One of the things the controversy over an old blog post by Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn last week raised for me was a common dynamic on the internet. First, someone will write something that’s patently offensive, people will discover it and have a justifiable—and predictable—reaction to that content, and defenders of the original writer will claim that the writing is satire, and the people who are offended are merely humorless and incapable of recognize what’s going on around them. In the case of Gunn’s original post, Gunn himself has acknowledged that his attempt at satire was ineffective, writing in an apology that “A couple of years ago I wrote a blog that was meant to be satirical and funny. In rereading it over the past day I don’t think it’s funny. The attempted humor in the blog does not represent my actual feelings.” And the conversation around the post has raised what I think is actually a really useful conversation about what satire is and what it takes for it to be effective.
On Tumblr, SciFiGirl47 offers what she calls the Subway Test, arguing that satire of misogynistic material isn’t actually effective if the language it uses would come across as genuinely threatening to someone who hasn’t been informed in advance that it’s satire. She asks readers to imagine themselves on a subway car, alone, with someone they don’t know:
What you do know is that you are alone with him. And it’s a long way to the next station. Your cell phone doesn’t work on this line. For all intents and purposes, you are trapped with this man. There is no where for you to go, you can’t get out and you can’t call for help, and you have to judge what is happening.
I want you to read James Gunn’s comments and imagine you are trapped in a subway car, alone and isolated with a man who is saying these things to you. I want you to imagine that he is looking at you, maybe looking you straight in the eye, not even glancing at your body, but he is staring you down, and he is saying those words. Do you feel ashamed? Afraid? Do you want to get away? Do you want to get your mace out? Then this piece of ‘satire’ has failed the subway test.
Over at her blog The Nerdy Bird, Jill Pantozzi argues that it isn’t enough for satire to be visible: it has to reveal something about its target.
Merriam-Webster has two definitions of the word:
1. a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn
2. wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly
What human vice is Gunn holding up to ridicule or criticism here? What vice or folly is he using sarcasm or irony to deflect? The one answer I’ve heard to those questions is Gunn was attempting to ridicule the many comic fans online who write this type of gross list regularly but if that was his intent, he failed. The list is not satire, at best, it’s base humor.
I’d expand on both of these ideas a little bit. The television critic Alan Sepinwall says that the best shows teach you how to watch them, and I think that’s true. A corollary of that is that the best satire teaches you how to read it. Veronica Geng, who was for years a humor writer at the New Yorker, wrote a piece called “Partners” that’s a perfect example of that idea. A riff on the Vows column in the New York Times, at the beginning of the piece, some of the paragraphs describing the fictional people who are getting married sound plausible, if slightly edgy. “The bridegroom recently graduated from Harvard College,” reads one of the first descriptions. “He spent his junior year at the Pentagon, a military concern in Washington, D.C. He will join his father on the board of directors of the Municipal Choate Assistance Corporation. His previous marriage ended in divorce.” But as the piece goes on, the descriptions get progressively stranger. In one announcement, we learn that “The parents of the bride, Dr. and Mrs. Morris plains Burdette of New York, are partners in Conspicuous Consumption, and art gallery and maternity-wear cartel.” In another, Geng writes of the bride, “Her previous marriage ended in pharmaceuticals.” The last notice ends with the line “All four grandparents of the bride-to-be were shepherds and shepherdesses.” The signals are clear at the beginning, and by the end of the piece, Geng’s made obvious how ludicrous she thinks the attempt to categorize everyone’s origins are, and the fallacy of trying to conceal financial status-seeking in the guise of social respectability.
And Jill is absolutely correct that to be successful, the satire has to both be distinguishable from its object—rather than merely parroting its conventions—and to reveal something about it. Woody Allen wrote a series of short stories about hardboiled detective, Kaiser Lupowitz, my favorite of which is called “The Whore of Mensa.” In it, Lupowitz infiltrates a prostitution ring where the women sell not sex, but intellectual and emotional experiences. When he sets up a date with a girl from the service, the story uses intellectual moves as a proxy for sexual ones: “I let her go on. She was barely nineteen years old, but already she had developed the hardened facility of the pseudo-intellectual. She rattled off her ideas glibly, but it was all mechanical. Whenever I offered an insight, she faked a response: ‘Oh, yes, Kaiser. Yes, baby, that’s deep. A platonic comprehension of Christianity—why didn’t I see it before?’” And when he gets into the brothel itself, the menu of services on offer riffs on both what men want in conversation and in bed:
For fifty bucks, I learned, you could “relate without getting close.” For a hundred, a girlw ould lend you her Bartok records, have dinner,a nd then let you watch while she had an anxiety attack. For one-fifty, you could listen to FM radio with twins. For three bill, you got the works: A thin Jewish brunette would pretend to pick you up at the Museum of Modern Art, let you read her master’s, get you involved in a screaming quarrel at Elaine’s over Freud’s conception of women, and then fake a suicide of your choosing—the perfect evening for some guys. Nice racket. Great town, New York.
I’d be entirely delighted if more people were holding up Allen and Geng as their role models on the internet, and if more people were writing genuinely hilarious satire online. But claiming satire as a defense doesn’t make a work so, or make it effective: that’s a judgement that’s up to a jury of readers. And claiming satire doesn’t make a work exempt from criticism. In fact, it invites critiques not just of a piece’s politics, but of its quality.