January 08, 2012

Maya calendar in Saturday Night Live

Tapping into the growing awareness of the Maya's alleged end date, Saturday Night Live (airdate: 1/7/12) offered a skit on the Maya calendar. It would've been excellent example of non-stereotypical humor except for a couple of blunders.

The good

  • The setting--stone walls on either side with a jungle in the background--was reasonably accurate.

  • The faux Indians' appearance was impressive. The "Indians" weren't dressed in Plains headdresses and buckskins. They weren't half-naked savages in loincloths. They weren't wearing elaborate gold- or jewel-encrusted robes.

  • What they were wearing was modest brown costumes, presumably made of skins, with a hint of Maya style. This is about what I'd expect your average ancient Maya to wear. Not a peasant's loincloth or an emperor's robe, but something in-between. Something plain and nondescript.

  • The stone calendar was a good facsimile of the real thing. Fred Armisen, the "Maya" who supposedly invented it, said it was the most accurate calendar ever. He even uttered what sounded like real Mayan terms when pointing out the calendar's features.

  • They made jokes about being late, lusting for women, and the hassle of carving stone. Again, this is about what you'd expect your average ancient Maya to talk about. There was nothing wise, "natural," or spiritual about their comments, which is what we've come to expect from TV Indians.

  • The bad

    Based on all the above, this would've been an excellent skit about Indians. But two jokes brought it back down to mediocrity.

  • When Fred Armisen's character explains how the calendar works, Charles Barkley's character suggests a simpler system: five days named "Monday," "Tuesday," and so forth, with two rest days called a "weekend."

  • I believe the Maya used a base 20 system for their calendar. Presumably they knew their own number system by heart, so the new calendar wouldn't have been difficult for them.

    It's pure Eurocentrism to imply our calendar is simple and sensible while theirs was needlessly and foolishly complex. I suspect it isn't even true. Suppose you have to meet someone in eight weeks or eighty days. Can you state the meeting date off the top of you head? Without looking at a calendar, that is, or doing a few minutes of calculations? Under a base 20 system, coming up with the date would be easy.

    The ugly

  • At the end, Barkley's character says they're going to sacrifice a virgin. The idea that the Maya and other indigenous cultures sacrificed virgins is almost pure stereotyping. Here's what the Maya actually did:

    Sacrifice in Maya cultureSacrifice was a religious activity in Maya culture, involving either the killing of animals or the bloodletting by members of the community, in rituals superintended by priests. Sacrifice has been a feature of almost all pre-modern societies at some stage of their development and for broadly the same reason: to propitiate or fulfill a perceived obligation towards the gods.

    Animal sacrifice and bloodletting were a common feature in many Maya festivals and regular rituals. Human sacrifice was far less common, being tied to events such as ill fortune, warfare and the consecration of new leaders or temples. The practice was also far less common than in the neighboring Aztec societies. The Maya people would sacrifice their prisoners. The prisoners were most often from neighboring tribes.
    To reiterate the key points: Most of the sacrificing wasn't humans. The humans who were sacrificed were mainly political prisoners. And they were sacrificed for deeply held religious reasons, not as some sort of cruel joke.

    Yes, it's possible the Maya did sacrifice a few virgins. If so, the practice doesn't come close to representing the whole culture. It's more of an exception than a rule.

    So Saturday Night Live portrayed the Maya as normal, good-humored, and inventive...then undercut it by ending on the human sacrifice note. Takeaway message: the Maya were bloody barbarians who made weird stone calendars and murdered people. A skit that could've been great ended up being merely okay.

    Still, it was a nice try, and perhaps better than anything SNL has done featuring Indians. Keep it up and don't lapse into obvious stereotypes, people.

    For more on Saturday Night Live, see Columbus Day in Saturday Night Live and Taboo in Saturday Night Live.

    Anonymous said...

    Decent commentary...except using a Wiki article to describe sacrifice: "almost all pre-modern societies at some stage of their development."

    Such an assertion assumes cultural trajectory, that we 'progress' in stages from 'pre-modern' to (presumably) Western civilization.

    And here is the problem - you critique SNL for perpetuating stereotypes and yet rely on evidence that ultimately does the same things. At the least, takes for granted the savagery of the Maya.

    Rob said...

    I didn't rely on anything. I could've cited many sources to explain the significance of the Maya's religious practices. I chose Wikipedia because it's convenient, not because I needed it.

    If you don't like the "cultural trajectory" part of the Wikipedia entry, feel free to ignore it. Or you can go to Wikipedia and rewrite it. It doesn't change the thrust of my argument, so it's irrelevant.