Crude Caricatures Are Not Effective Satire

Caricature of Alexander Pope as a Catholic monkey


Recently two celebrities have been taken to task for making crude jokes, one at the expense of African Americans generally, one at the expense of Ivanka Trump specifically. Roseanne Barr’s television show was cancelled after she compared Valerie Jarrett to a monkey while Donald Trump demanded the firing of comedian Samantha Bee after she called his daughter a “feckless c**t” for failing to protest border patrol separating children from their immigrant parents. Here’s Newsweek’s account of the latter:

“After decades of ignoring the issue, Americans are finally paying attention. Well most of us. Ivanka Trump, who works at the White House, chose to post the second most oblivious tweet we’ve seen this week,” Bee said as a screenshot of Trump’s photo with her 2-year-old son Theodore flashed across the TV screen.

The photo, which Trump posted on Sunday, sparked a wave of criticism online with many people blasting her for being insensitive, considering the photo was shared while a country-wide debate was taking place regarding maltreatment of immigrant children.

“You know, Ivanka, that’s a beautiful photo of you and your child but let me just say, one mother to another, do something about your dad’s immigration practices you feckless c**t,” Bee said. “He listens to you. Put on something tight and low cut and tell your father to f*****g stop it. Tell him it was an Obama thing and see how it goes, OK.”

I have a couple of thoughts, one of which I owe to my friend Rachel Kranz’s unfinished novel  Mastery. When Warren’s English friend Ian applies the c-word to his ex-wife, Warren is uncomfortable. Ian has been talking about their mutual acquaintance Joshua:

“I’ve never got on with Joshua since the evening he told me not to refer to my ex-wife as a cunt—do you remember? It was all I could do not to call him a cunt, though I suppose I should make allowances for the fact that the word simply doesn’t read the same way here as it does in England. I mean, Vivian is perfectly capable of calling me a cunt, and has demonstrated said capacity several times, frequently to an audience of highly interested third parties. I don’t see why I shouldn’t enjoy equal-opportunity insults. ”

            I laugh, though I can’t help saying, “Well, I’m not terribly fond of that word either. But I think I have the same trouble with any insult based on a body part. Somehow it makes me feel protective. “

            “Of the body part?”


            “That’s rather touching, actually,” Ian says…

I thought of this passage after Sally Field’s classy response to Samantha Bee:

I like Samantha Bee a lot, but she is flat wrong to call Ivanka a cunt. Cunts are powerful, beautiful, nurturing and honest.

In her critique of Bee’s comment, Field’s own satiric attack is more subtle. Ivanka Trump, she indicates, has none of these qualities.

As I see it, Barr’s and Bee’s insults are not equivalent because Roseanne is hitting down while Bee is hitting up—or at least hitting sideways. White dehumanization of blacks and male dehumanization of women has led to various horrors throughout history, and it’s not the same as blacks using the n-word or women using the c-word. In these latter instances, the use of epithets isn’t backed up with the full force of institutionalized oppression.

To extend the analogy to class, it’s worse for the economically privileged to talk about “white trash” and “trailer trash” than it is for those who are down and out.

But that being said, the great satirists don’t descend to the level of name calling. Alexander Pope, whose twisted back and Catholicism were frequently the target of opposing satirists, responded in The Dunciad with brilliant caricature, not crude invective. Liberals may feel a rush when they hear, say, Al Franken labeling Rush Limbaugh “a big fat idiot,” but the high is soon erased by the sea of mud that the name calling releases. In the subsequent exchanges, all feel as though they have been dragged through the mire.

The people who thrive in a mud fight are not those you want running your country.

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