Infamous Scribblers

women writers of the long eighteenth century

#CancelSwift: On Satire, Infamous Scribbling Women, and (Not So) Recent Politics

 

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This post does not necessarily pertain to eighteenth-century scribbling women, but rather to a more recent one: Suey Park. It relates as well to Stephen Colbert and Jonathan Swift, and it was the latter who offered up our title for this blog in calling Eliza Haywood a stupid, “infamous scribbling woman,” denying he had ever read her books. While Swift’s work certainly includes moments of mocking misogyny, where we might see his critique leveled more at patriarchal structures rather than the women who are subject to them, his dealings with Haywood as a blockbuster writer point to an insecurity, a rage, a denial. My own dissertation chapter that partially devotes itself to Swift explores some of the possibilities for alternative modes of political care in his work, especially A Modest Proposal, while also acknowledging the ways in which Swift’s satire is a mode through which he has the power; it is not empowering the individuals about whom he is writing. Rather, it grants him superiority over those who are deemed more cruel, more directly responsible for building and reinforcing the system. That Swift is complicit in this system of colonization and exploitation further complicates the question of how “helpful” and “caring” his proposal actually is.

Provoked to reconsider the functions–altruistic and insidious–of satire in general, I was intrigued by the recent onslaught of critical and media attention we’ve been paying to the #CancelColbert movement spearheaded by activist writer, Suey Park, on twitter this past week. When Stephen Colbert’s writing team posted the racially epithetic tweet concerning the “Ching Chong Ding Dong” foundation for more sensitivity to “Orientals or whatever,” it was an obvious attempt to mock and expose the contradictory racism that Daniel Snyder’s Washington “Redskins” foundation for “Original Americans” so heinously tried to put forward to placate the public. In refusing to change the offensive name of his team, Snyder attempts to raise and devote money to the “Original Americans”–yet another form of white redress for the continued exploitation of Native American culture and identity in the US. Colbert himself capitalizes on this obviously unwise maneuver, but some voices in the Asian American community found little to laugh at–and many others were provoked to discomfort. Just who is the joke ON here?

“It’s satire,” white-man-splained one journalist to Park via Huffington Post. “Do you not understand the point of satire?”

 

Suey Park being interviewed on HuffPost Live.

Suey Park being interviewed on HuffPost Live.

Park and others fired back: you cannot hide under the “guise” of satire. Indeed, critics of Colbert’s punch line make a poignant point: how does satire further facilitate the power of whites through the protected collective of white liberalism? After all, Colbert supporters defend him against charges of racism–it’s satire!–while he gets the luxury of enacting and perpetuating racist rhetoric for his own personal gain (i.e. comedic effect) even as he shows his moral superiority, his advanced ethical understanding over those like Snyder. In short, Colbert can have his cake and eat it too.

As an irregular but often amiable viewer of Colbert, I was struck by this moment–as I have been by the long-running critique, made especially by feminists and queer theorists of color, that The Onion‘s satire goes over the line. My mind immediately jumped to Swift–how could it not?–and his contradictory satire that could both help and hinder the group he’s proposing to aid. Similarly, the #CancelColbert debate is for one group about demanding ethical responsibility for what is said even in comedy, while for another it is about defending a cultural and long-held definition of one function of satire: to laugh mockingly. For the former, it’s about the nuanced, more privileged functions of satire; for the latter, it is just about getting the joke.

Imagine my non-surprise, then, when I watched Colbert on Monday only to see him invoke a new activist hashtag on behalf of his fellow Irish Catholics: #CancelSwift. Pretending offense that Swift would propose eating Irish babies, Colbert appeared confident in nailing his point–satire points out the exaggerations of a given group, while also drawing attention to their plight. That said, while Colbert is often a fine satirist, I am not sure a 140 character tweet–or even a 4-minute segment fully contextualized on his show–can compare to Swift’s carefully organized mock-proposal. What’s more, Swift showed in several other serious pamphlets that he had a deep investment in helping the poor of Ireland. Has Colbert done the same? Does satire itself require more context than simply the original reference to the joke itself?

Park and others make a provocative point: for satire to “work” properly, it needs to make the butt of the joke the people who are perpetuating the problem. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary defines satire as, “A poem in which wickedness or folly is censured. Proper satire is distinguished, by the generality of the reflections, from a lampoon, which is aimed against a particular person; but they are too frequently confounded.” Colbert’s mockery of Snyder’s specific foundation not only raises questions of whether or not his critique even qualifies as “proper satire” (after all, he’s citing Swift as a resource–clearly there’s an aspect of traditional Western satire invoked here), but also if wickedness and folly are fully censured. If white liberals (and I loop myself in quite critically with this group) can simply laugh at other more explicit forms of racism while comfortably delving into recognizable stereotypes we feel secure in laughing at, are we not also fools for folly?

 

I must admit–I will still be an audience member for Stephen Colbert, the same way I’m a devoted reader of Jonathan Swift. However, just as I read Swift’s political “care” with a feminist’s grain of salt, keeping a wary eye on his treatment of women in practice and representation, I also think that we–especially white leftist audience members–need to read Colbert and his fellows with a careful eye toward who, traditionally, has gotten to utilize satire (and lampoon) as a genre. After all, Johnson’s definition carries with it a hint of moral didacticism that may not sit so well in the contemporary political landscape. Suey Park may have been unsuccessful in #Cancel[ing]Colbert–she may not ever have intended to get it taken off the air–but I think she was successful in making some of Colbert’s audience and others question how we practice satire, and who indeed gets to practice it. Despite some of Park’s other practices, which can serve to shut down conversation even amongst other people of color, I would argue that she deserves honorable mention this week as an “infamous scribbling woman” for making us reconsider the longer, more insidious history of satire and privilege.

 

But what are your thoughts on all of this? What further connections do you see between Swiftian forms of political satire and “activism” and Colbert’s? How might we get more scribbling women in on this conversation?

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About Rachel

Doctoral Candidate in Literature

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This entry was posted on April 2, 2014 by .
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