Satire on trial as Spitting Image returns

On a string: Spitting Image depicts Boris Johnson as the puppet of his advisor Dominic Cummings © PA

Is satire good for us? For centuries satirical art has provided an outlet for our dissatisfactions with politics and society. But in these torrid times, does it cause more harm than good?

Britain’s prime minister immortalised as a “jibbering half-wit”; his chief advisor a baby-munching alien; the home secretary baring fangs – and Prince Harry donning his old Nazi costume in a bid for work.

Spitting Image, the outrageous TV satire that portrays politicians and celebrities as grotesque puppets, is back with a vengeance. And this time it has gone global, available to view around the world.

When it launched, its outrageous parodies showing the Queen rooting for clothes in bins and Margaret Thatcher feeding her own cabinet to the crocodiles, shaped public perception. At its peak, it was watched by 15 million people.

Satire is a genre that stretches at least as far back as Ancient Greece. It uses humorous techniques such as irony and exaggeration to expose vice, follies and misdemeanours in individuals, institutions and entire societies.

Politics and politicians have been particular targets since Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – and not just in literature. In the 18th Century, caricaturists James Gilray and Thomas Rowlandson used illustrations – and later, Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler-lampooning The Great Dictator and Armando Iannucci’s sitcom The Thick of It used film to mock the British government.

Many argue that satire is healthy. A flourishing satirical culture indicates freedom of expression. Whether in England under the Bishops’ Ban or contemporary China, to censor satire is to obstruct human rights.

But others believe it can go too far. While satire traditionally mocks those in positions of power, it can also be used to attack weaker members of society, with little ability to strike back. A relentless focus on society’s defects can promote cynicism and apathy.

A recent YouGov poll revealed that the satirical current affairs program Have I Got News For You? is more popular among British millennials than television news. It might be no coincidence that a University of Cambridge paper last month found that only 48% of under-35s have “faith in democracy”.

So, is satire really good for us?

Cruel to be kind

Of course, some say. Satire has held up a mirror to the world for time immemorial, exposing the cracks in our societies with clarity and humour. It can cut through the blather and reveal our institutions as they really are. And to be able to satirise is to possess genuine freedom of expression: a right we should never take for granted.

Not at all, say others. Satire instills a false complacency. By channelling our criticisms of society into mockery, it promotes political disengagement. By giving license for cruelty, it can target society’s weakest.

You Decide

  1. What distinguishes satire from bullying?
  2. Can — and should — any issues be beyond satire?

Activities

  1. Sketch a satirical drawing depicting one of this week’s news stories.
  2. In groups, come up with an idea for a television sitcom that satirises an aspect of contemporary society, with characters representing different norms and attitudes. Pitch your idea to the class.

Some People Say...

“Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), Anglo-Irish satirist and poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In Western democracies, satire is generally held up as a vital branch of culture. It is prominent in literature, drama, art, film and television. Newspapers characteristically feature daily written satirical sketches and cartoons. In Germany and Italy satire is constitutionally protected, while countries including the US and UK have exceptions in copyright law to allow satirical parodies. To censor satirical material is regarded as an attack on the right to freedom of expression.
What do we not know?
Satire’s effect on politics remains a source of debate. The satirical cafes of 1930s Berlin “did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler”, remarked British comedian Peter Cook. Outgoing US president Donald Trump was persistently satirised yet managed to receive the second-highest vote count in American history. Satire’s cultural prominence provides no guarantee for its effectiveness. That it is protected in law might indicate its inability to effect political and societal change.

Word Watch

Jibbering
A novel variant on “gibbering”, an onomatopoeic word that denotes speaking hurriedly and intelligently as a result of stress or fear.
Satire
Often mistakenly believed to stem from the Ancient Greek satyr named after part-men, part-goat creatures, it actually derives from a French word meaning “poetic medley.”
Grotesque
Comically ugly or distorted, but also used to explain the strange and fantastical. The word derives from an Ancient Roman style of decoration.
Parodies
A parody is a comic imitation, also known as a lampoon, mockery, travesty, spoof, caricature, play-on or send-up. It is among the most common satirical techniques.
Irony
A rhetorical device in which words are used to express something different to, and often opposed to, their literal meaning. The word stems from the Ancient Greek phrase for “feigned ignorance.”
Exaggeration
To represent something as more extreme that it really is, such as through boasting or flattery. The first known account of exaggerating comes from the ancient philosopher Aristotle.
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata
Arguably the first satirical play. Early in his career Aristophanes was denounced by the powerful general Cleon, who he vehemently satirised in return.
Bishops’ Ban
In 1599, two English bishops ordered numerous literary works to be banned. Many books were seized and burnt as a consequence.

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