A whole lot of people have had a whole lot to say about the Wits students who staged a topless protest on Tuesday as part of the ongoing #FeesMustFall protests. Now, there’s nothing new about topless protests. Students at Rhodes University earlier on this year went topless in order to protest about rape culture, and while the causes may differ, the purposes had similarities including showcasing the vulnerability of the protesters in sharp contrast to the armed police who had been violent towards them.
In predictable fashion, misogynists and pearl-clutching conservatives alike took turns bashing the protesters. The criticism mostly ranged from hysterical “these girls have no respect for themselves” slut-shaming to body shaming the protesting women for having the audacity to be topless while not looking like airbrushed supermodels. One such detractor was themostly irrelevant comedian Skhumba who released a video in which he body-shamed the protesters by comparing their breasts to “wet sneakers without shoelaces”.
Twitter responded accordingly. Within hours, the social justice organisation Amandla.mobi launched a petition to have Skhumba removed from Kaya FM until he apologized for his offensive comments. Although he did give a (half hearted and defensive) apology, that didn’t stop many of his fans from complaining about how the evil feminists are incapable of taking a joke with even some of his fans bringing up the excuse that consistently manages to make my skin crawl out of pure irritation.
It’s just satire!
I struggle to think of a term that is more misused and misunderstood than the term “satire”. Over the years, I have witnessed the term satire being used as a lazy, politically correct way to allow comedians, both professional and self proclaimed, to say the most offensive thing they possibly can without taking any responsibility. Its extensive misuse has aided the rise of the Schrodinger’s Douchebag, the person who makes an offensive statement and then decides based on the reaction of those around them whether or not they were joking.
Comedian Skhumbo, who is in hot water after making offensive comments about protesting students’ breasts
Those who misuse the term satire in this manner show that they have absolutely no understanding of what satire is. When one simply looks up the term satire on Dictionary.com, it’s easy to see one. Satire is defined there as, “
What satire is:
The purpose of satire is to effectively “punch up”. Satire is used as a tool to challenge powerful/privileged individuals and institutions, bring them to account, and to challenge the status quo. It often uses sarcasm, ridicule, and exaggeration to expose and denounce the worst aspects of powerful individuals and institutions as well as provide social commentary on topical issues.
One can see this happening in the most famous examples of satire we have. This includes one of the earliest examples of literary satire, A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. In his pamphlet, he proposes that in order to convert the starving children of Ireland into “sound and useful members of the Commonwealth” they should be fattened up and fed to Ireland’s wealthy landowners. In reality, Swift was making a scathing social commentary on the debilitating and dehumanising conditions of the Irish under the English and the wealthy Irish landowners of the time. Although Swift does criticise the common Irish citizens for not doing anything to rise up against their oppressors, the wealthy and powerful remain the primary targets of his critique.
Other more temporary famous examples of satire include the highly controversial Monty Python film The Life of Brian which ridicules the Christian church and organized religion, among other things. An example of satire that is not necessarily funny is Animal Farm by George Orwell, which uses animals to on one level criticize the Russian Revolution and communism yet on another criticizes the circulatory nature of revolutions. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of South African satire is “In detention” by Chris van Wyk which ridicules the Apartheid police force’s official explanation for the death of Steve Biko, who died in police custody.
Still from “The Life of Brian” by Monty Python
And what satire is not:
Although successful satire takes many forms, it is by definition concerned with holding the powerful to account. Comedians such as Skhumba are not doing this by joking about the perkiness of protesting students’ breasts. Neither are comedians who make jokes relying on tired, centuries old stereotypes related to race, gender, disability, sexuality, or any other marginalized group in order to tell jokes. I’m looking now at Fox News, who decided to air a blatantly racist segment on Asian people earlier this week and then defended themselves saying it was “all in good fun”. In fact, what they are doing is continuing to uphold long standing beliefs about marginalized people. Ironically, so-called satire in these examples is being used to do the exact opposite of its purpose: maintain the status quo rather than challenge it.
Satire is not an excuse to through out whatever bigoted statement one might have been thinking and then shout “ha, I was just kidding” when that statement is challenged. When done properly, it can be an incredible tool to challenge the powerful, the privileged, and the status quo. I truly believe that continuing to associate satire with the kind of lazy Family Guy type offensive humour displayed by comedians like Skhumbo undermines satires entire purpose and cheapens its value.