So what if it’s satire?

24

September 26, 2013 by Devin

In the wake of my last post, I saw a fallacy get thrown around that I thought needed addressing, and that is the “All things are permissible as long as they are considered satire” approach.

To elaborate upon this a bit more, this is the idea that many of the complaints leveled against a particular piece of art, in the most recent case Grand Theft Auto V and its depictions of women, are misunderstandings of the true purpose of the work. GTA V is a piece of satire, and its portrayal of women is part of message about the state of America. Therefore, the complaints about the women characters are based on the complainer not getting it.

Now, having not played GTA V, I am not sure if this is an accurate statement or not, but I wanted to touch upon this notion that “satire made it okay” for a bit.

Satire as an excuse

In my experience, just about every indulgent art piece has, in its defense, used satire to make it all okay. Video games can have helpless females that need men to save them because it’s a satire of that trope. Movies can have lots of blood and violence as long as it is parodying other movies that have lots of blood and violence. Comics can have ridiculously proportioned females because they are actually making fun of ridiculously proportioned females.

Now, I want to be clear here and say that I am not saying that these types of media are not satire, but in order to be satire, it has to move beyond simple imitation. There has to be something else there.

To illustrate this point, I want to turn to Wanted, the graphic novel (not the movie), which I think shows both sides of this coin. Mark Millar wrote the graphic novel as the Hero’s Journey, but instead of a hero becoming the protagonist, he becomes a villain (the Villain’s Journey, if you will).

Wanted has some indulgent fun when it's not being morally reprehensible and stuff.

And for a while, it works. The main character becomes a despicable human being who rapes and kills for fun. It is like the Millar was saying, “If someone actually found out they had super powers, they would become an awful person.” That is an interesting idea and way to look at superheroes in general. It was a satire of the superhero origin story, pointing out how ridiculous of a power fantasy superheroes are.

But then, by the end of the graphic novel, the character is still an awful person, but he is put in the traditional hero role, saving the world from even worse evils. At this point, the satire falls on its face, as all the sex and violence reveals itself to not be part of a critique of superhero tropes but rather an indulgence of juvenile and damaging fantasies.

And that is the key factor. There are some fantastic indulgent pieces of art out there (I would definitely consider Hot Fuzz to be this), and often satire looks like indulgence.* So in order to appear deeper and more thoughtful, indulgence will sometimes try to act like there is more to it and that it is satire. This way, it can get away with portraying damaging and offensive characters and themes.

And even if something intends to be satire, even if the creator says it is supposed to be satire, that does not mean it succeeds. Heck, there is even a TV Tropes page about this very tendency (though to be fair, there is a TV Tropes page about practically everything).**

Satire as an art

So where does satire work well? I think Watchmen, the graphic novel, is a strong example of satire. In it, there is a lot of violence and sex, which usually come from indulgence, but those come as a result of the satire and not the other way around.

Night Owl is fascinating if you look at him as what Batman should be.

Something that a lot of people, including arguably Zack Snyder, missed about Watchmen is that it is about failure. Night Owl, one of the main characters, has a gut not terribly fitting for a superhero. Rorschach, the expy of Batman, is homicidal and completely mentally unstable. And the Comedian, one of the roughest and toughest heroes, is a drunken mess when he is killed early in the book. The most notable sex scene, where Night Owl and Silk Spectre get it on in his fancy Owl-mobile,*** is prefaced with a scene where Night Owl had trouble getting it up.

Alan Moore, the writer of Watchmen, did not write these characters as gods, which is often the case with other DC characters. Instead, he wrote them as mentally unstable lunatics who are addicted to dressing up in ridiculous outfits. Watchmen works as satire because it has an actual critique and everything in it relates back to that point. It is a deconstruction of superheroes, not a celebration of them.

Watchmen, the graphic novel, did not fall in love with showing its characters in awesome situations. The Rule of Cool was not invoked, unlike Wanted which fell in love with its own protagonist’s awesome abilities and violence. Satire is supposed to be above indulgence and usually critiques indulgence by showing how ridiculous it is, not reveling in it.

In other words, satire is supposed to move beyond just making fun of something.

Offensive does not equal satire

Sure, satire often offends people. In the quintessential example of satire, A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift argued that babies should be sold to be cooked and fed. Obviously, this is a preposterous idea, and it is easy to understand why caring mothers would object to this proposal.

It is clear nowadays that Swift was not being serious. He was being satirical. But (and this is crucial) the goal of the piece was not to offend. It was not to entertain, either. It was to make a point. It was to critique. And he did that by offending people.

He wanted to offend people but only enough for them to reconsider their views, to knock their normal perceptions off-balance and make them see things from a different perspective. “What if we killed children to feed people” was a statement with a point. Swift did not stay there, but he moved further and basically said, “Why do we not care about people dying?”

I bet Jonathan Swift would have made excellent memes.

Swift did not offend to offend. Swift did not offend to make a joke or to be funny. Offense was a tool at his disposal that he used to make a point. That is the difference between A Modest Proposal and the myriad of dead baby jokes out there. One offends for a reason and the other offends to be funny.

And satire does not even have to offend. Watchmen did not offend me, and it was effective. Furthermore being offensive is dangerous and has to be crafted carefully. If you offend someone so much that they walk away and don’t consider the greater implications of what you said, as was the case with the Onion’s tweet about Quvenzhane Wallis (in which they famously used the c-word on a 9-year old girl), you fail rhetorically. The audience has stopped listening to you. Your message is not heard except to those who already agree with you.

To be fair, a lot of times people use “This offended me” as shorthand for “the satire didn’t work.” Perhaps critics should clarify more often that they understand that the works are meant to be satire, but I think people should understand that if a piece of work that attempts to shock and offend people offends people so much that they do not like it (or do not like it as much), that is a perfectly natural reaction.

I feel like the arguments that begin with “It’s satire!” should move beyond that into discussing the message of the satire. Sometimes people understand that the work is satirical but are offended at the point it made, not the method it made it. The message of A Modest Proposal is not offensive at all. It is “we should care about poor people,” but if the message of GTA V‘s satire was, “Feminists are stupid and ridiculous,” then there would be good reason to be offended.

Is GTA V satire?

I actually wish this topic had come up a different way. The line between satire and indulgence is fascinating to me, and having never played GTA V, I cannot comment on how effective of satire it is or even if it is satire to begin with. In fact, I have tried to be very careful in what I say about GTA V because I fully recognize that I do not know.

But I want the discussion to move beyond this simple defense. Satire is a genre, not an excuse, and there can be terrible satire just like there can be excellent satire.

So if you really want to defend GTA V, please do not just say it is satire. Instead, I would love to hear people advance the discussion by talking about things like:

  • What is the message of the game? Does it have a point beyond “ha ha this is funny”?
  • Is the offensive material used well to make people think differently?
  • Overall, how would you imagine different audiences reacting to this? Is it only funny and entertaining to people that already agree with it?

I understand that those are a bit high school-y, but I am tired of hearing this same defense over and over again as if it is a panacea.

Even if GTA V is a satire, for one reason or another its story did not work for some people. I want us to move into the discussion of why that is before just assuming that those people are stupid and did not actually get it.

And if that happens, everyone will be a little bit better off.

__________

*Just to make sure everyone knows I’m not just harping on women and violence, this is also the primary critique I have with Pride & Prejudice.
**Warning: TV Tropes will take up your whole life if you let it.
***I know that’s not actually what it’s called, but that won’t stop me from calling it that.

__________

So what do you think? Did I hit the nail on the head or am I completely wrong? Feel free to comment and critique below!

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24 thoughts on “So what if it’s satire?

  1. Katie says:

    I was all in agreement until Pride and Prejudice…you had to go there. I’m offended.

  2. charles says:

    I don’t really understand the need to defend GTA at all honestly. Is GTA satirical? Of course, the game is filled to the absolute brim with satire; everything from the commercials, to the talk radio stations, to the companies on the stock market, and so on are clearly satirical imitations of something that rockstar decided to poke fun at. Is GTA offensive? Of course, as is often the case with satirical works of art someone usually ends up getting offended and pissed off. Does that mean that you have to defend GTA on the basis that it is satire? No, and to be honest many times GTA showcases senseless violence for the sake of senseless violence and that is going to offend some peoples sensibilities. GTA has prostitutes and strippers thats going to rile some people up. But I still don’t feel the need to defend GTA as satire, in fact I don’t feel the need to defend it at all. If you get offended by it, then don’t play it, just suck it up and move on with your life. So while GTA is a very satirical work of art, the violence and strippers aren’t necessarily part of the satire, but their presence within the games does not need to be defended.

    • charles says:

      woah, a little liberal on the commas there

    • No, you can’t just swipe it under the rug. 15 million people and their friends are playing this game. That’s a large consumer base, and with critics raving it as one of the best games of the year as reinforcement, there’s going to be a considerable amount of influence this game has on people.
      Now that doesn’t mean I disagree with your statement, I do believe GTA V (for as far as I’ve played it) is a justifiable satire. That’s the point Devin is making, he’s tired of exactly what you just presented here: a perspective without any support or argument. If your view has been challenged, and your defense is no defense, then it’s pretty much forfeiting.

      • Charles says:

        Forfeiting is exactly what it is actually. I understand how the game could be offensive to some people. Hell, I’m pretty sure that the developers actively try to offend some people to generate hype. So I cede the point that gta is offensive and that it being a satire does not excuse it’s offensiveness.

        Except I don’t think that every work of art has to be politically correct.

      • Devin says:

        I’m actually somewhere in-between your two views. I think you can enjoy GTA as an indulgent piece of entertainment as long as you recognize why it is offensive to some people and don’t critique them for getting offended at it. On the other hand, I think you can view GTA as a satire, but only if you understand why it is satire and the elements that make it up.

        So far the defense of GTA as satire I have seen has been short-sighted, but I don’t think that means that there is not a defense of GTA as a satire.

      • charles says:

        Also I would like to point out that there are aspects of GTA V that are definitely satire. Elements like the talk radio stations that satirize NPR and its conservative counterparts, the “minutemen” that satirize some peoples views on immigration, ect. However the fact that the game is a satire is likely a poor argument against someone offended by GTA because 99% of the time these are not the elements that are offending people. I haven’t heard from anyone who is outraged by rockstars take on immigration, or their criticisms of Apple (Ifruit) and Facebook (Lifeinvader). Most of the time when people are offended it is aimed either at the gratuitous violence, or the misogyny. I think you would be hard pressed to try and argue that GTA does not include both of these, as there is violence everywhere and a lack of intelligent female characters. That said I believe that rockstar should be able to make whatever game they want to make, and that as a society we should be less sensitive to things like this.

      • @Charles – I was definitely with you until “we should be less sensitive about these things”.
        I think the lack of sensitivity is kinda what got us here in the first place – which, you’ll recall, was originally outright attacks on a (real, live) person, with the sole intent of harming them, for nothing more than expressing a well-formed opinion.

        Maybe not everyone would agree that it was a terrible thing to occur. But you know, a very large majority thought so, and thankfully we still have people from the “old school” who think it’s wrong to treat people that way, “even” online.

        “We” do not need to be less sensitive about these things. People have opinions, and they have a right to them.

      • charles says:

        @Jason
        Of course you have the right to have an opinion, just as I have the right to hold the opinion that society as a whole would be healthier if we had thicker skin when dealing with issues of political correctness. And just like you have the right to an opinion, Rockstar has the right to create whatever type of game they want.

        and as an aside there is this which was found on the in game internet

      • catrector says:

        @ Charles and Jason

        I would say that the thick skin comment applies to the community, not just people who aren’t happy with the issues at hand. Using this particular incident as the example, if the community had been thicker skinned about the idea that she had a different opinion than them perhaps they wouldn’t have been angered to the point of harassing the editor over her gender, her personal choices and her opinions. I’m all for appropriate discussion of controversial topics because that’s how progress is made with anything. The amount, quality and content of the harassment says to me that she really got under their skin.

      • Doone W. says:

        @Charles: I haven’t played GTA V either and I probably won’t. But the last time I played GTA (4), things like the radio stations and billboards and cop responses, etc ..those were the only pieces of satire in the game. The core gameplay was NOT satirical. Killing people, stealing cars, heists prostitution, depiction of neighborhoods …there was no satire there. It was gratuitous entertainment which allowed me to live the criminal life.

        In the core gameplay, can anyone describe what makes it satire? And especially as regards Gamespots critique of its portrayal of women …can anyone describe the satire going on there specifically?

      • Charle says:

        @doone
        that was pretty much my point

  3. catrector says:

    I’ve never tried to play GTA because it’s not marketed in a way that appeals to me. I know that the game is violent and over the top because that is what it’s meant to be. I accept that it won’t appeal to me and I don’t expect it to change. What I do think is that these games aren’t marketed to the average consumer as satire, even if that’s what it is. It’s marketed as guns, boobs and explosives. I’m actually a little surprised to see it called satire at all. Nothing that I’ve seen clearly indicates that, and I’ve seen most of the ads an average consumer would. It’s always been meant to be offensive, so why are people so shocked and aggressive when people are offended? When I decide that I’m not happy with the lack of smart female characters, that would be exactly the reaction I was meant to have. As much as the game is design to be a blast for the stereotypical male player, it’s designed to stir up controversy for those of us who don’t get drawn in by those things.
    Thank you for this post and the last. It’s wonderful to hear from someone looking at both sides of the issue. I’m interested to see if it’s determined to actually be satire or not.

    • I agree, I enjoy the games for their political commentary and social satire, yet they never advertised it as so. The only reason I’ve kept with the franchise is because I was introduced to it through my brother, I was not very interested from any ads that focused on the crazy sandbox violence. I think their marketing strategy was to advertise like the other action giants to keep up with audience penetration. Doing that is a double edged sword, while this increases Rockstar’s consumer base and introduces some people to a lot of well needed criticism of American culture, it also brings in some unwanted hostility like we saw with the Gamespot review due to the hype of the game. I don’t want to generalize action/shooter fans, but there’s definitely a noticeable trend for misogyny and homophobia among their online community.

  4. GTA has always had satirical /elements/, as Charles indicated above. The fictional companies and advertisements, as well as the radio stations, are fantastic examples of satire itself, and I’ve always personally enjoyed them. It is, at times, almost South Park-ish in its farcical in-your-face style (which I personally laud as an excellent example of social commentary).

    But that doesn’t mean the work as a whole is satire, and absolutely, unequivocally does not mean that it’s exempt from criticism. Nobody really needs to defend GTA. Only sociopaths are demanding that society as a whole condemn it – or suggesting that it’s infallibly perfect, for that matter.

    On the flip side of that (and I realize I’m pulling the previous topic into this response), a reviewer doesn’t inherently have a ‘political agenda’ by directly addressing an element of the game that affected their experience. People demanding reviews that are 100% objective are missing the point of a review. These things are not written by robots; reviews are done by people. That’s why MetaCritic lists over *1200* of them (http://www.metacritic.com/game/xbox-360/grand-theft-auto-v), and that’s just for the sites they track! You know what they say about opinions and assholes – “everybody’s got one.” It’s absurd to attack someone just because you don’t like the smell of theirs.

    And just to throw this out there, gamers read reviews in part because they want to know the reviewer is enjoying the experience. Guess what – that’s an emotion, which quite literally and factually prevents the review from being ‘objective’. But that’s okay. That’s why there are 1200+ voices online relating their experience; their point of view. Follow a few and make a relatively informed decision on what you MIGHT feel about a game (and not how you SHOULD feel, an important distinction to make!).

    In any case, to bring myself back on-topic – it’s nearly impossible to sum up GTA in a way that could apply to everyone (except to say that it couldn’t). The magic and draw of the series is the extreme breadth of physical and social content found in the game. There are even elements that are almost genuine in terms of intent/message, versus the flippant, (truly) satirical, and/or controversial topics that encompass and dominate the rest of the game.

    Different people feel differently about different things. So really, the entire argument is almost a strawman in itself. What’s the point of debating whether it’s satire, art, or whatever else?

  5. Shillz says:

    When will you be happy? When every single piece of media is so sterilized and devoid of personality that it is totally incapable of offending anyone?

    • Devin says:

      I did not say that. I simply pointed out that offending people shouldn’t be the goal, and if it is, don’t be surprised when people don’t like it.

      I mean, I did say that I am a big fan of A Modest Proposal, and that must have been incredibly offensive.

    • I think controversial and offensive media is healthy when it’s well thought out. I still feel as though GTA V has that in its overall message. I mean there’s a difference between a game like this (that disturbs the player such as the torture mission, assassinations of very real celebrities/businessmen, and parodying America’s beauty industry marketing) and outright offensive games like the Trayvon flash shooter.

  6. Cis Male Nightmare says:

    Guys, just stop responding to stuff like this. You are indirectly legitimizing the viewpoint by treating it seriously, which only gives these neo-feminists empowerment.

    • Devin says:

      Yes, and then when enough people have commented and subscribed, the neo-feminists will rise up and join together like Power Rangers machine and become ULTRA NEO FEMINIST, where we will then eat up every single one of your video game consoles and games until no men are happy.

      HIEL SARKEESIAN!

  7. The author touched on intent when speaking of dead baby jokes. I would go a bit further and say that the satire has to also be properly structured as well — lest it is misunderstood. An example would be rape jokes. Unless the audience are knuckledragging pieces of filth, rape jokes tend to fall flat on their face. This is because the target of the joke is most often the victim as opposed to the victimizer. Likeways, GTA V makes feminists (actually, women in general) the targets of their jokes, not the absurdity of their obsession with the sort of things that would offend a member of that sex. Therefore, those jokes fall flat for people (like myself) and are therefore merely offensive as opposed to actual constructive satirical commentary.
    They are, as the author points out: juvenile indulgences.
    I would go further and that they also enforce harmful gender tropes.
    People who enjoy a GTA V level of humor are clearly not bothered by some of the logical discrepancies present.
    The ones who become angered when others would dare be offended, seem to be incapable of the level of comprehension needed to understand constructive satire to begin with, and are simply there to laugh at the ridicule done unto others.
    There is no satire to be found in that.

  8. Kristalyn says:

    I don’t get the impression that the core gameplay of GTA V is satire. It’s a glorification of violence, racism and misogyny and allows people to revel in it. I can understand how that is fun – I love indulging my violent tendencies in games as much as the next person – but it’s also important to be able to criticize this. What kind of worldview are we nurturing in gamers?

    I’m reminded of a recent discussion I had about Kick Ass 2. Kick Ass (1) was clearly satire, supposed to make you think about the violence in our society. Kick Ass 2, like Wanted, fell in love with the wrong part of its own concept, and is now also simply a glorification of violence.

  9. […] So What If It’s Satire? (article) I’ve been reading a lot of good stuff on D.A. White recently, but particularly enjoyed this post about the nature of satire. It’s a word that gets thrown around an awful lot, and to a downright alarming degree directly after someone suggests that a piece of media might be offensive. Using videogames, comics and of course A Modest Proposal as a point of reference, White explains why “offensive” and “funny” are not actually defining features of satire as a form. […]

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