freedom of expression, but is there also not a moral code, ethical or adhere to human rights? Obviously, not one person through that entire process has a loved one with a disability.

So there it was – on live television – the portrayal of individual with a disability as a source of comedic material. Come on Saturday Night Live, you can and must do better. Including the additional challenges the disability brings, upwards of 90 percent of individuals with PAE/FASD will experience a mental health challenge. I can not even imagine how it would feel to see yourself portrayed as the punchline in this very distasteful skit.

The backlash was swift. These are a few summaries of the many reactions I saw posted:

We are saddened to hear of the Saturday Night Live skit which aired this weekend ridiculing a character with prenatal alcohol exposure. While individuals with FASD may experience challenges, they also have great talents, strengths and abilities. We encourage the staff, writers and actors at Saturday Night to receive training on FASD, as the stigmatizing and ablest language in this skit is harmful not only to individuals with this disability but also to pregnant women who may, as a result, feel unable to discuss their alcohol use with a medical provider.

Your misguided and evidently uninformed decision to use FASD as a means to generate laughs and increase ratings is beyond comprehension. As a mother to an individual on the spectrum, I can tell you her struggles are very real as she attempts to navigate a world that does not fully understand her. SNL’s use of FASD in this manner will have serious impacts for individuals with FASD and their families. The FASD community is working tirelessly to bring awareness of FASD and reduce the stigma for birth moms. It is clear that NBC must take steps to bring awareness of FASD and training for their executives and all staff. I strongly encourage NBC to pull the episode from all platforms, apologize for the airing of this skit and commit to a significant investment in increasing the awareness of FASD through your platform. Shame on NBC for its lack of compassion and understanding on this serious issue.

This made me sick to my stomach. I work incredibly hard teaching my son to advocate for himself and be transparent and vocal about his disability. I am hoping and praying that his friends/schoolmates didn’t see this disgusting skit. Instead of bringing education and understanding FAS they are b ringing shame and darkness to those with FAS. – Caregiver

It’s one thing to mock socially awkward traits, combining them into one character. That to me was bad taste, not funny, a cheap laugh. But when it was labeled, that is mocking a victim who had no control over what happened to them and it went from bad taste to just plain wrong and bullying.

Maybe stick to the jokes about a stretch Toyota Corolla limo instead. His, “maybe one day” response fills me with a rage that I can’t easily explain. Making jokes about a “a lazy wiper” isn’t even funny. “You can smell it” isn’t how any mother would respond. Come on. As a mother, worried first about potty training, then about a lifetime of hygiene goals, I am appalled. Crumbs on the lips. Stop. Maybe the writers at SNL don’t know. Perhaps they have all managed to have typical, healthy pregnancies. But my daughter, who is destined for amazing things, proven by a track record of amazing accomplishments, came into this world with FAS. She isn’t alone. My only hope for the Winter Formal skit is it ends up being the tipping point.

So SNL thought it was great fun to air a sketch where a key theme in the gag was that the person had FASD. This skit was pitched. It was edited and vetted. And they all let it pass. I’m done with SNL. That’s my kid’s brain injury you want people laughing at.

This is Mac. Mac has travelled the world rocking his Red Shoes to help people learn about FASD. Instead of focusing on his challenges, he rocks his red shoes to show strength. We believe that with support, looking for the strengths, understanding, inclusion, acceptance and believing in him and beating the odds predicted for him. Over 428 co-morbid diagnoses have been found to affect those with FASD. Mac has over 140 of them. No two people are affected the same. With 1 in 7 moms drinking while pregnant, many are at risk of FASD. Mac is resilient and always tries his hardest. He knows not to make fun of others, so why would SNL make fun of FASD? Nothing is funny about FASD. – Parenting Complex Children

I found it disturbing that the woman who plays the mother finds nothing wrong with what she has just performed:

There were also Statements from some organizations and businesses:

Justin of The FASD Project who works in the entertainment industry, including comedy, went across the country interviewing people about alcohol, pregnancy and FASD … and is on the Spectrum. See clip which is linked above but his parting comment: “Let’s keep comedy funny, not mean and hurtful.”

From the FASD Network of Southern California: This skit was despicable in its ignorance and lack of empathy for individuals with disabilities, especially those prenatally exposed to alcohol. FASD affects 1 in 20. Apology, retraction, and training are required.

From Dr. Kelly Harding: @nbcsnl I’d really love to know the rationale behind punching down on people with disabilities as part of a “comedy” (and I use that term very loosely) sketch. You have portrayed an individual with FASD as a comedic punchline. You have told the audience that we should see people with FASD as “lazy”, disgusting, and “off-putting”. You have told your audience that people with FASD cannot take care of themselves — they cannot clean themselves, go to the bathroom, or have proper hygiene. Presenting a group of people with adaptive behaviour deficits as punchlines is not acceptable. Using the line “Parenting is hard and I drank while I was pregnant” as a punchline is also not acceptable. It trivializes the challenges of people with FASD, the realities of the lives of women who may drink during pregnancy, and the challenges of parents who do struggle. DO BETTER!

From PROOF Alliance: FULL STOP. 🚫 This weekend Saturday Night Live aired a skit disparaging a young person with prenatal alcohol exposure (played by Andrew Dismukes). After several dehumanizing remarks about the individual’s limitations, the actress who plays his mother (Sarah Sherman) makes a crack about drinking alcohol when she was pregnant with him. Here’s the thing. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy isn’t funny. Brain injury from prenatal alcohol exposure isn’t funny. FASD, a lifelong and irreversible disability, isn’t funny. Degrading and devaluing people with FASD and overlooking their many strengths isn’t funny. People with an FASD deserve dignity and respect. Period. FASD is not an acceptable punchline. This skit isn’t funny. 🚫 Never has been, never will be. ✔️ Please do better

From FASD United: We are saddened to hear of the Saturday Night Live skit which aired this weekend ridiculing a character with prenatal alcohol exposure. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are a developmental disability impacting as many as 1 in 20 Americans which can occur when a developing fetus is exposed to alcohol. While individuals with FASD may experience challenges, they also have great talents, strengths and abilities. We encourage the staff, writers and actors at Saturday Night Live to receive training on FASD, as the stigmatizing and ablest language in this skit is harmful not only to individuals with this lifelong disability but also to pregnant people who may, as a result, feel unable to discuss their alcohol use with a medical provider. Given the recent CDC data showing as many as 1 in 7 pregnancies are alcohol-exposed, this lack of awareness by NBC and Saturday Night Live writers, staff and performers only highlight the need for federal legislation bringing awareness, support and intervention to this hidden disability.

I will not add any comments in response to the skit from those that enjoyed it. They are too disturbing to read. But I will add this response from an individual on Twitter: They literally just made one single reference to the mother drinking during pregnancy… you must have nothing better to do if you take the time to hyper-fixate on such an insignificant detail and blow it completely out of proportion like this. A retort to him from an individual with FASD: Ok…if you were born with a brain disability, and live with it EVERY…SINGLE…DAY…YOU MAY TAKE OFFENSE. JUST SAYIN. The response back: They weren’t humiliating him BECAUSE he has a disability. The mother drinking is a throwaway, the main point of the joke is that the kid is just a nerd and a total turn-off to girls. My heart goes out to the 16 million affected with FASD, but it’s really just a joke. And a response: And, if you knew anything about FASD you would know that they made fun of some of the disabilities individuals face daily. No disability should be a punch line. If you can’t (or won’t) understand this that’s a choice. You are being given an opportunity to learn or be ignorant.

The last response I will include is from the Adult Leadership Committee of The FASD Changemakers:

The Adult Leadership Committee (ALC) of FASD Changemakers has viewed the SNL sketch from Saturday, January 15, 2022.  After overcoming the shock viewing this skit caused – and giving it some careful thought – we would like to make the following comments…

We are surprised that SNL, known for its well-researched and written scripts, showed such ignorance and insensitivity to the subject matter. We are baffled at how you came to your conclusions.

If this was indeed a satire, the skit missed its mark and dismissed adults with disability in the same manner as has been done by other ableist public figures.

The perpetuation of completely inaccurate stereotypes, both of adults with this disability and of their mothers (and fathers), is cause for serious concern.

Making a mockery of adults with a disability and displaying an understanding of this disability so incorrectly, and further stigmatizing women with alcohol use disorders, raises some serious ethical questions about how the skit content was chosen, and researched.

We would also point out that we do not believe that the decisions made here would have occurred if the potential subject had been similar neurodevelopmental conditions, such as Autism, Down Syndrome, Intellectual Disabilities or Mental Illness, that affect so many in our society.

Alcohol use disorders are a serious health problem with significant consequences, for families, for mothers and fathers, for pregnant women and for their children – who become adults. They are not, and should never be, the subject of ridicule and satire. SNL…this was not funny.

It was just a sad commentary on poor research, writing, subject ignorance and a lack of understanding and respect.

Since the first draft of this post, many individuals continue to reach out on social media, contact the NBC Network and SNL producers.

FASD United indicated they had a connection and released this Statement.

The Canada FASD Research Network (CanFASD) published the following statement:

On January 15, 2022, NBC’s Saturday Night Live broadcast an inappropriate skit about alcohol-exposed pregnancies. Positioned as a comedy, this sketch poked fun at a teenage boy for his hygiene and social behaviour, before revealing he was prenatally exposed to alcohol.

This is ableism.

Prenatal alcohol exposure can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (#FASD), a lifelong disability impacting the brain and body. “Jokes” like this contribute to negative stereotypes and persistent stigma around FASD. This #stigma negatively impacts people with FASD, their families, and people who are pregnant and using substances, making it harder to get much-needed funding and support. This stigma can also lead to feelings of shame and contribute to social isolation.

Drinking during pregnancy is not a punchline. FASD is not a joke.

Advocating for our community can feel like an uphill battle, especially at times like this. It is disheartening when a popular media outlet further perpetuates negative stigma, stereotypes, and misinformation that causes harm to our community. Everyone has a responsibility to learn about FASD, so that dehumanizing and traumatizing content like this is not broadcast to millions of viewers worldwide.

This event highlights the need for a National FASD Strategy to further raise awareness and understanding of Canada’s leading developmental disability.

What can you do? I will not link to skit as it isn’t available in many countries. Even in Canada, it was only in some areas and not others. You may find it by searching SNL Winter Formal. You can look for SNL or NBC on social media or you can call the offices, write the producers or Lorne Michaels. These were posted: is the CEO of NBC. Viewer Mail: Phone: 212-664-4444.

Lorne Michaels c/o Broadway Video 1619 Broadway New York City, NY 10019

While for many our first reaction is anger, we can use that energy to create a united front and shine some education and light on prenatal alcohol exposure and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. We shouldn’t have to keep doing this, but wouldn’t it be great if this became the tipping point?

National FASD put out a statement and the Executive Director, Sandra Butcher made a heartfelt video message.

FASD is no joke. We stand with the international FASD community in condemning the ongoing broadcast of SNL’s offensive and ableist “Winter Formal” sketch, mocking the millions of people in our society living with FASD.

We are making formal complaints to Ofcom regarding Sky’s broadcasting of the sketch in the UK, but the more voices can be heard, the better. Click here to read our statement and learn how you can help:

FASD United provided the following update on February 16, 2022:

As many of you may be aware, the TV show Saturday Night Live aired a distasteful, highly stigmatizing skit featuring a character that was prenatally exposed to alcohol. We objected strongly to the portrayal of the character Donovan, as did an overwhelming number of members from the FASD community.

Through outreach by FASD United board members and staff, we recently met with a senior executive for diversity and inclusion at NBCUniversal as well as a senior publicist at NBC responsible for the late night portfolio which includes SNL. Through that conversation, the first of what we hope will be many, we were able to convey the anger, distaste and disappointment we felt and that we had heard

from all of you.

We had heard from our connection with a former writer for SNL, as with most comedy productions, SNL has a mandate to not censor or remove content once aired.

NBCUniversal did however send the video response from Justin Shepherd, Director of the FASD Project to the crew, staff and producers at SNL. They have agreed to distribute general information on FASD and prenatal alcohol exposure to all of their media outlets.

Additionally, over the upcoming months they have agreed to transmit information provided by FASD United to all of their scripted showrunners on all of their media platforms detailing what positive portrayals of individuals with FASD could look like and provide information to all of their news media outlets highlighting news stories that can bring awareness to FASD in a non-stigmatizing manner. FASD United will be working directly with self-advocates to compile this information.

We are hopeful, that in the future, portrayals of individuals with FASD in media outlets will recognize the uniqueness of each individual as well as the strengths and talents that they possess.

I will continue to update the post as new information becomes available.

5 thoughts on “SNL skit Winter Formal: Humour or ableist?

  1. Ab says:

    I read about this on the Edmonton FASD Network blog earlier today – and didn’t hear about it until then as I’ve been staying off social media for the last few weeks.

    This is very very infuriating. There is comedy, yes, but this is just mean spirited and so misguided. I’m glad you are speaking up about it as well.

    It is particularly cruel for kids and youth who watch SNL and who see their condition being a mockery. Very sad and upsetting.

    • our sacred breath says:

      Good for you for staying off social media! Unfortunately my job requires me to be on … otherwise I’d be off … I will have to check out the Edmonton blog … I haven’t seen it. I did just see CanFASD put out a statement so I will add that here as well.

      • Ab says:

        I’m off social media cuz I’m trying to avoid spoilers for a movie that came out and I can’t watch it cuz cinemas are closed. It’s not for an altruistic reason. 😆😆

        I’m glad CanFASD put out a statement too! People need to speak up about this awful SNL skit.

      • our sacred breath says:

        And here I thought you were going off for other reasons lol well restrictions are being lifted at the end of the month so hopefully you won’t have too long to wait to see it now!