Comedy often utilizes broad generalizations and relies on an extreme, in your face approach. However, some comedy does so in order to critique and undercut problems within society, some does so in order to bolster and promote sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. Satire falls in the former category. It aims to show society its foibles, to mock them, to subvert norms. The latter type of comedy, however, does not have the aim of changing people’s minds, let alone society, but merely is out for laughs. It is the difference between Jonathon Swift and Andrew Dice Clay, between South Park and The Howard Stern Show, between Margaret Cho* and Esther Ku…
Swift railed against racism (spefically of the anti-Irish variety) and classism, South Park satirizes homophobia, religious fanaticism, racism, Cho criticizes heteronormativity, gender essentialism, body image norms. Conversely, Clay and Stern promote and encourage sexism as fun and funny, Eshther Ku perpetuates racist attitudes and indicates stereotypes are TRUE, rather than problematic.
Yet, recognizing the difference between comedy that aims to shine a light on negative aspects of society in order to encourage those laughing to do something about injustices verses comedy that shines a light merely to suggest “ha, ha, isn’t injustice funny” can be tricky…
Take as an example ‘fat humorists’ – both those that are fat and those that do ‘fat jokes.’ Some fat comedy is satirical and aims to reveal our obsessions about bellies and everything else are inane (Joy Nash’s Fat Rants and Eve Ensler The Good Body come to mind), while some encourage the audience to laugh AT fatness and fat people rather than at our stupid societal bodily norms (John Pinette).
Sadly, the type of comedy/entertainment that does not aim to change our thinking or better society is the more common. Stereotypes ooze from every type of popular culture, suggesting that all black men are criminal, all Latinas are maids, all Indians work at mini-marts, all Middle Easterners are terrorists, all fat people are dumb, all gays love fashion, all poor people are lazy, etc, etc.
While stereotypes can be used in a satirical manner in order to try and reveal to the audience that their ways of categorizing the world are not only laughable, but dangerous, most popular culture bolsters stereotypical thinking rather than subverts it. Disney comes to mind here.
As the “man in chair” character of the post-modern musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone quips, “Audiences today are too sophisticated for broad racial stereotypes… Those have been banished to Disney…you know… for the kiddies to sort out.” As this line indicates, many like to think they are ‘beyond stereotypes’ or living in a post-racist society. Yet, as Disney (and every other MSM output machine) reveals, our entertainment is overflowing with racist/sexist/classist/homophobic stereotypes. The Arab thugs who will cut off your hand for stealing an apple (Aladdin), the backwards Asians who enforce arranged marriage and are war-mongers (Mulan), the black people as apes and whites as heroes (Tarzan), the Latino as lecherous, scroungy mutt (from Lady and the Tramp to the forthcoming Beverly Hills Chihuahua), the Native American as incoherent and backwards (Peter Pan) or as loving those who commit genocide on their peoples (Pocohantas).
In other media, we see Latinas as maids only (Will and Grace, Weeds), transgendered people as serial killers (Nip Tuck), fat people as stupid, lazy, and incompetent (Wall*E), Eastern Europeans as human traffickers and mafia thugs (Crash, Dark Knight)… We don’t tend to see disabled people at all… (except in those feel good narratives that frame disability as a plight to be overcome…) And, in general, anyone deemed as “Other” in any way are rendered either invisible or, if shown, are depicted in a negative way.
Due to the pervasiveness of comedy that aims only for laughs and not for any higher form of satirical catharsis, lots of people don’t even seem to recognize satire when they see it. For example, in their papers analyzing popular culture, my students often apologize for liking South Park, The Family Guy, Borat, Dave Chappelle… (and, to be fair, there are instances where these examples border on the merely comedic rather than the satirical). What these apologies indicate is a failure to recognize the satirical intent of shows like South Park. Yet, if the satirical intent is not recognized, does the comedy truly work as satire? If the audience doesn’t ‘get it,’ is the satire then only perpetuating the very norms it critiques?
I am particularly worried about this given some recent comments from students. For example, after watching Mickey Mouse Monopoly (a great documentary that takes Disney to task for not only its corporatism, but its perpetuation of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc), one student said (in reference to the ubiquitous representation of Mexicans as little, irritating dogs), “But Chiuahau’s are a Mexican dog! I don’t see the problem.”
When discussing racial stereotypes, I get the usual, “But they are true, all Asians are bad drivers” (by the way, this was said in one of my classes by a male student who had an Asian female student sitting directly in front of him). I asked her in jest, “So, did you nearly run him over on your way to school today?” He was embarrassed, as he should have been, and turning the tables allowed this student and others to talk about how hurtful such comments/beliefs are. Just yesterday, a student again argued racial stereotypes are true and offered the example “all Indians really are cheap.” The audacity with which people share such blatant racism scares me deeply.
What I wonder is this: if the satirical were more common than the stereotypical, would audiences (and my students) more readily be able to tell the difference between that which is offensive for laughs and that which offends in order to prompt analysis, rethinking, change…? If there were more entertainment that leaned towards the satirical, would we, as a society, lean more towards changing our problems rather than just laughing at them?
*Margaret Cho certainly walks a fine line between the satirical and the stereotypical. Lately, some of her comedy has leaned a bit too far towards promoting existing inequalites (woman as sex object) and racist stereotypes (Korean parents as overbearing). For two recent post that discuss Cho in this vein, see here and here.