Satire and Political (In)activity: Interview with Courtney E. Martin
Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher, and filmmaker specializing in cultural features, personal essays, profiles, and book reviews. Courtney has interviewed a wide range of feminists, social activists, and corporate leaders. Now it's her turn to be the interviewee, as Check Please! asks her to expand upon a piece she penned for the Baltimore Sun in January 2007. The article "After Laughter, Action", questions the political value of mainstream satirical media, arguing that while enjoyable, it doesn't prompt people into activism.
Check Please: Was the motivation behind the article something you've always felt, or have there been recent events or incidents that have caused you to think about this matter?
Courtney Martin: I've always felt motivated to address inequality and be a part of the political process, but the last five years have really changed the way I understood how those motivations get thwarted by real life (i.e. emotions, money, time).
After the 2004 election, most of the people I knew - the kind that watch The Daily Show and read sites like yours - got intensely disillusioned with their capacity to affect change and turned full force to laughing it off. I felt the same inclination, but after a while, I realized that it was getting masochistic. Are we just going to make fun of the president, or actually do something about his manipulation and short-sightedness?
CP!: Your article seems to reflect a general feeling of politically disenfranchised malaise - do you feel satirical entertainment is a symptom of this, or a cause?
CM: Both. It seems like the contemporary form of satirical political media sprung up as those of us who were raised to be "politically correct" came of age and realized how totally paralyzing and inauthentic, not to mention ineffective, a lot of that crap is.
I think people were just so hungry to create and watch something REAL. It's also no coincidence, in my opinion, that "fake news" grew along with the conspicuous spending of our electoral machine. It's a way to say something important and edgy without having the millions needed to influence an actual politician.
CP!: Is the onus on the satire creators or their readers/viewers/listeners to start real political action? And as online satire producers, what more do you believe we could do?
CM: Great question. I think the onus is on the individual to take responsibility for his or her life, to ask "What do I care about? Is the way I spend my time and intellect and energy and gifts in line with that caring?"
So whether it's a creator or a viewer, this is the "come to Jesus" talk that must be had. It would be great if online satire producers made more of an effort to link their copy with some serious recommendations for where readers can go if they want to take action after laughing. But it would be REALLY great if readers didn't have to be spoon-fed their activism and went out and did what they believed was necessary to make a better world.
CP!: Are there blogs/satire websites that you read regularly?
CM: I have to confess that I'm dreadfully serious most of the time. I read a lot of alternative media sites, like Alternet and American Prospect, blogs like feministing and brooklynvegan, and listen to radio podcasts like Democracy Now and stuff off of NPR. Now that I know about HumorFeed, I will check it out regularly in my continued effort to be less grave about every damn thing.
CP!: What projects are you currently working on?
CM: My book - Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normality of Hating Your Body - will be published in April by Free Press, Simon & Schuster (May in the UK, by Piatkus Press). I'm working on a new book about, surprise, surprise, political participation. And I'm always freelancing up a storm (just today working on an article about bisexuality for the Guardian, in fact) and teaching.
CP!: So no immediate plans for more satire media commentaries?
CM: No big plans for future satirical media rants right now, but I'll let you know.