I was very disappointed yesterday to see one of my all time favorite journalists Tweet an incredibly ageist viral video:
This pretty hilariousscreen.yahoo.com/sketchy-forwar…
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) February 14, 2013
The video is a brilliant parody on many levels and if you share Josh Marshall’s political persuasion (he’s the founder of the ferociously liberal and independent news site www.TalkingPointsMemo.com) you’ll find it scathingly funny. If you’re not particularly liberal, or if like us you’re sensitive to ageism, you’ll find it pretty damn offensive.
Parodies like this make us laugh for the same reason that stereotypes in general are so hard to eliminate — they’re based on an underlying truth. We all know someone like Betty or we’ve read about them in the news (just Google “official fired over racist email forward“).
Now, I’m not categorically opposed to making fun of old people — I abhor a sacred cow. I love humor, I love parody and in particular I love satire. Humor can be a powerful tool for cultural criticism and change. But there is a difference between biting satire and offensive parody.
The purpose of satire is to use critical humor to advocate political or moral change in society. Satirists from Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain to John Stewart have brilliantly used humor and exaggeration to point out the faults in our society.
Parody, on the other hand, is comedy for the sake of comedy — the only point is to make people laugh. Saturday Night Live is a parody — there is no agenda other than to make people laugh (if you disagree I’d argue making people laugh supersedes any other perceived agenda).
In both cases, humor can have powerful positive and negative consequences. Just as humor can point out our faults, it can be used to reinforce and legitimize them.
The irony in this video is that it contains both political satire and offensive parody. It uses satire to critique widespread racism in our society (again, see the Google search for evidence of this) but it pairs it with an extremely offensive and inaccurate parody of old people.
I’m not going to analyze the video for its inaccurate stereotypes, because duh, it’s a joke and I get that. I’d being lying if I said I didn’t LMAO.
What matters is that ageism is a very real and damaging problem in our culture. Older people are discriminated against, exploited, abused and neglected on a scale that dwarfs almost any other group. And humor that mocks old people and perpetuates negative stereotypes purely for the sake of a laugh has the effect of legitimizing and normalizing ageist behavior and discrimination.
I’m not advocating censorship, but it would have been so much more helpful if someone as powerful and influential as Josh Marshall could have called out the makers of this video rather than praised them.
What do you think?