Satire is and always has been a widely used tool of expression through various media. Read on, to know more about it in this Penlighten post.
“If you have to explain satire to someone, you might as well give up.”
Satire is a popular, effective, but often misunderstood genre. It is often confused with sarcasm and irony, and while there is a significant overlap between the three, especially the former, satire is an independent entity that needs no introduction.
Let’s take a closer look at this rather intellectual and often confusing way of expressing your opinion.
What is Satire?
Satire is, according to Merriam Webster,
Humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc.
Though this dictionary definition seems so simple, satire is much more than that. As opposed to sarcasm, caricature, or parody, which are usually just tools to point and laugh at some entity, the shaming by satire is meant to bring about a change in the described situation. It is the intention of satire that sets it apart from these closely related genres. In other words, satire is often a gentle plea or reminder to bring about a situation where the satire won’t be relevant.
Satire, as a genre, is based on a different parameter than sarcasm, caricature, and parody, and can thus overlap with them. A caricature (such as the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons and the numerous consequent depictions of Muhammad) or a parody (such as Monty Python’s Life of Brian or the religion of Pastafarianism) can be excellent works of satire, while still being caricatures and parodies as well.
Also, while humor is the primary tool and intention of sarcasm, caricature, and parody, it is not a necessity for satirical works. This is explained in further detail in the next section…
Types of Satire
There are, broadly, two forms of satire: the one that makes you laugh, and the one that makes you cringe. The first one, called Horatian satire after the Roman satirist Horace, relies mainly on lighthearted humor and wit to, often self-deprecatingly, point out the silly notions or mistakes in a particular construct or agenda. In contrast, Juvenalian satire focuses on exposing an evil or a folly in the structure that results in mistreatment and cruelty. Juvenalian satire is, thus, much more direct and ruthless than Horatian satire.
► Examples of Horatian Satire
As mentioned before, Horatian satire is the more cheerful form of satire, and incorporates much more comedy than Juvenalian satire. It is meant to draw attention to the ridiculousness in a particular concept by (usually) exaggerating it to the point of absurdity.
➙ Excellent examples of Horatian satire in film are the movies Dr. Strangelove (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”) and Monty Python’s Life of Brian (“He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”), which exaggerate the machinations of particular, socially relevant concepts in order to show their ridiculousness. The Great Dictator, with its stirring climactic speech, is also an excellent parody-satire, contrasting Hitler’s hateful message against the Jewish Barber’s moving final speech.
➙ Another apposite example is the Ig Nobel Prizes, which award trivial scientific achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”―the perfect definition of Horatian satire!
➙ The Onion, “America’s Finest News Source”, is a long-running, extremely popular, and brilliantly performed example of Horatian satire. Most of the ridiculous scenarios in The Onion news pieces are meant as a commentary on the absurdities of various political, economical, and social factions and their stances; the rest is just for laughs, and can be classified as parody or just plain teasing.
➙ Animation shows such as South Park (“Wow, cartoons are getting really dirty!”), The Simpsons (“I get my news from the internet, like a normal person under seventy.”), and Family Guy (“Christians don’t believe in gravity.”) often employ satire in humorous ways to draw attention to a socially relevant issue.
➙ Pastafarianism ridicules the unscientific nature of religious beliefs (while maintaining people’s right to have the beliefs) by replacing the venerated figure of the Abrahamic god by the absurd figure of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. While Pastafarianism is considered a parody religion by non-believers and a satirical but real religion by believers, the intention behind the concept is to draw attention to the unscientific nature of the major religions of the world.
➙ While most of us non-Korean listeners won’t realize it, the ridiculously popular ‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy is actually a satire of the modern pop scene and the modern ostentatious culture, and is one of the best examples of satire in modern songs. Another notable song that satirizes modern culture is Lily Allen’s ‘The Fear’ (“Everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner”).
➙ Political satire is a prominent component of modern satire, though the tradition of political satire, which ridicules the policies or principles of particular politicians or political parties, goes back to the influential Greek satirist Aristophanes. Shows such as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report regularly criticize political agendas by satirizing them, while other talk shows are also frequent contributors to the modern form of political satire.
► Examples of Juvenalian Satire
Juvenalian satire is a lot more hard-hitting than Horatian satire. It is often used to portray conditions very similar to or worse than reality, but by using some sort of allegory or metaphor. It relies on irony, and usually has a grim and pessimistic view. It is much less dependent on humor than Horatian satire, and often includes open outrage, very thinly concealed contempt, and biting, possibly insensitive, ridicule.
➙ Some of the most famous examples of Juvenalian satire are found in satirical literature. George Orwell’s best known works, Animal Farm and 1984 are both examples of Juvenalian satire. They show conditions that are clearly not commendable, and use (often) irony and wit to describe and thus condemn them. Animal Farm, for instance, uses the allegory of farmyard animals to represent the various strata of Russian society and describes how they were betrayed by their conniving leaders after the well-meaning 1917 Revolution that eventually led to the dictatorial Stalinism.
➙ Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, another example of satire in literature, satirizes bureaucracy. The term ‘catch-22’ has now entered the common tongue for a problem that cannot be escaped from due to contradicting rules. In other words, Catch-22 is a problem that also holds, and thus invalidates, the answer to itself. Though it is presented in various ways, arguably the most famous application of the catch in the novel is that a pilot requesting an insanity check, hoping to be found too unstable to fly dangerous missions, can’t be insane, because prioritizing one’s safety and requesting the check is a rational decision that can only be reached by a sane mind. This novel is an example of the fact that, though less jaunty and more grim than Horatian satire, Juvenalian satire can also incorporate humor.
➙ A Clockwork Orange, a novel by Anthony Burgess (and adapted for film by Stanley Kubrick), is a dystopian satire of the possibility of governments using mind-control techniques, and whether they would really have any effect on the population.
➙ Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal caused uproar due to his grim and satirical suggestion that the poor populace of Ireland should sell their children to the rich as food. The “proposal” was a satire of the oppressive conditions faced by the poor and their inconsiderate treatment by the rich classes. This is considered one of the best and most influential works of satire, and the term itself is now considered a well-understood prelude to a satirical suggestion.
➙ Many popular songs are excellent examples of Juvenalian satire. Some satirical modern songs that attack the standards and practices of the music industry or treatment of women in general are Lily Allen’s ‘Hard Out Here’ (“Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?”) and Lorde’s ‘Royals’ (“We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams”). However, satire in songs is not a particularly new concept. Roger Waters, fed up with Pink Floyd’s money-centric and restrictive producers, wrote ‘Welcome to the Machine’ (“We told you what to dream”) and ‘Have a Cigar’ (“You gotta get an album out, you owe it to the people”) to satirically attack the conditions faced by many talented musicians. George Harrison’s ‘Piggies’ (“Clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon”) is a satirical attack on a society ruled by politicians who served their own purpose while turning the masses against each other.
Due to its intellectual nature, satire is not everyone’s cup of tea. It assumes a basic understanding on its audience’s part in order to get its message across. If a reader is not familiar with a writer’s view, it is very easy to confuse satire for an honest opinion, which can then be considered to be promoting the very opposite of what it actually intends to promote.
A famous internet-borne adage about this surprisingly, and sadly, common occurrence is Poe’s Law, which, in a broad form, states that,
Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.
If a writer’s or filmmaker’s views on the subject are not widely known, or if the reader/viewer is not knowledgeable enough, satire is often confused for an honest opinion. In such cases, the satirical work is condemned to be in bad taste. This occurs due to confusion between the satirist and his/her persona (or in other words, confusion between ‘Colbert Report’ and ‘Colbear Repore’).
Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon in American literature is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel decried for being racist by those who didn’t realize that it is actually a satire intended to expose the flaws in the thinking behind racism. News from The Onion is not uncommonly mistaken for genuine information, leading to hilarious―or embarrassing, depending on your stance―results. In 2002, Beijing Evening News, a Chinese newspaper, reprinted an Onion story about the US Congress threatening to leave Washington D.C., unless a new Capitol building was built, as factual news. They then claimed innocence by shifting the blame onto the “small American newspapers” that made money by printing lies.
The intention of satire is to make people see the wrongs in something by exaggerating them or mocking the shortcomings in a manner that leads the audience to a voluntary, intellectual conclusion. Thus, as referred to in Barry Humphries’ quote given above (which is, incidentally, not satirical), if you have to explain to someone that what they think is hateful is actually satire, the point of the satire is already lost. For example, now that you know what satire really is, and how a satirical sentence actually conveys the opposite of what the words mean, you should now act in as racist and misogynist a manner as you possibly can. Good luck with that!