How Online Backlash To ‘The Boys’ Raises The Paradox Of Political Satire

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Season 3 of The Boys is back with a vengeance and it’s sending the subreddit into meltdown as fans discuss the latest episodes of the politically charged superhero show.

The latest season of Prime’s violently satirical take on the superhero genre has wreaked havoc online as fans clash over how ‘political’ the show is. And just like Fight Club’s hyper-masculine poster boy Tyler Durden and Stephen Colbert’s persona on The Colbert Report, political satire can create an interesting cross-section of fans.

What Happened With The New Season?

Ever since the show kicked off in 2019 it’s been praised for its sharp satirical take on what superheroes would look like in modern-day America. And no… it’s not like the Avengers. Characters are deeply flawed and the show is full of moments of moral and political corruption.

The show is inherently political, which is one of the reasons the discussion forum descended into chaos as moderators tried to steer the conversation away from the ‘politics’ despite it being the kind of show it is.

Some fans were “upset that the show is suddenly political” because it criticises certain political issues while others voiced their surprise that anyone could watch the show without clocking the political satire, which raises some interesting points about what the purpose of political satire is.

Why Political Satire Can Be A Double Edged Sword

Satire is “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices.”

Oregon State University says that political satire needs to punch up meaning taking aim at “a target that is larger or more powerful than the author” otherwise it can feel like bullying.

It also depends on the audience recognising it as satire because there’s a risk of some audiences not reading it like that which is also the topic of Malcom Gladwell’s podcast episode The Satire Paradox.

He used the example of Steven Colbert’s persona on The Colbert Report, which ran from 2005 to 2014. Gladwell spoke with communications researcher Heather LaMarre who noticed that her friends would praise the show for how funny it was but in completely opposite ways.

See Colbert’s character is described by the show as a “caricature of conservative political pundits often seen on TV” and “centres around his essential rightness about the issues of the day”. LaMarre’s liberal or left-leaning friends would see this as poking fun at his own exaggerated persona of right-wing journalism. But her friends who were politically conservative would think it was hilarious how Colbert poked fun at Liberal guests and ideas.

What Colbert created was a character that appealed to both ends of the political spectrum but how can this be purposeful political satire?

Is Political Satire Good Or Bad?

The intention of satire is to expose or criticise a certain way of thinking, but it can be interpreted as support instead. This means it’s actually doing the opposite of what it’s set out to do.

Another example of this paradox is Fight Club as this movie was meant to criticise consumerism and the emptiness of the American Dream through the character Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt. Instead Durden was embraced by a radical male audience who felt that today’s men were being held back from their violent, aggressive nature. It actually inspired real life fight clubs.

Gladwell’s argument does have its critics with some pointing out that satire while it can be misinterpreted also helps transform complex arguments into short sharp ideas or memes that can spread more easily.

Humour is a big part of it too and Gladwell discusses the role of humour in satire and how it can distract audiences from the issues at hand. Real satire he said needs to land a massive blow under a comic pretence rather than just being funny.

Either way political satire is clearly a useful way to talk about big things. Even if it is occasionally misinterpreted at least we’re talking about it.