A Lesson in Satire

You may have heard by now about Matt Forney’s “humour” piece entitled “How to Rape Women and Get Away With It.” Trigger warning: this piece ‘jokingly’ condones rape and describes it in vivid terms. EDIT: A mere 2 hours after I wrote this piece, the original article is down, but I think you can get an idea of its content based on the title alone. He did however post this hilariously insincere apology, which is almost as good. In response to backlash this caused, Forney has informed we “pansies” who were offended that his piece is satire.

But is it?

I am increasingly seeing satire being held up as a shield for comedians to hide behind when offensive aspects their work are challenged. They claim that readers are taking their works too seriously, as they are meant to be light-hearted. Many writers seem to believe that satire is an excuse to say whatever one wants, no matter how offensive or crude, but that isn’t quite right. Let’s look at some technical definitions of satire:

A poem, or in modern use sometimes a prose composition, in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule. Sometimes, less correctly, applied to a composition in verse or prose intended to ridicule a particular person or class of persons, a lampoon.  – The Oxford English Dictionary

That’s good, but a little general. Let’s get a bit more specific:

A literary genre or mode that uses irony, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to expose humanity’s vices and foibles. Through clever criticism, satirists debunk and deflate their targets, whether persons, groups, ideas, or institutions.  Unlike comedy, which is primarily geared toward amusement and entertainment, satire generally has a moral purpose: to provoke a response to correctable human failings, ideally some kind of reform. – The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms

I especially like the second definition, which notes that satire often isn’t funny at all, but is intended to bring about a new way of thinking in its readers, if not actual social change. Satire originated in ancient Greece and Rome, but one of the most famous pieces of Western satire (and one of my favourites) is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, wherein he explains that the solution to 18th century Ireland’s struggles with the British would be solved if the poor Irish sold their babies to be eaten by the rich. As he says, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” Swift goes on to describe the various ways babies can be prepared and served, and what can be done with various parts of the body. It’s kind of funny; a reader might laugh from shock or at his creativity concerning some of the baby-dishes (the only aspect of satire that some modern comedians seem to understand). However, it is clear from the beginning that his piece is intended to be a condemnation of the aristocracy’s exploitation of the working classes. Swift’s horrible comments have a clear purpose: to bring about a new way of looking at the rampant poverty in Ireland, hopefully leading to real social change.

Stephen Colbert is an excellent modern satirist. He can push the envelope himself, but it is always clear that he is meaning to display how dangerous the ideals his character holds can be, and is not advocating them. The Daily Show often does similar things with its correspondent sequences. The reporters will take on a stance of agreeing with the people they interview, but with the eventual intention of revealing their views as being ridiculous and even harmful.

Although it doesn’t have to be, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report demonstrate, as did many from Horace to Alexander Pope to The Simpsons before them, that satire can be very funny. Humour can be an accessible and entertaining way to deflate a subject, whether individuals, institutions, or society in general. But this is the most important point – the aim of satire is always to reveal hypocrisy, vice, and other wrongdoing or wrong thinking. Tackling taboo subjects is not foreign to satire, as Swift’s piece demonstrates, but simply saying something offensive is not, in itself, satire. One must have the intention of changing the way that the reader sees the subject at hand, or forcing them to recognize the ridiculousness of the target subject.

Technical definitions aside, I’m not even sure I understand the joke of pieces like Forney’s. He is just saying horrible things for the sake of controversy, hoping to shock readers into laughing. That isn’t comedy – that’s laziness. Anyone can imagine horrible things to do to dead babies, but it takes a creative mind to turn that into biting social commentary. Satire is meant to change the target’s (and often the audience’s) way of thinking, and humour should make the reader laugh because of some kind of unexpected or appreciated connection or punch line. You don’t necessarily need humour to make satire, nor do you absolutely need to make controversial comments along the way. It is possible to use humour and take a satirically-straight tactic on controversial issues if you successfully open a door to conversation about the issue and if you make clear that you don’t condone the views you are pretending to hold, but that is difficult and is rarely accomplished well.

A good general tip: if you can’t identify a target or way of thinking that you’re trying to change or bring down, your piece isn’t satire. If your focus is on a group or person who is already hurt by society the way it is – such as, say, rape victims – rather than the person or group who is doing the attacking, you’re doing satire wrong. If you’re not trying to change anything and are trying to offend people for a cheap laugh, you’re probably just an asshole.

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  1. Thanks for this definition. I have taken the liberty of linking to you from my blog.

  2. I also think that Colbert is so good at what he does because he plays the quirky guy with the goofy smile on his face, so can ask the hard questions without offending. His innocent facade allows him to rip into some of the best sarcasm in comedy.

    • Yeah, for sure, that definitely makes him more entertaining to watch, although I have seen him press too far – during his Olympic 2010 coverage he wouldn’t stop asking a Vancouver politician of Indian descent what part of the caste system he belonged in – the poor guy would change the direction of the conversation and Colbert would just bring it back, and it was really uncomfortable to watch. Stuff like that is still a bit of a far push in my mind, you’re not really accomplishing anything with that line of questioning other than shock. But in general yes, I am a fan, and I think he’s found his groove in recent years with this goofy character and he does a great job. For the most part his intentions are so clear that it’s hard to find fault with the guy!

  3. This is excellent, thank you for writing this great post.
    There seems to be too many talentless assholes doing what they’re calling “satire” these days when they don’t even know what satire is. I hadn’t seen anything as low before as targeting rape victims for their so called humour. I’m glad he removed his piece of sh*t “work” and I’m glad your post is on Freshly Pressed.

  4. Interesting blog on satire. I myself liked the Simpson’s, The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show episode. The Itchy & Scratchy Show attempts to regain viewers by introducing a hip new character named Poochie, who will be voiced by Homer. The episode is largely self-referential and satirizes the world of television production, fans of The Simpsons and the series itself. Would you agree?

  5. jaschmehl

     /  August 19, 2013

    Bravo! Well said! I think many people try to poke fun at our overly-PC culture but fail miserably through a total lack of empathy. Then they try to defend their actions by calling it ‘satire’ but fail again – not understanding what satire really is. It is possible to make people laugh while making a serious point – but it must be done with intelligence and sensitivity. Traits that forney guy obviously lacks.

  6. I remember Benjamin Franklin used satire in Poor Richard’s Almanack in which he pokes fun at the potholes of Boston by describing them in positive attributes. A slanted example : the potholes were the cause of frustration and caused goods from getting to their destinations on time. Therefore to overcome this problem a drink at the local tavern was in order.

  7. Jessica

     /  August 19, 2013

    Nicely articulated definition, thank you. I just posted a short story on my blog that I tentatively tagged as satire, though I’m not sure I think it falls fully in the camp. Would be interested to hear what you think!

    • As long as you’re lampooning some kind of existing way of thinking/trope/person/genre/etc then it’s generally satire; generally the goal is just to reveal the ridiculousness of something these days. Ill have a look!

  8. Absolutely, satire doesn’t have to humorous however a witty satire gets the point across. A satire on a sensitive issue is a double edged sword. Wrong choice of words, evocative tile or ambiguity in presentation skills can backfire badly. Well and there are time where simple innocent ignorance or a Freudian slip could be the trigger. E.g David Letterman’s comment on Sarah Palin’s daughter & A-Rod, turns out to be her younger daughter and he public apologized on that. And then there’s that Chris Rock comment on Oprah & Paul McCartney; I think he realized it as soon as he said that.

  9. Reblogged this on From Slacker To Scribe and commented:
    There are a lot of comedians today, or people who call themselves “comedians”, who should read this post and take it into account. Thank you for writing something worth reading!

  10. Thank you for your good text as I am extremely interested in the subject of satire as I am now studying a text of Mark Twain: King Leopold’s soliloquy. This is probably the best example of written satire. Also offended by the statement of James Clapper excusing himself for his transgression by saying he was the least untruthful; I wrote a little text on this using his way of thinking to excuse other transgressions. (If I cheat on my wife, I am just the least unfaithful…) However at the end, I am clear that I condemn this way of thinking where there are no accountabilities by stating these are excuses for the worst of man and the least of man. Based on your text I am happy to see that I met the definition of satire

  11. Great post! In a world where comedians claim that their audience needs to lighten up when they offend others it helps to get a reminder of what satire really is.

  12. Along with your point about achieving something with satire, I think that satire, like Forney’s piece could, hypothetically, be fine, but ONLY if it consider the audience, too. I haven’t read his piece, so I can’t be certain, but I suspect the right audience is probable very small, maybe even just his cat. Still, even then, it seems like he’s just being an asshole.

    • I see what you’re saying, but in that case, there was no joke. There was no punchline, no object, just… “I’m going to talk about rape and people will laugh because you’re not supposed to.” It could have been published as a genuine how-to guide with no difference. So the intended audience: rapists and assholes.

      • Yep. To paraphrase: I was nitpicking, a bad habit if mine. 🙂

        Your point about satire needing to achieve a purpose? Dead on!

  13. I feel that satire is a great form of comedy, and one of the hardest to master. It seems to be easier to get a laugh with a dirty joke or a story to shock and awe. Unfortunately, as you pointed out, it seems that most comedians are doing just that and calling it satire.

    Thank you for the definitions and your thoughts. It was all wonderfully written. A great post to read and contemplate.

    Being a fan of The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, and The Simpsons I also find myself watching other shows that claim satire, such as Family Guy and the more controversial South Park. I have always struggled with liking and being offended by South Park. Do you have an opinion of the show? Does it still fit into the guidelines of satire or has it stepped to far into the shocking and entertaining for there to be a message to pull out?

    • I am ambivalent toward South Park, but am in no way an expert, I’ve only seen maybe 10 episodes, plus the movie. I find it funny when I WOULD consider it satirical (the Man-Bear-Pig episode, was great, with the fear culture around an imaginary threat), but sometimes it seems to go for more bizarro stuff, which I’m not as into – I find it’ll be less funny when they just make things up, and the jokes aren’t based on anything in reality so much as something they invented that would be weird or funny. And sometimes they just have characters state things, “oh we’re cops and he’s black so we’ll arrest him!” I guess that’s sort of satire, but it’s so lazy and uncreative that I don’t laugh. I loved the Wizard of Oz episode with Canada though, since I can relate to all of the Canadian stereotypes. So that’s my feeling on South Park I guess.

    • Gry Ranfelt

       /  August 20, 2013

      South Park is a hard one. They’re starting the 17th season. A lot has changed since all the fart jokes and most of their episodes are now inspired by real stuff. The south park crew uses 6 days to create an episode and delivers it two hours before airing. That way they stay as current as possible.
      I personally adore South Park, and that’s just my piece. Many of their episodes leave me thinking for a long time.
      And that’s satire.
      But South Park isn’t JUST satire. It IS also fart jokes (they make fun of themselves in The Movie through Terrance and Philips) and is also just them playing around with their characters. Which any writer should have the right to.
      In any case the more satirical stuff starts at around season 8. So if you ever want to check it out, go for the later seasons. perhaps the episodes you’ve watched were earlier or one of the few later ones. There are, after all, a LOT of episodes and not all are brilliant.
      Of course, if it doesn’t float your boat then that’s just fine 🙂 I’m sure there are great satirical comedians out there who can push your buttons.

  14. awodede

     /  August 19, 2013

    Right. I knew something was just not right about many satirical works of today. You just laid my finger on it. Thanks.

  15. Lady Phoenix

     /  August 19, 2013

    Thank you for this great post.

    Satire cannot be achieved by everyone and that is where the line started to blur I guess but it definitely shouldn’t be used as a shield by lazy comedians or people seeking that “shock” factor as you pointed out.

    Unfortunately, these days it seems that more and more people are just going for the “shock” factor which results in the “viral internet exposure.”

    Satire, done well is very thought provoking. True satire is needed a little more I say, but not the pretend kind.

  16. Thank you, thank you, thank you! From the bottom of my English-teacher heart…

  17. I’m a teacher, and when kids act poorly to get a laugh at others’ expense, yet no one is laughing, I ask them one simple question. What do we like about jokes? There is immediate recognition in their eyes and they say they make people laugh. End of lecture.

  18. Wonderful post, well said!

  19. Gry Ranfelt

     /  August 20, 2013

    Rape, in general, is not really a topic to be made fun of. If he wanted to poke fun at feminists there are hundreds, scratch that, MILLIONS of ways to do it. Why use rape? Rape isn’t a topic bloated beyond proportion. It’s a serious issue and of all the weird things the craziest feminists say why choose the topic out of all topics that is 200% VALID?
    Aside from that: according to the definition here satire would want to create a change. So what exactly was he trying to change? The view on rape? Was he trying to create a midler view ON RAPE?!
    Sure, some feminists misuse rape, but then he should go about it in a different way.
    I’m not a comedian, but I’m pretty sure I could think of something smarter.
    Thanks for this article.

  20. Like comedians falling back on sex jokes when they are losing their audience. Yuck.

  21. Nicely said.
    In a simpler form of this idea, within conversations in general, I have heard the phrase, “just kidding”, numerous times being used as an excuse to cover up having offended someone. Their statements are never really funny, and the intent is clear. They just don’t like being called on it. I find this kind of backhanded insult-er pretty weak. ‘Just sayin’.

  22. Great lesson in satire. Loved your examples and definition too!

  23. Great explanation! I think you’re right that a lot of viewers and comedians and general writers alike don’t really know the difference between satire and shock comedy. This is also a particularly timely piece–not sure if you saw the upset a few days back over the former UT Student Government president who posted an exceptionally offensive piece on his blog about the ridiculous things he had decided were true about women. All women. Except the ones he found capable of bearing his children. After the backlash, he also deleted the post and then claimed it was meant to be satire, but so far almost no one has bought into that explanation. Even if, by some stretch of the imagination, I believed that he and Forney and others like them *were* attempting real satire, it was so terribly executed that I still couldn’t really come to their defense. Those types of debacles of intent generally cause more harm than good, even if a portion of the readership does get riled into righteous action: when heinous/violent views are presented as straight comedy, there is always going to be someone out there who uses it to justify taking those views to an extreme, or at least enforces an already dangerous precedent of taking serious issues (like rape) lightly.

    Thanks for a great post, and congrats on being Pressed!

  24. Reblogged this on greatbooksdude and commented:
    This is brilliant.

  25. scribblegurl

     /  August 24, 2013

    The piece can be found here http://www.zzwave.com/plaboard/posts/3919512.shtml and it isn’t satire. It’s a very badly written temper tantrum which reeks of male privilege, especially when given that his target is, according to him, “feminists who exaggerate the prevalence of rape,” a demographic I’m not sure even exists, since most rape goes unreported, and those instances where it has turned out to be false accusation is less than 1% of the total of what little bit actually IS reported. As someone who has thrice been sexually assaulted (none of it reported to the authorities but once reported to my father, whose reaction was to find and injure the high school student who assaulted his 7 year old daughter – luckily he was unsuccessful at finding the guy) and who has a large percentage of female friends who have been raped without reporting it, and one friend who was raped and sodomized at gunpoint, who did report it and then was figuratively raped again at her trial, at which I was a testifying witness, I really want to beat the crap out of him for his bullshit. How dare he? And then to hide it in the guise of “satire” meant to criticize women who “exaggerate the prevalance of rape” make it very hard to contain my rage.

    • That’s horrible, I’m so sorry. But you’re a great example of the reason this stuff is very not okay.

      • scribblegurl

         /  August 26, 2013

        I am “lucky” in that though I was physically restrained and it was definitely against my will, it wasn’t what I would term violent – I wasn’t beaten or held at knife/gun point, etc. I was also young enough (all of it happened before I turned 10) to be able to move past it to a degree. But no, you never “get over” something like that. It stays with you forever, and when I hit puberty, I hated my body. I couldn’t stand that I had breasts and did everything I could to hide them. I got past that, thank goodness, but while I don’t view every guy as a threat, sexual situations make me really freaking tense, and I don’t put myself in places where I am likely to find myself alone with men I don’t know. I don’t think of myself as a victim, but that kind of unmitigated bullshit makes it very, very difficult to stay calm. In fact, it makes me want to smash his face in with a shovel.

  26. oceanpanda

     /  August 25, 2013

    Thanks for the definition, I think a lot of comedians today need it so they can understand that their “satire” is just cheap shots and their way of victimizating people in need. Would you say whether this is satire though: https://refreshingthescene.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/an-ode-to-hate/

  27. Really well spoken, particularly that cheap tricks humour is not the intellectual labour to produce satire’s intent: exposure in hope of change.

  28. There’s no way to make rape lighthearted. Thanks for pointing that out.
    I agree–too many hide behind so-called satire, in order to push the envelope. They’re playing to an audience, though, that seems to feed off of the reality show mentality–Give us more, no matter what the topic. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  29. dan

     /  April 12, 2014

    the problem is if you read the other articles on his site about women, its even harder to believe its satire-like this guys believes women shouldnt even get higher education let alone vote! hes a real shitstain!

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