A stray thought on Satire

The Oscars this year stirred up a bit of controversy, specifically, the gender politics of the total presentation were apparently more than a little retrograde. I didn’t actually watch them myself, but I caught some loose strands out of the backlash. The one which I wanted to follow up on a little was the Onion’s tweet about best-actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. Some people thought it could be justified on comedic grounds and some people thought it couldn’t. I don’t think I’ve seen any commentary saying that it got a good-old belly laugh.  Film Crit Hulk weighed in on the matter, and as seems to often be the case, I thought he got so caught up in his ranting style that perhaps the key points were a bit buried.

The issue here seems to be whether it’s satire and if so, what it’s satirising, rather than is it funny per se, and so we need to think about the concept of comedic structure and be informed by a theory of satire:

Satires share the basic narrative structure of the things that they mock.

Examples of this in action are not hard to find; you could begin with Aristophanes’ The Frogs, which mocks the concept of the heroic journey into the underworld, and yet is structured around just such a journey. Similarly, the high-point of satire in the West is arguably during the Restoration, with Swift, Pope et al. Pope’s Dunciad takes the form of an epic poem, and so on.

The more subtle the mockery, the harder it is to distinguish the two from within the work itself. This means that satire is in part a creative tool, but can be more of an interpretive stance, and over time the satiric qualities of a work can get lost. I think this is broadly the case with Jane Austen, and specifically the case with Gulliver’s Travels.

Perhaps the best example I can think of though is The Princess Bride, which is spectacularly under-interpreted by even quite well-informed people. XKCD had a strip a few years back pointing out that Westley is a bit of a dick – which is to say, he finally got the point of the story. Westley is a satire of the heroic Zorro figure that defined male heroism and the adventure genre. It just so happens that it has sufficient charm that despite itself, it supplants what it satirizes.

The reverse can also be true, where older and more stylized works lose their dramatic power. I think, for example, there is a very good satiric reading available for Hamlet. He is such an inept revenger, with such a convoluted plan for going about it, that the original play can start to look like a parody of the far more sensible insert in Last Action Hero, where Schwarzenegger simply gets on with the killing.

Since satire becomes almost an interpretive rather than creative approach, depending on your baseline of the “normality” being critiqued, you can potentially get a bit lost. Take Sin City. It’s so hyper-stylized and consciously referential, with such absurd gender politics that you can start to think it’s a satire of itself: the ultimate post-modern wank. You’d be wrong, it’s simply garbage… but there is a defensible analysis in there somewhere.

One handy benefit of satiric readings is that they can take the sting out of a work. A satiric reading of Hamlet means you don’t really need to grapple with the meaning of To Be, or Ophelia’s suicide. And to the extent that satire can be built into a work, it can allow you to almost have your cake and eat it in terms of enjoying something without taking it seriously. You can, through satire, enjoy things ironically.

The clearest example of this process is perhaps in the descent of slasher horror films. You start off with horror films intended to be genuinely horrific and scary, like Halloween, the prototypical slasher film. To watch and enjoy, you need to have a certain resiliance.

A little later, you get Scream. Craven’s film consciously brushes against the fourth-wall, with its famous movie referentiality. That provides access to a way of viewing the film other than straightforwardly scary. You get to see all these people brutally murdered, but without having to really deal with the emotional impact of that because it’s always drawing attention to itself as a film, as a construct, as an untruth. It doesn’t quite come out and mock progenitor films like Halloween, but that kind of reading is not far out of your way.

Next, you end up with films like Club Dread, which has crossed over into the realm of satire. Now the intent is for you to be competely disengaged from the horrific emotions of the story. It’s been neutered and rendered safe. Yet it does still share the same basic narrative structure and includes the same kinds of nominally-horrific events. If you don’t enjoy that story sequence then the satiric layer won’t provide a complete story experience. You could, however, still retain your non-satiric reading; reading against many of the surface details, true, but if you choose to care about the characters and choose to suppress the meta-textual clues, or if you were a very naive viewer, it could actually work as a horror film.

Finally, we end up with Scary Movie, the point beyond which there is only the empty form of the individual scene, with no possibility of any kind of emotional response other than boredom. I mean, other than laughter, because it’s funny. Really funny.

The point is that until we reach that Scary Movie tipping point of total silliness, we tend to enjoy satires on two levels. We enjoy them for the sense of fun they bring to a topic – the humour, the laughs, the ironic comment. Satires make us feel sophisticated. They are often highly referential and therefore they require more interpretive effort than straightforward narratives, and so can be more rewarding. But we also still enjoy them for the basic pattern they model. We enjoy The Princess Bride as an adventure story, we enjoy The Daily Show and Colbert Report as news, we enjoy Club Dread as horror. Satire makes us comfortable with things that we aren’t comfortable with otherwise.

And that is the real structural problem with the Onion’s tweet. We can enjoy its satiric content, as an attack on the Oscars’ misguided gender politics. We can’t enjoy it as a straightforward name-calling exercise, because that’s not interesting or insightful or useful in any way, especially when directed at such an innocent target. Context is important here, to provide the satiric content, but it’s not quite sufficient to explain what’s going on.

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