The Satire Paradox

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast on the satire paradox touches on a number of familiar themes, some of which are handled rather more surely than others.[i]

As Gladwell tells it, the paradox of satire is that because different audience members will bring different assumptions and prejudices to bear on the same material, what one person regards as satire another can regard as a genuine expression of the position being satirised.[ii] Heather LeMarre, an academic who has published on audience reactions to satirists such as Stephen Colbert, emphasises the degree to which in effect we see and hear what we want. To quote from the abstract of a paper she co-authored on Colbert (back when he ‘was’ a rightwing wingnut),

individual-level political ideology significantly predicted perceptions of Colbert's political ideology […] conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.

On the face of it, this example betrays fairly basic ignorance on the part of conservative viewers,[iii] given that Stephen Colbert (the comedian, not the rightwing wingnut) is quite clear that he does not mean what he says, describing his character as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot”. I don’t have any specific reason to doubt LaMarre’s findings, but I suggest that there is another sense in which satire is often more open to interpretation than it might seem. Indeed, it is quite predictable that this is the case.

Satire works by presenting an exaggerated version of its target, inflating some of its distinctive features beyond their usual proportions. The exaggeration is intended to make the target look ridiculous (or more obviously ridiculous), but the exaggerated version can also be taken as an outsized celebration of just these features. What’s more, people can take it this way even if they are aware that the exaggerated version is intended to look ridiculous. In other words, they can embrace the exaggerated presentation of the target while simply ignoring the satirical intent. Hence hand-wringing articles on The Wolf of Wall Street being celebrated by the very bankers it targets. Hence also Al Murray’s response to critics who accuse his audience of being too keen on his often ignorant and bigoted Pub Landlord character: “I think the people who are sympathetic to him may well be enjoying laughing at themselves, which is a thing people are allowed to do as well.”[iv] After all, people who enjoy Woody Allen’s films very often share the views and sensibilities he mocks, and very often are well aware of this. If this is possible for left-leaning cultural elites, it is surely possible for boorish bankers or UKIP voters as well.

Gladwell’s other main point concerns what seems to be one of the results of the satire paradox: more often than not, satire is intended to bring about some kind of change but fails to do so. One of his examples is Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney: 

a broad satire of lower-middle-class mores in the Thatcher years which ended up being co-opted by its targets and failing to make any difference.[v]  Gladwell goes on to raise questions about the effectiveness and even appropriateness of satire more generally.

One problem with this line of criticism is that Gladwell relies on a rather rigid view of the aims of the satirist, as when he suggests “Satire works best when the satirist has the courage not just to go for the joke”. This assumes that the primary aim of satire is political and at most secondarily about comedy. But why should we assume this? It might be that some satire is in effect political commentary or protest through the medium of humour, but there are other examples that are better characterised as humour directed at political targets.[vi]

The limitations of Gladwell’s view are exposed in his criticism of Tina Fey’s spoofs of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live.

He tells us that “SNL brought Tina Fey in to skewer Palin out of a sense of outrage that someone this unqualified was running for higher office”. But it is highly questionable if a sense of outrage was the primary motive for this decision. For a commercial comedy show the imperative is to produce something which gets attention and viewers. No doubt the liberals who make SNL dearly wanted to take Palin down a peg or two, but that wasn’t the reason they wrote those sketches, still less why Palin herself appeared on the show.

A more general issue here is how satire, on Gladwell’s view, is supposed to ‘work’. If the satirist has the courage to not go for the joke, what are they going for, and what constitutes success in their endeavour? An obvious answer is: to bring about political change, by challenging established ideas and changing people’s minds. As Gladwell correctly points out, satire often fails to achieve anything like this. But this line of criticism is in danger of stacking the deck, by tasking satirists with a responsibility out of all proportion to their influence. Satire is for the most part an ineffectual form of protest, but as Bob Mankoff drily responded, “for the most part, even protest is an ineffectual form of protest”. 

Gladwell suggests “real satire […] uses a comic pretence to land a massive blow” – but a blow to what end? His own example of ‘real satire’ is the Israeli left-wing sketch show Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country). But more than a decade’s worth of ‘massive blows’ from Eretz Nehederet have accompanied a steady rightward drift in Israeli public opinion.

This doesn’t mean that satire has no effect: it just doesn’t, by and large, tend to change people’s minds. It is hard to believe that a supporter of consumer capitalism would come to a radically different opinion after seeing Loadsamoney. I suggest that when satire has a political effect, it tends to do so in other ways: it can form or consolidate our opinions on someone, or provide people with a prism through which a general sense of distaste or unease can be focused. Gladwell does not discuss this kind of effect, but considering it allows for a very different take on some of the examples he considers. For instance, SNL’s send-up of Palin is not particularly vicious as satire goes, but it undoubtedly had an effect in cementing the public’s view of her: as Gladwell himself admits, it can be hard to remember the difference between what was said by the real Palin and by her SNL facsimile. On the other hand, while Eretz Nehederet has not been particularly successful at winning over Israelis who do not share the liberal-left outlook of its creators, it may be a very appropriate vehicle for expressing the frustrations of those who do. Satire engages with political targets, but it has more ways of doing so than Gladwell acknowledges.

[i] Despite what I go on to say, the podcast is well worth a listen.
[ii] This is a familiar enough phenomenon to have a name: Poe’s Law.
[iii] Or it suggests they have adopted a complex and subtle view according to which ‘Stephen Colbert’ the rightwing wingnut is a ‘creation’ of ‘Stephen Colbert’ the left-wing comedian who is himself the creation of a person called ‘Stephen Colbert’ whose own views are more in line with the first of these creations than the second. This sounds rather too complex and subtle to be very plausible, but perhaps as left-wing liberal elitist I would be expected to say that.
[iv] As opposed to those, most famously Stewart Lee, who charged that Murray’s popularity meant that he attracted a following of people who missed his satirical point.
[v] And yes, it has aged rather badly.
[vi] Of course, comedy with no political or social target would presumably not be satirical at all, but this isn’t Gladwell’s point: he is discussing when satire works or does not work, not the difference between satire and non-satirical forms of comedy.

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