Do you have a most-reviled TV show, one that makes you feel nauseous? Is it a sitcom, a factual programme, a game show? Last week, Paris-Michael Katherine Jackson tweeted that the trailer for the upcoming Sky Arts comedy Urban Myths made her ‘want to vomit’. The series involves a number of tongue-in-cheek retellings of stories linked to historical and cultural figures (which producers say ‘may or may not have happened in real life’) and was initially slated to include an episode called ‘Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon’, starring the white British actor Joseph Fiennes as Jackson’s father, Michael Jackson. In addition to sharing the emetic effects that the trailer had on her, Jackson tweeted that the ‘shameful portrayal’ of her father and that of her godmother, Elizabeth Taylor, left her feeling ‘incredibly offended’. Two days later, Sky Arts ruefully announced the cancellation of the episode ‘in light of the concerns expressed by Michael Jackson's immediate family’, adding: ‘We set out to take a light-hearted look at reportedly true events & never intended to cause any offence.’ Jackson’s tweet had done its job.
The week before, the BBC’s topical satire show Revolting also came under attack. Fairly unanimously, the Twittersphere deemed the programme offensive to Muslims because of a sketch called ‘The Real Housewives of ISIS’, in which ISIS brides post selfies on Instagram showing off the latest suicide vests bought for them by their husbands. The BBC, an institution that has shown a relish for self-satire with programmes including the hit series W1A, a fly-on the wall mockumentary about the Corporation’s feckless ‘Head of Values’, declined to comment about the controversy and aired the show as planned on 3 January. British Asian Muslim comedian Shazia Mirza denied the sketch’s purported offensiveness, saying: ‘The right-wing press might be offended, and maybe the left-wing liberals, but Muslims aren’t offended – it’s like they want us to be offended but we aren’t. We’re OK, thanks.’
In both cases, the comedies bear a close relation to real events – too close for some people to bear. Like all satire, they thrive in that grey area between fact and fiction, their conceits simultaneously believable and unbelievable. In the case of Urban Myths, the casting of Fiennes as Jackson in a comic rather than a realistic role could be seen to highlight popular ignorance about Jackson’s life and his vitiligo, or to needle at the failure to distinguish between race and skin colour. But to point out these problems isn’t to condone them. Rather, Urban Myths is exposing them as part of a corrupt system in which racism thrives, people are judged by their skin colour, and celebrities are subjected to inordinate pressures over their appearance.
Sometimes, the nuances of satire are too refined to register as funny; at other times it can be so grotesque that it is perceived as cruel or bigoted – for example, the crude caricatures that target all faiths, races and genders in the pages of French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo. But at its best, satire can provoke a flash of recognition of power imbalances and injustices, and nowadays, as the real increasingly grows to resemble the unreal, we need these flashes more than ever.
In order to be effective, satire has to inhabit the territory it seeks to expose. One of the most preposterous examples of cross-racial casting is that of Robert Downey Jr. in the 2008 film Tropic Thunder. Downey Jr. plays the Australian actor Kirk Lazarus who, when he is cast in the story as the African American Sergeant Lincoln Osiris, undergoes cosmetic surgery to ‘be black’ for the role. The satire is powerful because it hands-off the gross hot potato of blacking up from its production to its storyline, acknowledging its indefensibility in the process.
Whitewashing in TV and cinema is deeply problematic; it is the practice of an industry that is profoundly racist – as well as sexist and classist. One can easily condemn this, and through applauding the ‘non-traditional casting’ of ethnic minorities in roles for which race is not germane, one can be part of a positive response. Yet while these are complex questions that deserve careful consideration and transparency, they form a separate discussion to that which involves the right to free expression, a right that also pertains to satire – no matter how offensive it might be.
In liberal Western democracies, this right is generally upheld, although it is increasingly coming under threat, not least from a slew of Donald Trump-style tweets expressing outrage, indignation and threats, and a newfound lack of resilience on the part of those media companies that cave in to public pressure. But there is no such thing as the right to be offended, a sentiment expressed by various commentators on the issue, including the philosopher Baroness Onora O’Neill, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Feeling offended by something does not give the offended party the right to eliminate that thing or to have it eliminated on their behalf. (Although it’s fun to imagine that such a right might exist. It could be the subject of a legal-themed satire in which people’s right to be offended is defended in a court of law. We could call it: ‘A TOTAL LEGAL WITCH HUNT!’)
Trump is a star who clawed his way out of your TV set and into the highest office in America – his inauguration on Friday will make him one of the most powerful people in the world. Like satire, Trump thrives in the fertile territory between entertainment and real life. But, like those who would censor the satire they find displeasing, Trump is highly disposed to being offended. He honed his bossy performance over 14 seasons of the TV game show The Apprentice, doling out abuse in order to humiliate and terrorize aspiring entrepreneurs. Now, he unleashes his bad temper on the real world, turning the global population into captive contestants in a risky game of chance. What can we expect from a TV-trained Commander-in-Chief? In a recent interview, producer Tom Forman described the strategies used by the reality TV format, which include ‘a surprise and a twist at the end’, the manipulation of viewers to keep them ‘guessing until the very end’, and plenty of ‘leads and misleads.’
On a recent episode of the BBC radio comedy The News Quiz, comedian Angela Barnes complained that it was no fun to make jokes about Trump because ‘he’s done all the jokes himself’. But there’s a more urgent reason why he can’t be satirized: because Trump takes all criticism personally and rabidly turns on those who make fun of or criticize him. He regularly lashes out at the popular TV show, Saturday Night Live, which features Alec Baldwin in a running parody of Trump. His hit list has also featured the names of Hillary Clinton and her supporters, the cast of Hamilton: An American Musical, individual journalists and whole media organizations such as The New York Times, CNN and Buzzfeed. During the election campaign, these complaints were used as pretexts for violent attacks by his own security staff and campaigners against Clinton supporters. By targeting the press and broadcast media, Trump has shown his disdain for independent expression and the right to free speech. How long before censure becomes censorship? Unless we openly defend people’s right to say things we don’t like, to make TV shows we detest and to create art we find repulsive – and demand the same of those in positions of power – we will be handing over one of our essential freedoms to those who would rather hoard that freedom for themselves. At that point we will find ourselves unwittingly playing Trump’s game – a losing game.