The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Satire can indubitably be a helpful tool in creating great art. South Park, Documentary Now!, and Saturday Night Live are shows that not only serve as their own form of entertainment, but also helped to define pop culture. All three shows, two of which are still relevant enough to still be producing media today, are great examples of how satire can be great art in and of itself.
However, I believe satire has had some unfortunate unintended consequences on media as well. While it can be funny and poignant, there is also something to be said about art that comes from a deep place of earnestness and is very much itself without layers of irony or embittered self-awareness. One personal favorite example of this is the unapologetically campy Sam Raimi “Spiderman” series, starring Tobey Maguire. These movies have been criticized in recent years for what can be perceived as awkward delivery and admittedly convoluted storylines (this complaint is mainly made for the third installment), but I love them. Watching Tobey Maguire unabashedly deliver the “I hunch” line after seeing endless identical quips and banter in the more recent Marvel movies is like a breath of fresh air. It’s a series of movies that seem so genuine and unafraid to be themselves—so why does art like this seem like such a rarity nowadays?
Social media has changed our society immeasurably. Now that everything can be filmed, shared, replayed, and commented on, the pressure to be impenetrable to criticism is at an all-time high. One very popular way of becoming impenetrable is the tongue-in-cheek, dry-humored self-awareness tactic, which tries to beat critics to the punch by having creators acknowledge their faults within the art. Self-deprecation jokes, having characters point out that something they’re doing is cliche — it happens a lot in TV and movies. The ultimate iteration of this would be to me Bo Burnham’s Bo Burnham: “Unpaid Intern” Reaction Video, in which the comedian comments on his own music video, then comments upon his commentary, then comments upon the commentary of his commentary, and so on. At first, it seems like another joke in which the artist is laughing at themselves before you can laugh at them, pointing out his own flaws so he can get in on the audience’s critique of him. As the joke becomes more and more meta, the self-awareness devolves into many incomprehensible layers.
I think the problem with this whole “making fun of yourself before anyone else has the chance to” trend is more harmful than we might think. I believe our fear of being made fun of or criticized has caused a lot of our art to lose its sense of earnestness, which can be one of its most powerful assets. But because of the fear of criticism, that earnestness is lost, and in its place we have:
“It’s supposed to be bad, I know it’s bad too, and I’m acknowledging that with my audience! I’m very relatable and humble. You should like this piece of art that you’re consuming!”
Self-awareness is one thing and can be a great tool to relate to an audience. However, in many movies, it comes off as less of a tactic of relation and more of a desperate appeal to get the audience on the movie’s side. One really recent example of this is the Christmas movie Spirited, a musical retelling of the classic Christmas Carol story. It felt hard to enjoy parts of the movie when it just felt so embarrassed to even be a musical, especially when it included the now tired trope of “Wait… Why is everybody singing all of the sudden!” (Enchanted did it best, but that was more than ten years ago — we’ve moved on).
If a movie is too afraid to try anything that they’re scared they might be made fun of, then I don’t really want to watch that movie. I’d rather creatives try something new, be unapologetic about it, and end up not working as well then just be predictable and self-deprecating.
Of course, the world of art is vast and never-ending, and there are many amazing creatives who are still unapologetically earnest, as well as many who are using satire to make important and entertaining commentary. It just seems as though there’s a sense of earnestness that’s been a little lost over the years with this fear of being made fun of — a fear we can hopefully shake off soon.