Writing

What Is Satire? How to Use Satire in Literature, Pop Culture, and Politics—Plus Tips on Using Satire in Writing

Written by MasterClass

Apr 26, 2019 • 5 min read

Satire is so prevalent in pop culture that most of us are already very familiar with it, even if we don’t always realize it. Satire can be part of any work of culture, art or entertainment. It is an often-humorous way of poking fun at the powers that be. Sometimes, it is created with the goal to drive social change. Satire has a long history and it is as relevant today as it was in ancient Rome.

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What Is Satire?

Satire is both a genre and a literary device that holds human nature up to criticism and scorn. It is often political in focus but does not have to be. In literature, writers use irony, humor, and exaggeration to create successful satire.

What Are the Origins of Satire?

The word satire traces back to the Latin word “satur,” meaning “well-fed,” and was used in the phrase “lanx satura,” meaning “a dish full of many kinds of fruit.” Though these words seem far removed from the definition of satire, they were used by ancient Roman critics and writers to refer to what we know as satire today, including what is commonly considered the literary origin of satire: Aristophanes’s Old Comedy. The word “satire” made its way into the English language in the sixteenth century.

In 411 BC, the ancient Greek poet Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata. In this satirical comedy, the protagonist Lysistrata convinces women to withhold sex from men in an effort to convince them to end the Peloponnesian War. In writing this wildly popular comedy, which is still read and studied in schools, Aristophanes was satirizing the Peloponnesian War and also poking fun at the differences between men and women. The story of Lysistrata has been retold and reinterpreted countless times over the years, recently in the 2015 Spike Lee movie Chi-Raq, set in contemporary Chicago.

What Is Satire in Literature?

Satire in literature is a type of social commentary. Writers use exaggeration, irony, and other devices to poke fun of a particular leader, a social custom or tradition, or any other prevalent social figure or practice that they want to comment on and call into question.

Contemporary writers have used satire to comment on everything from capitalism (like Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, which uses extreme exaggerations of consumption, concern with social status, and masculine anger and violence to skewer American capitalism) to race (Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, for example, features a young black male protagonist in Southern California who ends up before the Supreme Court for trying to reinstate slavery).

What Are the 3 Different Types of Satire?

Satire remains a powerful tool in contemporary culture. Film and television, in particular, have been important vehicles for satire over the past several decades. There are three main types of satire, each serving a different role.

Horatian. Horatian satire is comic and offers light social commentary. It is meant to poke fun at a person or situation in an entertaining way.

  • Gulliver’s Travels, written in the eighteenth century by Jonathan Swift, is an example of Horatian satire in literature. The work is a spoof of the kind of travelogues that were common at that time. Through his invented narrator, Gulliver, Swift takes aim at travel writers, the English government, and human nature itself.
  • Late-night television show The Colbert Report, in which Stephen Colbert inhabited the character of a conservative pundit for many years, offers a funny but deep satire of American politics.
  • The Onion is a popular satirical online news site that embodies Horatian satire.

Juvenalian. Juvenalian satire is dark, rather than comedic. It is meant to speak truth to power.

  • George Orwell’s famous 1945 novel Animal Farm is a good example of Juvenalian satire. The novel’s intended target is communism and Stalin-era Soviet Union. Animal Farm is also an allegorical satire: it can be read as a simple tale of farm animals, but it has a deeper political meaning.
  • A modern-day example is the television show South Park, which juxtaposes biting satire with juvenile humor. The show has tackled all sorts of hot-button targets, including abortion, the Pope, Hollywood, and criminal justice.

Menippean. Menippean satire casts moral judgment on a particular belief, such as homophobia or racism. It can be comic and light, much like Horatian satire—although it can also be as stinging as Juvenalian satire.

  • Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the best examples of Menippean satire in literature is. The novel pokes fun at upper-class intellectualism but does it with a distinct sense of humor. The ridicule is there, but it is good-natured in spirit.
  • A modern-day example is Saturday Night Live, which has carried a long tradition of poking fun at elected officials ever since Chevy Chase’s 1975 impersonation of Gerald Ford.

Examples of Satire in Politics

Political cartoons have been a major vehicle for satire ever since they originated in eighteenth-century England. Today, political satire continues to be relevant in different forms.

  • Political cartoons. These can appear both in print and online. A common structure for a political cartoon is to have one large panel, with a drawing that over-exaggerates the physical features of an elected official, or any newsworthy figure and depicts a situation that makes a cutting comment about the political players of the day.
  • Political stunts. Some comedians have gone above and beyond satirical jokes on TV to enact more elaborate stunts as acts of political satire. In his 2018 television show Who Is America? comedian Sacha Baron Cohen disguised himself while interviewing several political figures with the aim of catching politicians off-guard in moments of silliness and hypocrisy.

Tips for Using Satire

When choosing a topic to satirize, start by looking at recent political events, and think of news stories that have garnered a lot of attention and debate. Decide where you stand: make sure you have a strong opinion about the issue you want to satirize. Satirical writing needs to come from a very clear point of view so that you can make a case to your audience.

When you’re ready to write, try and use some of the following techniques to create a good piece of satirical writing:

  • Irony. Irony is a critical tool in satire because it highlights the distance between the way people talk about a situation and the reality of the situation. For example, use words that say the opposite of what you mean. Learn more about irony in our complete guide here.
  • Hyperbole. Similarly, over-exaggerating one feature or characteristic of your satirical target can draw readers’ attention to what you want to convey.
  • Understatement. Pick one aspect of your subject to understate for comic effect—a social dynamic, characteristic, or political situation.
  • Allegory. An allegory is a story that can be read in two ways: with a literal meaning on the surface, and a hidden meaning underneath that comments on a political or social situation. Learn more about allegory in our complete guide here.