International relations and popular culture
As an academic discipline, International Relations (IR) operates with a very constricted notion of what defines politics, what politics should be, who political actors are, and where politics takes place. It is generally consigned to formal institutions, constituted of governments and the relations among them, and other organizational structures such as non-governmental organizations and multi-national corporations. Culture, on the other hand, is conceptualized as ´low´ politics, domestic politics, or unrelated to politics altogether within mainstream IR theories.
Popular culture is regarded with suspicion, as a site of the unknown. Blogger Kyle Grayson compares today’s IR theories’ treatment of popular culture to that of early anthropologists – as the site of “primitivism, mystification, and irrationalism while being drawn to its political utility as a means of marking difference”. This conflicted relationship between politics and popular culture, therefore, begs further research and observation. This article explores the power of satire in popular media and its impact on politics.
Politics goes popular
Although many scholars in the IR field dismiss core minimize the role of popular culture, it is increasingly evident that a sophisticated understanding of the role of popular culture in international relations is not only necessary but also vital. To recognize how popular culture affects international affairs is to understand how it contributes to the creation of meaning and how this meaning translates to world politics. To investigate the common imaginaries and sites of popular culture means to uncover how it reflects as well as constructs national interests, recreates ideas of belonging forming the binary opposition between ´us´ and ´them´, and finally, how world events are interpreted and translated by cultural agents to create popular understanding. In this way, film, comic books, video games, social media networks, music, and other forms of popular culture must be treated as data. To ignore this rich tapestry of information is not only intellectually irresponsible – it is dangerous.
To illustrate, one needs only to look at the 2015 shooting of Charlie Hebdo committed by Saïd and Chérif Kouachi. The French-born brothers sought revenge for satirical cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Across social media platforms, declarations of ‘I am Charlie’ not only depicted international solidarity, it reminded us of the influence and indeed the power of popular culture in a world no longer bound by national borders. It reminded us that there is a deterritorialized global media milieu where any artifact can spread quickly from one part of the world to another, provoking unpredictable results. The Twitter hashtag #jesuischarlie spread around the world, exemplifying the relationship between international relations and global media, and the influence of popular culture.
The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, depicting the Prophet Muhammad, became politicized because of how they contributed to the construction of the political and popular image of Muslims. Constructed by non-Muslim Europeans, it had all the marks of classic racialization. Specifically, it essentializes an entire group of people, based on a primordial identity marker, as well as classified this group as inferior and as ethnic-racial outsiders in Europe. In other words, the cartoons contained negative imagery and by doing that, they evoked negative sentiments about the role of Muslims in Europe and their integration. Thus, while satirizing clericalism and religious fundamentalism might be emancipatory, vilifying the marginal while exhorting integration is a contradiction and challenge for international affairs.
The Charlie Hebdo attack was tragic and unconscionable, but it also demonstrates the power of satire. The attack directly illustrates that ignoring the effects of popular culture may result in harsh consequences, hatred, and international conflicts. Therefore, it is important to realize the power of cultural representation, its political and social implications as well as the state of affairs in which such representation is formed and circulated.
Bojack Horseman: The reflection of world politics
Politics and pop culture have long been intertwined; but for any lingering skeptics, it is becoming even more evident in the era of Trump. To cite a senior editor of Digiday UK, Lucia Moses, “publications of all editorial stripes are capitalizing on audiences’ interest, deploying more staffers to capitalize on readers’ interest in the Trump election and its aftermath”. For illustration, as the world begins to see the limits of Trump impersonation-based comedy, there’s a growing hunger for fresh political satire. The fourth season of Netflix’s animated anthropomorphic sitcom, BoJack Horseman, turns out to be an unlikely source for it. To those who are unfamiliar, the show follows the life of a half-horse-half-man washed-up actor. The cornerstone themes of the first three seasons are mental health, the protagonist’s addiction and self-sabotage, and the banality of Hollywood. However, in the fourth season, a second storyline adds another layer: the political campaign of the cheerful optimist and celebrity Mr. Peanutbutter. Without pointing a finger too directly, the gubernatorial race ridicules the trend of ´celebrity politicians´.
Bojack Horseman uses its election arc to offer commentary on the real world politics. In the 2016 analogy, Mr. Peanutbutter’s opponent – Woodchuck Woodchuck-Berkowitz – becomes a stand-in for Hillary Clinton. Woodchuck is a level-headed, competent and established politician who struggles to compete with Mr. Peanutbutter’s celebrity charm and ability to capture audiences. Hence, the show presents how one´s charisma can overpower intelligence and experience. However, whilst it pokes fun at ´celebrity politicians´ who lack previous experience with governing and solid political knowledge, it also uncovers the behind-the-scenes machinations of candidacy through introducing the character of Katrina. In one of the scenes, the ex-wife of Mr. Peanutbutter pronounces: “[This election] is about hope and freedom, and powerful lobbyists who pay me to elect a governor I can control so that we can get legislation passed that builds private prisons on what we now call protected wetlands.” Thus, the show presents the view that shady favors can be slipped into a bill with help of institutions and business corporations that assist in moving ´chess pieces across the board´.
Although the writers’ poignant statements may not overhaul the current downward trend in the political system, it will be a relatable and comedic comfort to viewers. The show proves, contrary to actor Jason Isaacs´ belief, that satire is a useful tool to address the global political climate. Whilst Isaacs maintains the view that satire is purely political comedy and has nothing to do with real action and change, Bojack Horseman disputes this argument. Satirical cartoons like this, because they are animated, can express views and make controversial statements that a show played by real actors could never get away with. These shows are built on the principle that when the audience is exposed to humor, they become more apt to accept the content. This gives the writers of these shows a “rule-breaking” edge and opportunity to expose their audience to debatable subject matter, such as gay rights, racism, gun control, feminism, and religion. Moreover, following the argument of two scholars,
Marijke Meijer Drees and Sonja de Leeuw, these satirical programs are able to change the opinions and mindsets of their viewers. By being desensitized to shows´ humor and by being exposed to certain ideas and ideologies, the audience tends to slowly shift its views. In other words, animated satires are one of the most effective methods of articulating opinion, and it is because of this genre of animation that they are able to do so successfully.
To conclude, to underestimate the power of satire is to underestimate the power of popular culture as a whole, and as demonstrated through the Charlie Hebdo case, this can be dangerous. Satire, therefore, is not merely a tool that makes people laugh. More attention should be paid to satirical messages and how they are understood by the public. In this understanding, popular culture should be looked at holistically and as a complex tapestry, not dismissed as irrelevant or in passive opposition to real-world affairs.
School of Gender Studies and Law
University of London