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).
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.
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?”
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!