Janet Reno died this morning at the age of 78, and has been immediately remembered, among other things, as a capable, long-tenured attorney general, serving through two Clinton administrations and the countless scandals that entailed. She held the role for longer than anyone in the previous 150 years, according to The New York Times; she was also the first woman in the country’s history to hold it at all.
Perhaps because of these reasons, she was uniquely prominent in pop culture among attorneys general. (No one is making their name on a killer Eric Holder impression.) The most notable portrayal of Reno was Will Ferrell’s on Saturday Night Live, which he first began (according to the SNL archives) toward the end of 1996. In early 1997, he began “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” a series of sketches that have aged better for their skewering of mid-’90s MTV than for Ferrell’s blunt portrayal of Reno. Here’s the first one ever, with Kevin Spacey:
And here’s one that has aged even worse, co-starring Rudy Giuliani before his soul had been sucked out through his eyes and replaced with whatever mewling, craven, rodent-like thing that powers the establishment Republicans still standing by Donald Trump:
Boorish as it is, Ferrell’s caricature of Reno determined public perception of her. The joke was less that she was exceptionally dour than it was the juxtaposition of an attorney general earnestly (but forcefully) attempting to connect with the youth demographic during the Rock The Vote era. Regardless, the image of a no-fun workaholic in a drape-like dress is what lingered.
Toward the end of her tenure, Reno navigated the Elián González controversy, which netted her this caricature as a typically cynical politician on South Park:
At that point, she was just sort of in the public consciousness as a “name,” a “politician,” which is probably why, in 2000, The Offspring name-checked her in the song “Original Prankster,” perhaps as part of an oneiric evocation of pop-culture fatigue, or maybe because it fulfilled a pre-arranged rhyme scheme:
More recently and decidedly less horrifically, in 2014 the New York rapper Awkwafina released the track “Janet Reno Mad,” which conjures the former attorney general as a left-field evocation of the establishment.
The Genius article for the track claims Awkwafina thinks of Reno as a “fairy godmother” for her power over men, which would be an interesting reclamation of Reno—not as some stolid, un-hip schoolmarm but as a power-player that strode confidently into the boys’ club. Check out the New York Times’ obit for a fuller recollection of Reno’s real-world accomplishments.