Over the last few months, the word ‘satire’ has taken a bit of a beating. From minor obscure controversies such as the comic book series Crossed, through to major discussions like the recent content of the just-released Grand Theft Auto V, ‘satire’ has become an escape exit for people. Merely mentioning the word seems to be reason enough for people to stop complaining that a work is offensive.
Which is interesting.
Satire has become dominant in British society, and we have a long history of culture adopting satire in order to spike discussion and conversation. Everything from Spitting Image through to Jeeves and Wooster has contained satire. Oscar Wilde indulged, as do writers like Chris Morris. Part of our identity comes from questioning and attacking the society around us.
As time’s gone on, there have been fewer and fewer taboos left for satire to try and break into. With Brass Eye’s infamous special on paedophilia, we reached a sort-of breaking point, really. There wasn’t any ground left to break, and satire started to leap ahead of itself. We moved from a subtext to a context. Al Murray’s character ‘The Pub Landlord’ springs to mind here, or comedian Frankie Boyle. Initially starting off as satires of right-wing anger and intolerance, figures like the Pub Landlord ultimately found that their content was being enjoyed more by the people who ignored the satire than by those who understood it.
The Pub Landlord’s premise was that he fit the ‘little Englander’ template perfectly – making fun of the French and Germans in a xenophobic display of heartiness, misappropriating political correctness, and so on. But once Murray started filling stadiums with the character, he realised that his performances were being enjoyed by people who agreed with the Landlord, rather than by people who saw it for a caricature. This became a recurring reference in reviews of his later performances.
He at one point stated that he was going to retire the character, although this never seemed to actually materialise.
Then comes Frankie Boyle, a Scottish comedian whose TV appearances on a panel show called Mock the Week drew attention for the way he bluntly stated opinions as though they were facts, taking established stereotypes and laying into them. At first, this was a way of attacking the weak will of the people who state comparative ideas. But then came money and stadium tours. Boyle seemed to take the money and run with the premise, getting hired to write a column for The Sun, the foremost right-wing tabloid and cultivating a personality as a ‘shock’ comic.
Satire seems to be getting bent in half as creatives use it to justify outright elements of racism, sexism, all kinds of other prejudices. Louis CK has spoken about this fairly prominently recently, especially on his show Louis. He seems to have reached an accord that he has issues with women, but he doesn’t mean to – his jokes about women sometimes fit into the satire bracket, but against his will he finds himself falling into overt misogyny.
That leads us into a minor controversy my editor Heidi found over at The Beat, when she learned about a comic company who publish something called ‘torture covers’. These are an incentive variant for retailers – if they buy, say, 50 copies of a comic to sell, they get one special-edition issue with a variant cover on the front. Other companies like Marvel tend to make their variants by famous artists, to make them notable and worth buying. This company, Avatar, decided that they’d put a scene of absolutely brutal torture on the variants. That was their incentive.
When the comics community in general looked at the covers and recoiled, Avatar’s press defended the covers – and the series in general – as a ‘satire’. This was promptly followed by the various writers who have written Crossed getting on Twitter and saying “no, Crossed is NOT a satire”.
That was interesting. The company, when pressed about the issue, decided to claim satire, despite the intent stated by the people actually writing the stories.
GTA V seems to be the latest example of this. As part of the absolutely colossal press roll-out for the game, which features a section where you waterboard somebody and there are massively homophobic and misogynistic premises at play in the narrative at large, many members of the press have asked if GTA qualifies as a satire. Actually, that’s not quite right – many members of the press wrote pre-emptive posts saying that is WAS a satire, whilst reviewers have been left wondering how that can be true.
Reviews which have mentioned these flaws in the game have been attacked from all sides, on a personal and professional level, and been subjected to some pretty grim comments. And the first defence offered? That the reviewer didn’t understand the ‘satire’. Because the world you play within is a broad and silly satire of our own world, it’s fair enough for the game to have every gay character be camp and cowardly, and for the women to be either sluts or monsters.
The most interesting thing about this whole debate is that satire has now been turned from an attack on privilege and power… into a defence mechanism for the exact damn people it used to mock and shame.