Sociologist Willie-LeBreton on New
Yorker: It's Only Satire if Audience Gets the Joke
by Nancy Nicely
This week, the illustrated cover of the New Yorker kickstarted a firestorm for its depiction of Michelle and Barack Obama. Those who defended it as acceptable satire were resoundingly countered by those who deemed it offensive and over the line.
"By definition, a satirist pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, making one's audience uncomfortable enough to think twice about things it has taken for granted," says sociologist Sarah Willie-LeBreton, author of Acting Black: College, Identity and the Performance of Race. "Indeed satire depends on stereotypes. Satire can be politically strategic, but its effectiveness depends on who is telling the joke, how they tell it, and whether the audience gets it.
"For the many viewers of the cover cartoon who do not read the New Yorker but who will take it in, does the drawing undermine the magazine's editorial position or strengthen it? If the subjects of the satire are completely outside of the frame of the drawing - one that depends on powerful stereotypes - will the cover actually succeed as satire? It's only satire if the audience gets the joke.
"This is a moment to slow down, read more, talk together and go deeper. Let's move our conversations beyond immediate reactions and towards the exchanges the cartoonist says he intended. Let's examine together the tangled roots of our fears, fears that show up in stereotypes about African Americans and Muslims, about immigration and the economy. Let's talk about how we process our anger and what strategies are open to us as a result of our troubled history and our contemporary choices. We might just learn something from each other. And that's no joke."