The Etiquette of Satire
Comedians need to be aware of the potential harm that ridiculing an event can have on their viewers.
February 19, 2020
With loads of homework, popcorn, pancakes and no motivation to do anything, cajoled my friends into watching the Academy Award nominated film, “Jojo Rabbit”. For those who haven’t watched it, the film explores the complicated life of Johannes (JoJo) Betzler and his misguided pride for Nazi Germany during World War II.
I found the story entertaining, heartwarming and uncomfortable at times. The gestapo’s arrival at Jojo’s home for a routine inspection illustrates this. After each “Heil Hitler,” I began to laugh because of how redundant and ridiculous everyone was being.
Yet, after each laugh I felt myself pausing and asking the question, “Is it wrong that I’m laughing at this?” After all, the film is satirical and aims to critique the fascist German state during World War II. However, Nazism continues as a constant presence in Europe and has asserted itself as such in the United States — President Donald Trump even referred to Neo-Nazis as “very fine people.” Moreover, Jewish people are still victims of racism, as there is a growing number of instances of anti-Semitic violence across the country.
So, even if the piece is satirical, why do I feel bad for laughing?
This second-guessing feeling isn’t new. “Jojo Rabbit” simply reinforces it in all of its complexity, especially as global perspectives on morals and ethics keep shifting.
It’s important to remember the purpose of satire: employing comedy to shed light on an issue within a particular individual, society or belief. Laughter is only an immediate consequence of satire, and oftentimes a desired result. However, it’s equally, if not more, vital to be mindful of the intentions of a piece and be aware of the dysfunctional and dangerous systems it mocks and some productions have failed to do so.
Yet, there have been more controversial examples of satire that receive the opposite reaction. The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo illustrated this through the portrayal of French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, a black woman, as a monkey. They claim their intention was to mock a far-right politician’s played out depiction of Taubira as a monkey, which was perceived to be racist, however they were trying to gain supporters. The magazine’s satire became so divisive that in 2015, shooters affiliated with al-Qaeda killed 12 people in their office in response to a controversial cartoon that depicted the prophet Muhammad.
I found no humor in such a caricature, especially when this derogatory remark remains prevalent all over the world. But then, what makes this matter different from “Jojo Rabbit?”
Charlie Hebdo’s illustration of Minister Taubira crosses this controversial line and into a territory that instigates the issue they were originally trying to address. While satire is supposed to remain humorous, there should be respect and consideration for issues that may arise out of the work.
There is a blurred line for what is appropriate and what is not. Nonetheless, what often defines this comes from demographic factors of the viewer, such as age, spirituality or culture. This line becomes visible as soon as the joke reintroduces the issue it was trying to highlight. In the instance of Charlie Hebdo, the cartoon only degraded Taubira. Calling her a monkey is extremely problematic and offensive, especially when the remark is still evoked around the world. “JoJo Rabbit”, on the other hand, takes the extreme devotion that individuals in Nazi Germany had to Hitler, and exaggerates it to the point of comedy.
Satire plays a vital role in delivering complex, controversial issues into chunks of digestible information for the public. But, there should be more awareness from satirists on the item they are ridiculing. Satire should provoke change and be aware of the fault on the other side without harming an individual or a group.
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Email Gabby Lozano at [email protected]