Is there a 'satire paradox' in political cartoons? Are laughter and social protest friends or foes? When a politician is being satirized, does this make the audience more critical of the politician because his or her shortcomings and weaknesses are being exposed and ridiculed publicly? Or does satire unintentionally 'whitewash' such criticism: When you laugh about something or someone, it can't be that bad, right?!
This week, we had a chance to ask our expert on political cartoons, Christianna Stavroudis, a native of Baltimore and lecturer in English linguistics at the University of Bonn. She's been an avid supporter of Teach About US right from its start and has instructed several seminars to teachers all over Germany on using political cartoons in the classroom.
I explained to Christianna that I recently had listened to Malcolm Gladwell's podcast 'Revisionist History' and in one recent episode he talks about political satire. He introduces it with this 2008 piece from Saturday Night Live starring Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, who was then running as vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket:
Gladwell says that in newspapers and magazines (he is a staff writer for The New Yorker), you have to write in somber, reasonable tones; but in satire, you're allowed to say almost anything: "When you sugar-coat a bitter truth with humor," he says, "it makes the medicine go down." Yet, Gladwell also says that in SNL, the parody of Palin was "toothless", that is "comedy without any courage at all". Why? Because Tina Fey was too busy being funny. This eventually became evident when Sarah Palin herself appeared next to Fey in one episode – she was let in on the joke. Gladwell argues that "nothing of consequence gets accomplished without courage."
A catchier example from this year's campaign is Jimmy Fallon's interview with Donald Trump, which Fallon ended by messing up Trump's hair. It sure was entertaining and made viewers laugh. But does it also challenge the audience's political views?
So, I guess you could ask whether this could also be applied to the genre of political cartoons: Should cartoons rather entertain or challenge the reader? Do you have an example or two?
I think it's important to define satire and distinguish it from political entertainment. True satire involves an element of ridicule (not to be confused with teasing, not synonymous with caricature). Unfortunately, this is not evident in a lot of the U.S. political entertainment this election season, including the examples you cited and many cartoons as well. The fact that presidential candidates and even the president appear on talk shows and in comedy sketches already shows that this platform has morphed from an outsider domain (in which there was a clear division between artist and ruling elite) to a hybrid one in which politicians can prove that they can take a joke at their own expense. As it appears, this is a requirement to be successful with a U.S. audience today.
A very interesting example of this is the Funny or Die "Between Two Ferns" interview between Zach Galifianakis and Barack Obama:
Obama went onto this platform in order to reach out to young people to get them registered for healthcare, but Galifianakis maintained the tone of his "insulting" talk show even in this context. When Obama gives the phone number that people can call to get signed up for healthcare, Galifianakis says, "Oh, I don't have a phone; I'm off the grid. I don't want you people, like, looking at my texts, if you know what I mean." To this Obama replies, "First of all, Zach, nobody's interested in your texts."
This is an example of "cooperative ridicule," and it's becoming the norm in shows in which the politicians and candidates can participate by interacting (and even performing) with the artists.
Coming back to your question, this is where political cartoons differ in that they generally derive from one cartoonist alone (minus editorial input from the publisher of the cartoon) and therefore don't allow for input by politicians. But they, too, can range from innocuous (Cartoon 1) to harsh (Cartoon 2).
The satire created by political cartoons can range from innocuous...
(Photo credit: 'Hillary Rattled', by Nate Beeler / The Columbus Dispatch, 09/28/2016. All rights reserved.)
...to harsh. This cartoon by Mr. Fish was published on Memorial Day 2009. In the U.S., Memorial Day is a federal holiday for remembering the people who died while serving in the country's armed forces.
The courage factor rests on both the artist and the audience if real change is to take place. (If that is even desired! Let's not forget that some people just like to complain, that the job of the satirist is to criticize, and that the title "satirist" does not a good person make. There is also a fine line between a satirist and a bully.)
Cartoons and video clips of these shows are passively and ever-more privately consumed, which in turn can have the effect of lulling audiences into feeling that they have "done something" merely because they have consumed what they perceive is satire. (Which do think sounds more sophisticated: "I'm watching a comedy show." vs. "I'm watching political satire.") Thus, labelling things satire that are in fact political entertainment can be a brilliant tool for manipulation for the politician clever enough to see it as something at his/her disposal and amiable enough to be watched by audiences. Satire in a U.S. context is often one of the first examples named in support of the First Amendment (Freedom of the Press; Free Speech). But the problem is: When you can say anything, you risk not saying anything at all.
True satire involves putting something on the line (reputation, status, etc.) and is therefore by definition something that does not easily fit into the mainstream. Just as a test, try to find a satirist who is willing to attack his audience as much as "the elite". Satirists who simply pander to their audience, lulling them into an "us vs. them/we're the little guy" mood are not taking many risks at all.
This is also not to say that artists can never commune with the subjects of their attacks (although it does make things easier). The interviews between Bill O'Reilly and Jon Stewart, for example, are quite revealing as are the #OscarsSoWhite and its effect on the industry; the role of #BlackLivesMatter in the election; the introduction of new political satire shows hosted by non-Americans like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and the new host of the Daily Show Trevor Noah).between Democrats and Republicans on Bill Maher's Real Talk program. Note also the criticism that both Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Fallon have received (esp. from minority groups) as a result of their cooperations with Trump. A desire for consistency in politics and political media is being voiced in this campaign season (see Bernie Sanders supporters) as well as diversity of views and representation (
It remains to be seen whether these trends will result in new approaches to satire, but, as always, the courage is a two-way street.
Thank you so much, Christianna.
We will be posting more from our U.S. election experts, our 'explainers-in-chief' soon on the blog, so stay tuned!
Joannis Kaliampos is the educational project manager for the U.S. Embassy's Teach About US platform. He is a research assistant at the Institute of English Studies at Leuphana University, Lüneburg and holds a Staatsexamen degree in teaching English and History at the Gymnasium from Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen. Joannis has developed teaching materials and has been leading teacher workshops for the U.S. Embassy's school projects since 2012.