Content warning: References to ableism, classism, racism, racial slurs
The 2008 action comedy Tropic Thunder offers ample ground for ‘cancellation’; from Robert Downey Jr sporting blackface to Ben Stiller using ableist slurs to an antisemitic cameo by non-Jewish actor Tom Cruise, it is by no means inoffensive.
But there's a catch—the film is a ‘satire’ which Dreamworks claims is a comedic critique of “Hollywood and its excesses,” which supposedly uses “inappropriate and over-the-top characters” to express its intended anti-racist and anti-ableist messaging.
At the time of its release, the movie was boycotted by over 22 disability advocacy groups such as the Special Olympics, as well as several other African American rights organisations. Regardless, it has become a cult classic for others who argue that the movie’s self-reflexive nature excuses its derogatory content. To substantiate this claim, they often cite the movie’s climax, in which Downey Jr's character—a Caucasian actor ‘method acting’ as an African American man—realises the immorality of his own blackface.
This raises the question: does being satirical excuse behaviours that would otherwise be offensive and unacceptable?
Satire has been used for centuries as a form of moral commentary, with artists employing humour and wit in their art to dissect political, religious and social issues. Examples of satire range from classic novels such as Pride & Prejudice, Animal Farm and 1984 to cult films like Mean Girls and American Psycho. More recently, ‘eat-the-rich’ satires have been dominating cinemas, with directors exploiting the heightened class-consciousness post-pandemic to create razor-sharp and humorous social commentaries such as The Menu, The White Lotus, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and Triangle of Sadness. Considering the countless Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for these, as well as high audience ratings on websites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, it's clear that satire can be an effective and entertaining way of making a point.
That being said, it is worth considering whether a satirical piece of media is inherently superior to the original simply because it is self-aware. As this genre becomes increasingly popular, it too becomes increasingly exploited. The audience now has a responsibility to decide whether an artist is automatically exempt from criticism simply because their work was a ‘joke’.
Let’s return to the example of Tropic Thunder.
While the film’s (entirely able-bodied and caucasian) writing team championed the progressive sentiment underlying the movie’s blackface and slurs, it seems counterintuitive that the minority groups it claims to support are the ones it hurts most, so much so that disability and African American rights groups organised protests outside its screenings. When the dust settles and the glitz and glamour of the movie’s star-studded cast is stripped back, can it really be argued the film is helping, rather than hurting these social causes?
When there is a negative response to satire, it is commonly argued that audiences have gone too soft, or that they are just ignorant of the filmmaker’s intentions. To that I would argue that when audiences watch a film, they do not watch the filmmaker’s intentions, only the film itself. Hence, to a viewer, there is little difference between a purposely offensive film and a poorly-made satire which incidentally conveys offensive messaging. In fact, numerous alt-right personalities have acknowledged that the blurred lines between joking and sincerity have made it easier for them to spread hate symbols such as swastikas around the internet, since consumers have simply assumed they are being used ‘ironically'.
If the audience has to watch an announcement discouraging the use of ableist slurs before the movie is played (as is the case with Tropic Thunder’s DVD), is it not a clear sign that the satire may be ineffective in conveying its intended message? Just because someone critiques how a director uses wit and irony does not mean we misunderstand it. If anything, to make a blanket statement that all satire is inherently effective exhibits a greater ignorance of the genre. The very purpose of satire is to use irony and humour to scrutinise social issues in a way that is accessible for the audience—it is to hold up a mirror to humankind and make it laugh at its own follies.
If you’re the only one laughing, you’re not doing satire. You’re just making a bad joke.