Satire is a fine and sophisticated craft of wit, perception and bravado. It’s about understanding the world around you and the skill of zooming in and reflecting on elements that resonate with your audience. It is, to put it less wordy and more metaphorically, more like a marksman carefully picking his targets rather than blasting a blunderbuss into a crowd of men.
Satire is not the same as parody even though these terms are often used interchangeable. Parody is a more lighthearted, purely comic reinterpretation of an existing work. Satire is much harder to define, mostly because it’s so broadly interpretable and allows for so much freedom for the creator. A work of satire is defined mostly by its effect rather than its form. Satire pinches the butt of its subject and flirts with audience as it is left to wonder if they’re witnessing an homage or an insult.
The catalyser of every satirical work however is the way it makes us think. If confronts us with something that is happening in a way we had not been confronted with before. Whether you like it or not, satire will make you see and realise things. It pulls the rug from under the dogmas of society.
Dogmas and Stereotypes
And with that we hit an important part of what a lot of people misinterpreted about satire. It pulls the rug from under the dogmas of society; in other words, it picks on things that we are familiar with, that we take for granted and don’t critically analyse anymore. Laughing is scientifically defined as a bodily function that kicks in as a form of relief. A joke is nothing but confusing our mind at first and then unexpectedly twist it back in a way we didn’t see coming. The confusion is over and in an involuntary reaction: we laugh. Satire takes on a subject that we deal with on a regular basis to a point that we became blind to it. If a satirical work makes us ‘see’ it again; we laugh because we came to realise that.
To come to the core of the point that I’m making. Satire is not about confirming prejudice and it’s not about cementing the status quo more solidly in its place. It’s not about meeting people’s expectations and pleasing them about populist feelings they already harboured. Satire is meant to change your view and perspective, not to confirm it for you.
Continuing that thread; let’s talk about stereotypes. There is a lot of confusion surrounding stereotypes and their function in satire. Pointing out stereotypes, using them in humour and creating a narrative around stereotypes is what a lot of folks would describe as satire. Because stereotypes are part of the public conscious; we recognise them and feel as if jokes based on them are somehow related to society.
And when something is about society and recognisable social situation, we are often tricked into thinking it’s somehow a clever social commentary or a satirical take on everyday life.
But using, affirming and exploiting a stereotype is far off from undermining and criticising the establishment. Far from it, actually. Instead of making us think about society and question dogmas and pull the carpet from under our feet, it tell us what we already knew. If anything it lulls us right to sleep. That’s not to say this type of comedy is definitely not funny; it’s comfort humour. Thoughts that we feel a little guilty over, that gives us complex thoughts and frustration during the day, are momentarily solved with a blunt joke. “I’m not suppose to think Italian-Americans are loud, vain and slick but if a crude joke temporarily tells me they are, my complex feelings are dealt with for the moment. That’s humour too: a quick fix. Looking back at the dry, scientific explanation from earlier: our confusion about the complex fabric of society is briefly solved for us and laughing comes again as a sign of relief.
Insult comedy is popular because it heals the wounds that satire lacerates. Both are acceptable and viable forms of comedy in our society, but it’s dangerous when they are getting mixed up. It happens a lot that the more controversial pieces of blue comedy are being brushed off as “just satire” – in a way to diffuse the uproar. That way, every bit of humorous media is being made immune for criticism and sceptical analysis. Which I think is a harmful thing. The media, or let’s put it a broader sense: the arts and culture, are not supposed to be subject to censorship, but they should not be safeguarded from scrutiny either. Because freedom of speech means that we are able to say and write what we want, without being prosecuted and methodically prevented from doing that. Freedom of speech does not mean that everyone is entitled to a stage, a medium or an audience.
The way satire is defined, is not only a matter of the content of the thing itself; it also depends on the context of the outside world. As times change and the political landscape changes, so does the chemistry of our society and the nature of the power structures that control it. We hear a lot about generation shifts between baby boomers and millennials, but largely in terms of everyday matters. Family, friendships and making ends meet. But the clash also is palpable in popular media for example. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Generation X was providing the counter culture. The music of bands like Nirvana and later Eminem, South Park on television and the nihilism of early internet culture. These folks used to be the spanner in the works. They opposed the fading idealism of their parents, called out the hypocrisy of the boomers that once dreamt of a better world back during Woodstock, but then quickly settled for less. They were the cynical, pragmatic generation of atheism, neo-liberalism and anti-political correctness. But they are the ones calling the shots now. South Park is mainstream, being against “PC-culture” is the norm and being able to hate, insult and threaten anyone is considered free speech.
A new group of young kids have to take over. The Tumblr generation, the new idealists, the kids that grow up not knowing better than being okay with marriage equality, eat organic and recognise more than two genders. Their work is going to be the new satire. They will have to challenge the status quo; pull the rug from under the feet of those jaded Gen X’ers. It’s going to be cool again to be tolerant, open minded and nice to other people. Politics will soon be dominated by demands for self determination, environmental friendly measures, democracy and socialism. And it will start with satire.