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A Cautionary Tale for Satirists

Readers know that I am a big fan of satirical animated sitcoms. I shun use of the word cartoon because that implies that all animation is meant for children to laugh at simply at its face value. Many of the sitcoms I enjoy (South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, King of the Hill) score their jokes off irony, word play and twisted parody, I don’t advise that children be allowed to watch them at all. The Simpsons is one possible exception, but I was the sort of child who began catching the satirical overtones around age 9–not all kids are there at that age.

That’s why I found this news item most alarming. From the AP:

hree boys have been arrested for investigation of bullying red-haired students after a Facebook message promoted “Kick a Ginger Day” at a Southern California school.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said Monday that two 12-year-olds were arrested for suspicion of misdemeanor battery, and a 13-year-old was booked for misdemeanor cyberbullying. They were released to their parents.

For the uninitated, the word “ginger” was popularized as a description for light-skinned, freckled red-headed kids by the South Park episode “”. In the episode Cartman delivers a very nasty presentation about the children during show and tell. To get back at him, his ostensible friends turn him into a ginger using hair dye and make-up. However, Cartman ends up leading a Ginger supremacist group that ultimately kidnap his friends. They reveal their charade to him, and he suddenly begins preaching racial tolerance. The episode stabs right at the heart of the stupidity of racism in all forms, be it by a majority or by a minority group that co-opts it to fight past discrimination.

Unfortunately, it appears that the message was taken out of context by a group of bullies. The administrator of the Facebook group has claimed it was all a joke, but even one act of violence makes the joke unfunny. I foist no blame upon the creators of South Park–they were simply trying to be entertaining and educational at the same time, the way satire is intended to be used. However, great care must be taken to balance the two, and clearly the site administrator did not do this in his call to “shine up the steel toed boots.”

Satire has a way of biting its creators. My own post on Socks the Cat has led to that being the fifth most popular search term leading to this site. I lay awake wondering sometimes if some poor Fourth grader is out there crying about the D- he got on his report about presidential pets because he cited my blog. That goes away when I recall the disclaimer I placed at the end, but its still a very real concern for satirists everywhere.

I also wanted to use this chance to chide the producers of Family Guy. The episode featured this week as a premiere on Adult Swim has similar racial overtones, though the humor is far more broad. After an African-American accquaintance of Peter and Lois (that Peter turned on when he discovered that Lois had slept with him prior to their marriage) has his house accidentally burnt down by Peter, Peter remarks “This is the sort of thing that makes you want to grab your nephew and go on a shooting rampage in the D.C. area.” Not only is this sort of remark the sort of throw-away gag that can be extremely hit or miss and only funny given the current cultural contest (much of Family Guy is funny now for precisely parodying pop culture, but will it be in 100 years without semi-fresh memories of its targets?), but the joke was very poorly timed given the recent execution of John Allen Muhammed, the fiend behind the attacks that paralyzed this commonwealth for weeks. The episode first aired less than two weeks after the execution, when the memory had just been brought back up for many.

I’ll continue to watch the show, but I will admit that I am beginning to grow weary of a brand of humor that is long on shock value and short on insight.

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