Is satire dead, and do we need it?


Satire is an art form. As all art is, it is inherently subjective and its invitational openness to interpretation is one of its key features. Much like a painting, song or sculpture, satire has to be judged on a value scale starting around ‘outstanding’ (Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) and ending somewhere like ‘almost poignantly pointless’ (The remake of Spitting Image).

Satire is often derided as offensive or unfunny. If it is offensive, it tends to just be poorly written, using lazy stereotypical tropes rather than genuinely ‘satirical’ ideas. If it is unfunny, it will fall into one of two categories. Firstly, there is again poorly written, which speaks for itself. But alongside that, there is ‘hits too close to home’ satire. This is where it is often at its best, sparking genuine reflection in either a singular person or an entire social group through a perfectly written joke.

A common misconception about satire is that it is a reflection of an opinion or fact and can be judged as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This failure to understand what satire is, or intends to do, is perhaps the biggest cause of its mooted death. Satire is the use of humorous techniques to highlight flaws within society, in the hope that it inspires correction of these flaws. It is often politically charged, which sparks the misconception that it is simply pushing political opinion.

Satire should be virtually apolitical. It should be keyhole surgery for society, targeting flaws to rebalance and improve humanity, regardless of political leaning. Of course, depending on where the most obvious flaws are, one side or the other tends to become more of a target – but that is a result of the society as opposed to the satirist.

Failure to understand satire is perhaps the biggest cause of its mooted death

Now for some recent examples of satire, starting with the Spitting Image remake. The stars are, as expected, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, who are lampooned by, well, being themselves. As the proverb goes, imitation is the highest form of flattery. This destroys what I assume is the message that they are both ‘self-satirising’ enough that nothing the writers could imagine really seems like satire.

The ‘edgiest’ the show gets is Trump and Johnson seducing Covid-19. This is criminally lazy; almost too far removed from their horrendous histories with women to be satirical. Dominic Cummings is portrayed as an alien, which lets him off the inexorable fact that, as much as he, or I, may not like it, he is human. Its lazy tropes are neither thought-provoking nor conducive to self-reflection and, as such, aren’t really satire.

The startling satirical relevance of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is impressive. Maria Bakalova as Tutar, Borat’s daughter, is a real highlight, with the masterful juxtaposition between her wide-eyed innocence and the genuine sincerity of the American figures she encounters a true satire of their general ridiculousness. This is satirising the supposedly ‘self-satirising’ done right, by simply holding a mirror up to their flaws.

The greatest modern criticism of satire is the damage it can do to people’s lives if they target groups who will defend the subject matter enough to take physical or legal action against those involved. There are examples of this within most modern dictatorships, from Venezuela to Turkey. Yet this is where satire is most useful: a subtle and disarming way to deliver subversive messages without simply yelling them from the rooftops.

Satire is most useful: a subtle and disarming way to deliver subversive messages without simply yelling them from the rooftops.

The most publicised recent satirical crises have been the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre and the machete attack last month, after they published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in 2012. Given the prevalence of Islamic fundamentalism and France’s significant Islamic population, this was poorly thought through. They should not have received this retribution for exercising their right to free speech, but after riots across the Islamic world for a Danish cartoon house’s portrayal of Muhammad in 2005, it was somewhat poking an already angry bear. And not really satirical either. As has often been recently quoted, we have a freedom of speech, not a freedom of consequence, and common sense will always be a virtue.

But no, even considering these attacks and the remake of Spitting Image, satire is not dead. When most modern politicians and their politics are so crass, it often takes on a subtler form, woven into wider works rather than being exclusively satirical. Modern satire tends to be intelligent enough to realise that targeting figures like Johnson or Trump, although shockingly easy, has little impact. It is satirising the societies and groups that enabled them to come to power that is needed. Using satire to force these groups to consider why we are all in the mess we are is deeply, fundamentally necessary.

Image: Josep Monter Martinez from Pixabay

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