In this changing media and cultural environment, satire is emerging in new and innovative spaces outside of traditional media is a double edged sword: we can access and consume marginalized satire (e.g., Black Twitter, Reductress) but this conversation is increasingly niched, and continuing the disparate conversations. How can we use satire to change minds, not just provide the choir with hilarity and cut tension? Although laughing is the only way to get through pain, the purpose of satire is to draw attention to thing that seem absurd and ask the audience to think more deeply about the thing.
This past semester, I taught a 5-week course entitled, “Struggle with Satire.” It was a 1-credit diversity course for juniors and seniors. Given that we would be deep in election season, I was grateful that the class would not be focusing on political satire; instead we focused on satire that draws attention to issues related to race, class, and gender. You can see some of the content via the hashtag, #strugglewithsatire on Facebook and Twitter.
The class was originally inspired by an incident in a dormitory where a racist joke was written on a white board. When a student tried to draw attention to the problem, she was told, “It’s a joke from South Park, get over it.” I led a viewing and discussion to unpack the struggle with satire.
However, the problem was not that it was a joke from South Park, or that she did not get it. The problem was with the very nature of satire itself. Although satire can be a powerful form of social commentary, its effectiveness is based on the audience’s ability to “get” the joke. Even though we supposedly live in an age of satire, one person’s definition of good satire can be another person’s offensive insult. This is most evident with Donald Trump’s reactions to Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live.
The call to action in the post-satire age is not to preach to the choir, not to reinforce echo chambers where the people laughing understand your joke. The truth is that laugher does not always indicate that the audience has understood your joke. They may be laughing because they feel that they are supposed to laugh, or because they are uncomfortable. How do you know laughter is because they understand or appreciate your joke? Consider Dave Chappelle, who left his $50M contract at Comedy Central because he realized that people weren’t laughing with him, they were laughing at him. Chris Rock says that he no longer does his Niggas vs. Black People (1996) routine because it gave non-black people the license to say the word “n*gger.”
This was evident to me when we watched “A Culture of White Violence” (2013) by Chris Hayes in class.
This satirical artifact superbly flips the racialized news narrative with respect to violence. Many of the students laughed at the parts they were “supposed” to laugh at, but when asked, “What did you laugh at? Why? What made you think deeper?” The students had no answers. After changing the question to, “What made you uncomfortable,” one student said, “There were a lot of White stereotypes.”
ME: “Yes. Why?”
STUDENT: “To make fun of White people?”
This was a wake up call to me; (mostly White) juniors and seniors at one of the top public communications schools in the country were unaware of how Black people were generally framed in news media, especially around issues of violence. They could not connect that White stereotypes were used to draw attention to the fact that Black stereotypes drive the discussion in news coverage. Therefore, even though they were laughing at the “right” parts, the satire was not “working.” They were not questioning the world around them, instead they were just laughing at White people.
The course evolved into a brief summary of social injustices around gender, class, and race, and then we critically analyzed how different satirical artifacts attempted to draw attention to the absurdity around these constructs and their deployment in society. You can see the syllabus and the homework assignments, and as soon as I steel myself for the student evaluations, I will add those as well, although the one-page responses at the end of class were inspiring and promising.
This class further developed my understanding of [sex, gender, class, sexuality, race, ethnicity] as we looked at them through a satirical lens. As we have discussed in class, satire does not always have to be funny, as it can be honest and true. The underlining truth behind satire highlights the absurdities within our society.
I also felt extremely comfortable in this class. In a class with a touchy subject such as race, class and gender it is hard to feel comfortable speaking your mind in fear you’re going to offend someone. I believe that the atmosphere you filled the class with allowed students to feel their opinion was not only important, but also valid no matter what. I am shy and often don’t talk in class, but in this class I did not feel nervous speaking at all. That feeling in a “touchy subject class” is hard to come by and I’m glad I was able to experience it.
Even though this class was only 5 weeks long I think it was my favorite class of the semester, and I agree that it should be a semester long course. I loved tying together television with critical thinking. We constantly talked about how that when we are laughing we are less attentive to the information that we are supposed to be digesting. I think this class helped me further appreciate the media I already love and taught me how to more productively watch it in the future.Content, which I was already so familiar with I learned to look at and understand so differently.