Combating Conventions with Laughter: The Contextual Development of Social Satire

“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” –Oscar Wilde

The contagious sensation of laughter has played an integral role in the social development, healing, and reconciliation of every nation that has ever suffered. Whether confronting race relations, war, politics, or poverty, social satire has blurred the lines between comedy and outrage and has proven its effectiveness through its presence in popular culture since the earliest writings were recorded. In understanding the overall development of modern world powers, specifically, it is necessary to consider the varying ways in which conflicts of interest and social injustice has been addressed. Although satirical ploys have been adjusted to accommodate the shifting cultural and social developments throughout history, specific criticisms of conventional lifestyles remain relevant due to the fixed nature of traditional values. This is evidenced in the varying manners through which marriage, gender roles, and superficiality are addressed in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and the 2009 hit comedy series, Modern Family.

Oscar Wilde critiques the fragile superficiality of marriage through both overt and indirect endorsements of divorce and infidelity. “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a play wildly regarded as Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, does not hesitate to frame the dialogue of main characters, Algernon and Jack, around the flawed institution of marriage and traditional relationship values. Within the first pages of Act I, Lane, Algernon’s manservant, metaphorically references the “superior quality” of wine often found in single homes as opposed to that of married couples and directly mocks the sanctity of marriage in the following excerpt:

“Lane: I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

Algernon: Good Heavens! Is marriage so demoralizing as that?

Lane: I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once” (1666).

 

Here, Lane explicitly implies that one marriage was not capable of providing him with enough experience, suggesting that is acceptable and expected to marry more than once as if the notion of a lasting marriage is impossible and should be disregarded. These sentiments are again expressed through Algernon’s defense of his imaginary friendship with a man in constant fictitious distress, Bunbury, on whom he blamed his frequent trips to and from the country:

Algernon: Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.

Jack: That is nonsense. If I marry a charming girl like Gwendolen, and she is the only girl I ever saw in my life that I would marry, I certainly won’t want to know Bunbury.

Algernon: Then your wife will. You don’t seem to realize, that in married life three is company and two is none (1672).

 

The social hierarchy involved in marriage partner selection, that is later ridiculed in the play, in conjunction with the social injustices against homosexuals in nineteenth century England provide a helpful context in understanding Algernon’s casual regard of infidelity. As explored in many literary works of British authors and poets, the approval from one’s family to marry another of a lower class was virtually impossible to obtain in this period. In addition to this highly selective, and often objective process, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 made homosexual acts punishable by up to two years of imprisonment, further discouraging citizens from pursuing relationships with whom they may have been truly attracted to. It is reasonable to presume that these constraints on love may have created a recognized space for justified unfaithfulness to one’s spouse, who under these circumstances was likely not to be a first choice candidate. While members of society could probably sympathize with Algernon in his defense of Bunbury, Oscar Wilde’s decision to only indirectly reference marital unfaithfulness, instead of in a straightforward manner, reveals the caution with which he wrote this play even within the relatively safe genres of comedy and satire. The ambivalent use of Bunbury as Algernon’s scapegoat indicates a level of self-censorship due to the hostile social climate that has fortunately receded over the last century.

Modern Family, a comedy television series first released in 2009, confronts some of the main questions surrounding marriage and gender relations that are present in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” In fact Modern Family, which dramatizes the lives of three strikingly different families that are interconnected, works to denounce the notion of the conventional heterosexual, single-race, male-dominated family as the most beneficial to society. The show does not critique the nature of traditional relationships like Oscar Wilde does. Modern Family, instead, displays a variety of lifestyles and allows viewers to independently determine the advantages and disadvantages of each. The show, recently named the “Best Comedy Show on Television” at the 2011 Emmy Awards, addresses the most current issues and dilemmas in American society, such as the legitimacy of gay marriage, interracial marriage, international adoption, and family culture. Due to the growing popularity and embracing of individualism amongst young people in the United States within recent years, Modern Family writers, Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, are willing and able to write the risqué and potentially offensive scenarios into the weekly script, rather than relying on moralizing messages and extended metaphors to convey their satiric take on the conventional standards of American culture.

The gradual departure from traditional family structure and ideals in the 21st century has enabled shows like Modern Family to freely capture and vividly recreate the life experiences of everyday people. Unlike “The Importance of Being Earnest,” the television series refrains from including blatant guided comments to critique societal norms. This method of showing as opposed to telling is displayed through a brief episode interaction between Claire, the flawed stay-at-home mom and Haley, the boy-crazed, low-grade earning teenage daughter of Claire and Phil Dunphy. In this scene from Season One episode, “Fifteen Percent”, Claire desperately approaches her daughter, whose intelligence she had been undermining throughout the entire episode, to ask her for a big favor, pleading, “I need you to teach me how to use the remote.” Haley responds, “Why can’t Dad teach you?” “Because we’re married,” Claire retorts. This dialogue is clearly significant to viewers after watching countless minutes of bickering and good-humored arguments between Claire and Phil. These types of scenes relay the message of the real reason Claire could not ask Phil for help, presenting the notion that typical married couples often times have difficulty working together. In comparison to the way that marriage is blatantly denounced in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” through lines such as “divorces are made in Heaven—,” Modern Family uses much more applicable scenarios to explore the different challenges of marriage through three significantly varied couples, rather than forcibly expressing their own personal views on traditional unions (1667).

While the most effective satiric tactics have developed along with society, the main issues of commitment and long-term compatibility within the construct of marriage have been addressed in a number of ways that are reflective of the relative social climate of the time. In analyzing the ways that social satire has been achieved and determining the effectiveness of each method, it is important to consider the context that inspired such responses from writers like Oscar Wilde, Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd. The forms and methods of societal influence through comedy have provided everyday people with an arena to laugh at their pain, or in many cases, the pain of others. Now that a large portion of people from all over the world has access to outlets, such as online blogs and social networking sites, to express their own opinions about whatever issues are on their mind, satirists and comedians are no longer confined to the polar extremes of extreme blatancy or complete ambiguity. Just as restrictions on featured literary and television content have been progressively lifted, the fast-growing international movements for social change have liberated both everyday citizens and satirists.

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