Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Satire: Appropriate For All Ages?

            From what I remember of the children’s books I read growing up (and it hasn’t been that long) is that the main characters are often idealistic representations of children: moral, proper, intelligent, and all-around “good kids.” With that in mind, I think what Diary of a Wimpy Kid loses in morality, it gains in realism: Greg Heffley is closer to Goofus than he is to Gallant, and this makes for a more recognizable and more humorous character. He doesn’t hesitate to point out the flaws in other people and even manipulates and exacerbates those shortcomings, even with his friend Rowley. Among other things, he launches a negative campaign against a rival student government candidate, watches Rowley struggle under the weight of his barbells and attempts to hit him with a football as he speeds down his hill on a small tricycle. I think the rest of you make a good point when you say this is pure superiority theory: whether we’re laughing with Greg for pulling one over on his friend or laughing at Greg for his naïve understanding of the world, there’s a little malice in the humor here.
            If anything, I think Greg is written in the recent tradition of cynicism towards the American nuclear family. If Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a reaction against overly moral childhood figures, it’s quite likely that the book’s humor has something to do with psychological relief or release. I’ve been going through old episodes of The Simpsons recently, and I can’t help but think that Greg Heffley is a spiritual successor to Bart Simpson. In a way, we rejoice in seeing our forbidden childhood temptations run amok. As mature adults, we’ve learned to cooperate with the forces that be and internalized them as the superego; Greg, on the other hand, is pure id. His childish whims and desires are instantly realized in the course of the book and it’s kind of exciting to someone living the life our parents would never let us live.

            I think this also brings up a debate that’s been going on in class for most of the semester—that is, whether or not humor can be transformative or socially instructive. I think we have the same expectations of children’s books as we do of satire: we want to have a little fun, but we also want to find some guidance. Although they’re “just books,” we expect to find a moral to it all. As adults, we can easily recognize that Greg is in a period of transition between naïveté and maturity. He makes mistakes and faces their social consequences. But when children’s literature is expected to be very explicit in its moral lesson—nothing short of stating outright that such-and-such is bad—is there something dangerous about a more “realistic” child character? What happens if children don’t see past all the nuances of the narrative to find the moral at the center? I guess we could ask the same of satire: Should the lesson be overtly obvious? Is it possible for a social concern to get lost in the art of humor itself?

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