A Response to “The Pitfalls of Satire”

by | April 28, 2012
filed under Feminism

by Josh Bowman. Josh Bowman is a professional fundraiser, story-teller, comedian, and blogger. He has worked and consulted in Vancouver, New York, and now Toronto for almost a decade. Josh also runs and writes for tenthingsivelearned.com, and improvises around Toronto, including regular shows with Opening Night Theatre.

I am writing this post as a response to an article that Jasmine Peterson wrote in response to an article I wrote in a response to an article that Mark Radcliffe originally wrote. Jasmine much more eloquently addresses her concerns with my piece than certain other writers who were (thank heavens!) equally concerned. My hope is that this post will create a giant, meta black hole that will collapse the internet in on itself, leaving nothing but the remains of charred servers.

My synopsis of Jasmine’s thesis is taken (roughly) from her article, as follows:

“While I love satire, I do think that satire in and of itself can be extremely problematic…I think this is one of the biggest dangers of this literary form, because too many people interpret these statements at face value, without realizing the author’s true intentions.”

Her thesis is interesting, as it to some extent echoes other discussions which have been happening online. The question becomes, what happens to a joke (and joke-teller) when the audience isn’t in on a joke? When do you stop being ironic, and begin embodying traits you previously identified as repellent?

The first example that comes to mind is the Beastie Boys. A group which started out exaggerating sexist and obnoxious behaviour through their music and live act, only to realize that they were becoming that which they were trying to mock (featuring cage-dancers at concerts, sexist lyrics about partying, etc.). The second example that comes to mind is Dave Chappelle, who left an incredibly lucrative and popular television show at the height of its popularity because he was losing creative control, and not getting the right kinds of laughs. He was worried that his satirical comedy was, in other words, becoming almost a modern day minstrel show (my words here, not his). The racist tropes he was parodying in his sketches were being taken literally in all the wrong ways.

The third example that comes to mind, and which Jasmine alluded to in her article, is the site “Literally Unbelievable”, which is a frightening collection of individuals online who read articles on (the satirical newspaper and website) The Onion and take them to be real news stories. In case there is still any confusion, Onion articles are not real.

Satire is a powerful, transgressive, and clever art form when done right. From Socrates mocking his own trial to Voltaire, in Candide, mocking optimists like Liebniz, to Jonathan Swift, in A Modest Proposal, mocking the heartlessness of the Irish upper class to Langston Hughes, Tom Leer, Woody Guthrie…the list is endless. We use satire to attack injustice, and it is a Trojan horse that allows the satirist to express ideas that, if expressed plainly, would result in censure, imprisonment, or worse. Satire is a tool to speak out against the government through subtlety and humour. The brilliance of good satire is how its message can go over the heads of some but get across so clearly to others. It is a very fine balance, but when it works, it’s brilliant. One of the most brilliant satirists of our time is Stephen Colbert, who portrays a conservative “Fox News style” host so accurately that he reportedly has a following among conservatives…who have no idea he is joking.

This brings us back to my original article, an exaggerated (and admittedly kinda dumb) exploration of my own aesthetic approval of well-endowed women. The article was meant to be self-effacing, ridiculously heightened, and ultimately in good humour. To clarify: I don’t think that breast size  informs personality. I don’t think that all women with large breasts or butts are one way or another, nor am I attracted to all women with large breasts or butts, nor am I never attracted to women with small breasts or butts, nor do I think there is any really important binary between the former and the latter.

(deep breath)

That being said, I wrote an article with the intention to continue a conversation (in a light-hearted way, ideally) around types, preferences, and sexuality. An intention, might I add, that was reasonably successful…given how many follow-up articles were written. I also thought what I wrote was funny, and still do. I moonlight as an improviser and comedian (which means I have lost a lot more money on classes and trips than I ever came close to making for performing or writing. Money lost: lots! Money made: pretty much nothing), so being funny is pretty key for me.

So back to the original question: when is satire no longer satire? Is it dangerous and problematic? I would say…yes. Satire is dangerous. Satire can be offensive. That is, in fact, kind of the point. Some people will not get the joke. Again, this is what makes satire effective. Good parody and good satire mock a target while still emulating many of that targets behaviours/tropes. Sometimes, it’s pretty damn convincing.

Bad satire, on the other hand, is sad, unfunny, and problematic. Bad satire is when the powerful mock the powerless. Bad satire, as an example, is blackface. Bad satire accomplishes the opposite of what it is supposed to accomplish. Bad satire lets everybody in on the joke. Bad satire is being what you are supposed to be undermining.

Did I write good satire? I don’t know. I’m no Voltaire. Maybe a poor man’s Jonathan Swift. If he mostly wrote boob jokes.

When you write satire, you are taking a chance. You walk a fine line, knowing that a percentage of your readers will never get the joke, no matter how hard you hit it over the head. That can’t mean that you never use satire, though. It can’t mean that before every joke, you write a disclaimer: THIS IS A JOKE. I ACTUALLY BELIEVE X,Y,Z, BUT I AM USING HUMOUR TO MOCK THE OPPOSITE OF MY BELIEFS. At some level, we have to assume at least a basic level of intelligence in our audience, and let the chips fall where they may as writers, performers, musicians, comedians, and artists. At some level, we must be ok with taking chances in our work, knowing that not every joke will land, not every thought understood, and that occasionally, we will do a poor job and have to re-evaluate what it is we are trying to say.

I liked my article (even if it’s far from perfect), and I stand behind it because I believe in what I didn’t say…I believe in satire.

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