A Saturday Night Live skit has been met with criticism for its caricatured portrayal of patients with sickle cell disease, especially as the timing of its airing casts a dark shadow over the recent breakthrough FDA treatment approvals.
A skit from the December 16 episode of Saturday Night Live (SNL) that poked fun at sickle cell disease and presented a narrow view of the patient population has drawn criticism from members of the sickle cell community.
Aired on the heels of the breakthrough FDA approvals of the first cell-based gene therapies indicated for treatment of sickle cell disease, the skit depicts a white elephant gift exchange held at a corporate holiday party. As a Black employee, portrayed by Kenan Thompson, goes to select his gift from the available pool, his White colleague, portrayed by Kate McKinnon, suggests that he choose to open the envelope in her hand instead.
As he reads the letter announcing that McKinnon’s character has secured him a spot in “Vertex Pharmaceutical and CRISPR Therapeutics’ exa-cel program for sickle cell anemia,” McKinnon places a comforting hand on his shoulder in a move that communicates, “You wouldn’t have had this opportunity if it weren’t for me.”
And in typical SNL fashion, there’s a twist: Thompson’s character swaps his letter of enrollment for a Boogie-Woogie Santa, a Santa figurine that delights employees with his singing and trumpet-playing, opened earlier in the gift exchange by another employee. The colleague that receives the letter in the swap expresses disappointment that the members of his family won't be able to "use it," because like himself, they're all White.
The last colleague to open a gift receives a blanket but announces that she’d like to make a trade. She, a Black woman, begins to talk about the struggles that her mother, who has sickle cell disease, faces—including chronic pain and kidney problems—and says that she is grateful to have finally found something to make her smile. But rather than choose the letter of enrollment for the curative program, the employee swaps her gift for the Boogie-Woogie Santa. By doing so, she frames her mother’s struggles as a point of humor.
Individuals with sickle cell disease and disease advocates have criticized the skit for both its caricatured portrayal of the patient population and the struggles they face, especially as the timing of its airing casts a dark shadow over the recent breakthrough FDA treatment approvals.
In a statement titled “Sickle Cell Disease is Not a Joke,” the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America denounced SNL for the skit.4
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