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Satire Ain't Pretty: Hubbub at The New Yorker

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Satire Ain’t Pretty: Hubbub at The New Yorker

When The Feminist Majority alerted me via email to the nature of the latest cover of The New Yorker, I was naturally inclined to add my voice to that organization’s protest. Before signing the attached petition, however, I looked at the cover for myself. I went back to the Feminist Majority website with the intent of adding my own message to the pre-set text included with the on-line petition. Here is the text I added:

"Dear Editors, 
I have absolutely no problem with your cover. My sisters in feminism do not speak for me on this one. The satire seemed perfectly obvious to me, the cover conveying the myths surrounding Sen Obama and his wife as totally ridiculous and insupportable.

It's a tough time to be a feminist these days and it's been a rugged campaign year. We're all hopeful and terrified at the same time, and, sadly, at times like these, satire often doesn't work.  That is, this election year, we aren't as keen on interrogating our own political sensitivities or laughing at ourselves when so much seems—rather, is—at stake."

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And here’s what happened:

When I hit "send," my text was instantly replaced with a pre-set message written by the folks at Feminist Majority expressing “outrage” over the “horrific” cover.

Now, I am a member of The Feminist Majority, NOW,; in other words, a card-carrying liberal feminist. So this smaller event with Fem Maj and the larger feminist-driven hubbub around this magazine cover give me great pause. First, I am disturbed by the web control over messages sent by Feminist Majority members in our own voices. (That just doesn’t strike me as terribly liberal.) Second, the official feminist response to The New Yorker cover seems  reactionary; and that is a bad thing for feminism.  

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NOW is also encouraging action, asking members to demand that The New Yorker pull its cover. The NOW Action Center argues that claiming the cover image is “satire” doesn’t “make it ok.”

In fact, it does make it ok.

Perhaps that is the rub here: satire can be tricky—both to create and to read.  Satire is essentially ironic; it says one thing but means another. And it is always political. So The New Yorker cover means precisely what it does not literally say: Obama is no terrorist, does not endanger the flag, his wife is no 60’s radical, “the bump” does not represent covert terrorist communication.

Satire allows writers to push boundaries of good taste, usually in service to passionate, sometimes angry, political arguments. (Seen The Colbert Report lately?) In his masterpiece of 18th century satire, “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift suggested feeding poor Irish children to the rich in order to control population and improve the economic well-being of the republic. His satire exposed the appalling conditions under which the poor were living and the outrageous indifference shown by the rich.

Likewise, this week The New Yorker—a magazine which is known for its intelligence, sophistication and humor and which has featured the likes of Roth, Salinger, Munro and Cheever—stages a mock endorsement of opinions that can only be described as moronic, simple-minded and humorless. Exposing those who share those opinions as the same. It’s not pretty; it’s satire.

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Kellie Bean has been a Professor of English at Marshall University, an Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, and most recently, Provost of a small New England College. Author of "Post-Backlash Feminism: Women and the Media Since Reagan/Bush" (McFarland (more...)

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