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.


The Importance of Storytelling

As a pop culture junkie, I tend to get very invested in the books I read, the TV shows I follow, and the movies I watch. When I find a story that I really like, I spend more of my time than I probably should thinking about it, talking about it, and analyzing it. With that much thought tends to come an emotional attachment, so when I finish particularly long series, I tend to spend the rest of the day in a… let’s call it Reader’s Melancholy. I’m sad to have to leave characters once I’ve been through so much with them. Sure, I can re-read or re-watch, but I’m sure everyone can agree that nothing is the same the second time through.

It’s not only the length of the story that brings this on though; stakes are equally, if not more important. You need to go through serious ups and downs with the characters, have gained and lost with them. So it’s not by virtue of being long that. Even finishing Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities I felt something similar. Maybe it’s just being at the close of the characters’ journey. Finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic series prompted my writing this post, because I was genuinely sad to leave those characters and that world, even if I wasn’t completely enthralled for every single moment of the series. I’ve read and loved other longer series, but this one was, well, ‘epic,’ in all senses of the term. There were incredible stakes for both the characters and the rest of the world. Another series to which it is often compared, Fables, is also amazing, but I sort of created my own ending for that one. The main story wrapped up after 100+ issues, and the characters had lost very little, all things considered. I love the series, but I don’t know if I want to read more of it, since it seems like it should be over, and that not much was lost, despite a huge war. Many super hero comics and fantasy/sci fi shows have similar problems; death loses some potency when characters can come back to life. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example,featured some permanent deaths, but they were the exceptions to the general rule. I like to pretend that the comics don’t exist (and, to some degree, neither does season 5 of Angel) to make the ending of Buffy seem more permanent and powerful. Finishing that series the first time, I cried in the final scene simply because it was done. There was no more, and my overwhelming thought was “what now?” It was hard to leave Buffy and her friends behind, but I also felt like I had to. Their story in Sunnydale was done, and even if they are still having adventures in comics, I feel like I’m not a part of them anymore. I was a silent but heavily empathetic spectator of seven years of their lives, and somehow, it feels to me like my journey with them is complete. The story they were telling, the story I was a part of, is done. I stopped watching Being Human after series 3 for similar reasons.

Think about the ending of The Lord of the Rings. Would anyone really be interested in a sequel about Frodo’s and Bilbo’s adventures over the sea? Or Sam’s quiet family life, for that matter? We were with them when they saved Middle Earth, but that tale is done, and so is our part in it. We know that they’ll go on to live their lives (and via appendices can get quite a bit of information about those lives), but to keep reading would seem… wrong. Like selling out, almost. I can imagine that Harry Potter fans would feel the same way. A good ending closes the story, but lets you know that the world will keep turning whether you’re there or not (unless you’re reading Cat’s Cradle or similarly apocalyptic fiction).

So what is the point of this? Do I just get too invested in fiction? Am I just a crazy fangirl for crying everywhere for the simple reason that Les Misérables or King’s Dark Tower series ended? Well, I think that this Reader’s Melancholy (or Watcher’s Melancholy, as the case may be) is a testament to the importance of storytelling. We like to feel connected to other people, even if those people are fictional. You can get inside the mind of a fictional character in a way you never can with another person. You can see these characters at the best and at their most vulnerable. And we connect with real people through mutual love of stories; when meeting someone for the first time, once you get past the requisite questions about work and family, movies and TV, sometimes books ultimately come into the conversation. We bond with our friends and family over the shared experience of watching fiction together. Once you’ve seen Darth Vader announce that he is Luke’s father, waited for Hamlet to just make up his damn mind, or watched Jack sink into the ocean and wondered why Rose couldn’t just shift over a little bit, you now share that experience with Luke, or Hamlet, or Rose, and with every other person who has shared that experience too. Not to mention stories that transcend time and culture, or at least borrow from earlier stories. The legends we have today about King Arthur were being changed and molded and re-appropriated all over Europe for hundreds of years before they got to the versions we know today and we’re still changing them! There’s something king of magical about the thought that the stories and characters in shows we’re watching today – like BBC’s Merlin or historical dramas like The Borgias, Spartacus, and HBO’s Rome – were exciting audiences hundreds or thousands of years ago. Sometimes, even more than that, where ancient stories and mythologies are involved; who isn’t somewhat intrigued by the stories from the Odyssey or the Aeneid ­even if we aren’t reading them in verse? Stories become ingrained in our cultural minds; you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the Western world (and probably beyond) who has never heard “to be or not to be,” or who wouldn’t understand that something is unnatural if it features the “Franken” prefix. Characters from literature and myth live longer and burn brighter than do most historical figures.

Besides, it must be boring to live in the real world all the time. Or, as Shirley Jackson states, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” Daydreaming, making up our own stories and engaging with others’, keep us sane. Stories let us bond with other people, but also let us escape inside ourselves from the stresses and monotony of every day life. You can learn about yourself and about other people, feel less alone, even pretend to be someone else through stories. And there are so many different kinds of stories out there in different mediums, there’s something for everyone.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that I need to get out more and spend less time reading or watching movies. I’m not denying that I probably do spend too much time immersed in the fictional, but I can’t really say I regret it. I’ve read stories that were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago, and I can connect them to stories and real life today. Through them, I feel connected not only to the characters about which I’m reading, but to the other people reading the stories – living or dead. I like to escape from everyday tedium, even if just to read about someone else’s. My life is enriched by all of the stories I’ve heard or read or seen, and through them, I’ve learned much about myself and about humanity in general. Stories help us interpret ourselves, each other, and the world around us, and I think that life would be less interesting and less rich without them.

Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.
– Neil Gaiman,
The Sandman: A Midsummer Night’s Dream


A Defence of Horror

Horror is an often dismissed genre of storytelling. Most scholars see all horror as schlocky and below the respectable dramatic genre. While I admit, there are some bad horror films out there, there are lots of bad dramas too. Have you seen Seven Pounds?

Despite its status as “low” art, horror is perpetually one of the most popular genres. In America, popularity of horror films has tended to spike in time of financial recession – just look at the Universal Horror films of the ‘30s, and the slashers in the ‘80s. We’ve seen it recently too, with the success of films like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. While it seems like people would want happy, escapist films in times of uncertainty, evidently audiences would rather see their fears reflected in film. If the lovers can escape from the Frankenstein monster, then we can make it through financial hardship. For the same reason, horror films represent the times in which they are made better than any other genre. The eerie moods of ‘30s monster movies reflected the uncertainty many were experiencing, and their monsters were easier to identify and defeat than the stock market. In the ‘50s, horror films often overlapped with science fiction, reflecting the Cold War and fears concerning nuclear warfare. Horror’s popularity is maintained because the stories so strongly reflect their times.

Another reason for horror’s enduring popularity is its appeal to our baser emotions – the ones we don’t like to talk about. Dramas manipulate our emotions just as much, but they tend to play to our more “appropriate” feelings, like sympathy or hope. There is nothing wrong with this of course, I love a feel good as much as the next gal, but I would argue that feeling fear in empathy with fictional characters is just as important, healthy, and fun as feeling happiness. At the heart of most horror films is a basic human fear, such as fear of the unknown (are ghosts/zombies/etc real? Where is the killer hiding now?), isolation (in space/the middle of nowhere no one can hear you scream, you’re being chased and you can’t call anyone for help), or repression (now that I’m a vampire/werewolf/Mr Hyde I can’t control my carnal desires, this murderer seems obsessed with people having sex). Many horror films also manipulate more specific fears, like ghosts or sharks, and the best create them, like showers or chainsaw-wielding madmen in hockey masks.

So why would we want our fears manipulated? Don’t we try daily to mask or overcome our fears? Well, that’s like asking why we watch sad movies: it’s cathartic. For those of you who don’t remember high school English class, catharsis in this case is essentially a purging of feelings, which leaves you feeling lighter. After having a good cry over a favourite character’s death, we may feel some lingering sadness, but we can come back to the real world and feel somewhat lighter emotionally. Horror works on the same principle, only with fear. Being frightened gets your adrenaline rushing, your heart pumping, and puts the hairs on the back of your neck on end. This is called “horripilation,” and it is just as cathartic as that cry. A good “poppy-outty scare,” as my housemates call it (or startle scares, as we called them when I worked at a horror themed amusement park attraction, which I will get to later) will cause a burst of adrenaline, which is often very effective. I however prefer an “atmosphere” scare, which builds tension through events or mood. My favourite example, and one that never ceases to terrify me, is in The Silence of the Lambs. I’ll try not to spoil too much, but you may want to skip ahead if you’ve never seen the movie. The infamous night-vision goggle scene makes me poo my pants in fear every time I see it. This is a good example of fear of the unknown: the dark is the ultimate symbol of the unknown, and you can see the pure terror on Clarice’s face while she tries to navigate the pitch black and unfamiliar basement. The audience is unsure at this point who is about to die, but you know it has to be one of them – and the tension elicits an intensely visceral response from me.

This visceral reaction is one of the reasons that so many horror films involve sexual repression or perversion. Fear and lust are probably the most carnal and physical responses a person can experience – being overcome with happiness isn’t quite the same as being overcome with terror. This is also why horror is one of the most heavily censored genres – it loves social taboos. Now, I am not criticizing this in all cases, only in films which seem to believe that shock is the same thing as horror. Stephen King, a favourite author of mine, said in Danse Macabre that he aims to terrorize readers, and that terror is the “finest emotion.” That all-encompassing, overwhelming fear is the goal of horror writer, and he has succeeded a few times, most notably in Pet Sematary – for me anyway. If he can’t do that, he’ll try to horrify us, which is closer to shock, but we’re still afraid for the character, or at the atrocity that something like that could happen. There is an element of a trainwreck here, where we can’t look away, because we’re getting a glimpse of chaos, which is exciting amidst our otherwise ordered lives. Finally, if neither horror nor terror can be achieved, King will “go for the gross-out,” for which he “is not proud.” I’m a big fan of older horror films, because they don’t show you everything, and try to scare you by building a mood and the graphic stuff often happens offscreen. These days, too many films think we’ll be scared because a character is sawing his own feet off or something. Gore, when used properly, can be very effective (see An American Werewolf in London for some marvellously handled gore), but on its own is not scary. Come on, I can see people’s insides on CSI or a medical drama; if you want to scare me, you’ll have to be more creative than that.

The best horror films are the ones that stick with you, and leave you mistrusting the darkness when you try to sleep. Some do it by making you wonder what sort of monsters could be lurking in the shadows; others, by exploring what my favourite high school teacher referred to as social taboos. Most of the most controversial horror films are so because of sexual content, although vivid torture is up there these days, and offense to religion/God was popular in days of yore. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (one of my absolute favourites) was one of the first American horror films to deal explicitly with sexual repression, and while Frederic March won an Oscar for the dual lead role, Miriam Hopkins’ role (as a woman of questionable morals) was so cut down that she didn’t have enough screen time to qualify for a Supporting Actress nod. Hitchcock’s Psycho is a great example of sexual perversion in horror cinema, but an even better (and more controversial) example is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which came out a month before Psycho and caused a much bigger stir. The main character is fascinated with fear, and films himself murdering women. He takes it a step further, placing a mirror on the top of his camera, so he can capture his victims’ terrified expressions as they watch themselves die. He watches the films later, clearly deriving some kind of sexual pleasure from it. The subject matter is disturbing on its own, made even worse by the voyeurism it turns on the viewer. Like following Norman Bates peeking through the hole in his office wall, watching a character watch himself commit murder puts the audience on the spot, as our act of watching is not too far removed from these “psychos.” We love to follow lurid and sensationalized murder stories on television; shows like CSI thrive on that, but don’t provide the opportunity for intelligent discussion the way that horror films do. We can analyze what scares us and how our fears reflect our values – and sometimes expose some “ordinary” behaviours which are maybe somewhat disturbing.

At this point, some of you may be backing away slowly, and making mental notes to avoid me from now on. Why, you are wondering, am I so excited by fear and perversion? Well, if everything thus far hasn’t been enough to convince you that enjoying horror is valid, I guess I can say that I also enjoy it because my love for horror developed in a time where a lot changed in my life, and I gained a lot of self-confidence. Until I was around 13 or 14, I was ridiculously over sensitive. I had different tastes than most people in my school, and as such, was teased. Nothing too harsh I’m sure, but I always felt that I needed to defend my love of musicals and dislike of soccer and other popular things. One of these popular things was watching horror movies at slumber parties. Do you remember attending these events, where there’d always be that one kid who always got terrified? Well, I was that kid. Once, my friends were watching Thirteen Ghosts (which in retrospect was a really stupid movie) and kept trying to force me to watch the really scary parts for laughs. I had to sleep with my parents for like two weeks. Anyway, a year later, I was hanging out with a different group of girls, and I requested that we not watch any too scary movies (I believe that The Ring was on the table), and we ended up watching a movie I was really into at the time, The Mothman Prophecies. Despite how easily frightened I was, I had this fascination for anything supernatural, and that one was reportedly based on true stories, so I watched it over and over through my fingers. But since I had already seen it, I ended up being the one who lightens the mood, making jokes and keeping the lights on. I ended up keeping that role for every (now forgotten) horror movie I watched with those girls. The next year, I watched The Shining at Halloween with a new group of friends, and I absolutely loved it. This time, we were all too engrossed in the movie for anyone to be joking, but no one seemed unreasonably afraid or upset either. It took me until I was 14, but I realized something – being scared can be fun. There’s a certain thrill that comes along with the fear and adrenaline, and I liked it. I read the novel of The Shining, fell in love with Stephen King, and a horror buff was born.

I now watch horror movies whenever I can; I’ve read books on them, and while I probably know more than your average cinema-goer, I don’t pretend to be a huge expert. There are still so many I haven’t seen – my list of must-sees never seems to shrink. When I was 16, I worked at a Halloween attraction at a theme park, where I basically put on a silly rubber mask and tried to scare people all night. That experience further enforced my earlier realization that fear is fun. There were consistently people trying to show their friends how unafraid they were, usually by making fun of the employees, and I always wondered why they would bother paying to come. The same goes for the horror movies – unless you’re a kid at a sleepover trying to help your friend sleep, why bother sitting through a movie refusing to let it affect you? People like being scared, that’s the biggest reason that horror is so popular – if you don’t want to be scared, avoid the genre. If you want that thrill where your heart leaps into your throat, shivers creep up your spine, and you find yourself wondering if that really was your reflection in the window, then relish it, and surrender to your fear for a while.

But maybe you should make sure that your night-light works first.