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.