Satire’s New Golden AgeShare
Satire, in a variety of forms, continues to force the most controversial social issues into the public sphere.
I was recently reminded of satire’s abundance and power to unsettle established patterns of thought and action when viewing a new advertisement for Nando’s, a South African fast-food restaurant chain specializing in Portuguese-style chicken dishes (and with a reputation for what South Africans still refer to as “cheek”). The ad for Nando’s new “Meal for 6,” directed by the Bouffant Agency’s Dean Blumberg, is called “The Last Dictator Standing” and it shows a lonely Robert Mugabe pining for the good old days frolicking with his buddies Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, and P.W. Botha. It is very funny, and manages to capture something about any dictator’s infantile striving for absolute power even as it unapologetically, if ironically, works to sell chicken. It is one of a long stream of pointed satirical commercials promoting Nando’s products which target, among other things, South African governmental corruption, President Jacob Zuma’s polygamy, police brutality, and white South African obliviousness.
We may be living in a new Golden Age of satire, the first since the late-Eighteenth Century, evidence of which may be found domestically in such well-known and critically praised venues as The Daily Show, The Onion, and The Colbert Report. What the Nando’s commercials—along with the myriad of comic ways invented to circumvent Chinese internet censorship, Canada’s Rick Mercer Report, New Zealand’s Get F@ct, France’s Delit Maille satirical knitting blog, and India’s Faking News website, and many other sites of satirical production—attest to is that this Age is now a truly global and ever-more originally inventive one. Nando’s, for example, turns both the traditional public service announcement and the 60-second fast-food TV ad spot on their ear, formally speaking, creating a hybrid politico-comic artifact that to my knowledge is entirely original. However, as the malevolent response by Mugabe’s youth supporters and Muslims offended by the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the prophet Mohammed show, not everyone is blessed with a generous sense of humor, or with the wisdom to distinguish between might and right. Whereas medieval courtly Fools could once try to correct their masters without (too much) fear of punishment, modern jesters cannot expect to criticize entrenched power elites with impunity. But then this is perhaps as it needs to be. The correction of injustice, like the birth of freedom, is nearly always painful and fraught with risk.
The Nando’s Mugabe commercial has been pulled, the company’s spokespeople having explained that increased chicken dinner sales are not worth the cost of human lives. But the ad now has a second life online. It is this lingering digital presence, and the ability of new media simultaneously to reach elite and popular audiences across national, cultural and often even linguistic boundaries, subverting formal attempts at censorship, which most importantly distinguishes the tools of the modern satirist from those of the medieval Fool and the eighteenth-century Wit. Online reiterability multiplies the power of satiric representations, increasing their moral force while at the same time narrowing the gulf separating these sidelong glances at malfeasance from more straightforward accounts of injustice emerging from places like the Middle East, where they continue to serve as powerful catalysts for social and political change.
It is not news that satire has an important role to play when it comes to speaking truth to power. It has been this way at least since the time of the Ancient Greeks, indeed since the time of their forbears. Some scholars have argued that satire predates Tragedy and Comedy, giving rise to these two poles of the Western dramatic tradition and serving as their connection to even older rural rituals associated with the cult of Dionysus. It is from satyrs, the name given to Dionysus’s male followers, that the word “satire” derives.
Dionysus himself was often artistically rendered in such a way as to emphasize his “in-betweenness,” what anthropologists might term his liminality. Although male, he is usually depicted in literature as having feminine attributes, and on at least one early account of his origins he is the hybrid son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele. Dionysus is the god of the misfit, the outsider, the drunkard, the deviant, the one who does not belong. He was known as the Liberator, and so may be conceived of as the very personification of freedom. Unconstrained he transmits messages from the living to the dead (and vice versa), serving in this way as a vital conduit between the present and the past. He embodies chaos, but also insight—he is a god of epiphany, prone to sudden appearances. He is associated with the fennel plant, concealed within the stalk of which Prometheus shielded his stolen spark, a symbol of the creative imagination. Dionysus is also linked to (pro-)creation via the fig tree, an ancient symbol of fecundity long associated with female sexuality that reappears in the Old Testament (and much subsequent Renaissance art) where its leaves are used to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness—typically, in fact, their genitals.
Satire for its part capitalizes on these Ancient and early modern ambivalences and associations. It is tragi-comic; in it genres blend, clash, come undone and reassemble. Satire speaks for what in the world is present/absent; true/false; comic/tragic; serious/frivolous; constant as well as in flux. It trades in laughter and tears, freedom and oppression, despair but also—and crucially—hope. It is only when placed against the backdrop of these powerful and unsettling admixtures typical of satire that the real achievement of the Nando’s commercials begins to come into focus.