A Candid Look at Why Satire Is so Important in 2018 America
It used to be that, when deep social thinkers wanted to send a message to the masses (including subtle ones to the elite), they’d turn to satire. That was when satire was used as a tool to mimic and mock reality. But what happens when reality pushes the boundaries of satire? What happens when socially-conscious individuals strongly believe that societal change is taking a turn for the worse, and they can’t remain silent anymore? Well, Sean Penn’s debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, which is a satirical glimpse into contemporary America, is what happens in that situation!
Satire Versus Real-life
When George Orwell wrote his famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), he did so nearly 35 years prior to that year in 1949. The chief protagonist of the futurist novel 1984, Winston Smith, defied the stereotype version of a model citizen, and lit a trail of individuality and free thinking that runs him afoul of “Big Brother”. Many of Orwell’s contemporaries were perplexed about the story line and plot of 1984. Some even took everything written to be a prediction of reality to come. However, Orwell insisted that he was writing satire, not musing on real life:
“I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will necessarily arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive.”
Little did Orwell realize that the kind of society he wrote about (“Big Brother is Watching You!”) would soon become reality. Real life would imitate Orwellian satire!
Some writers use satire as a way to ride a populist trend in society and get noticed. But with Penn, similar to George Orwell (who already was famous by the time he wrote 1984), that really wasn’t necessary. The Oscar-winning actor-turned-author has more than his share of fame and recognition. His self-proclaimed desire for writing Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff was to give Americans a reality check that only satire can deliver.
In June 2016, something happened that took the world by total surprise. People in Britain woke up to the cultural shock of an impending Brexit! Something like this is the stuff that fictional horror stories are based upon, right? It can’t happen in reality? But it did for British citizens, and again, on November 8th, 2016, when American’s woke to the reality of a Donald Trump presidency. For many, who believed that such a moment would never happen, that was quite a cultural shock too!
Take, for instance, a passage in Bob Honey Who Do Stuff where the protagonist pens a letter to “The Landlord” (the Trumpian character heading the U.S. government) saying: “We are a nation in need of an assassin!” …suggesting what exactly? Is this mention a subtle message to someone, that a similar “intervention” is required in today’s America? Well, not according to Penn, who categorically says:
“…if anybody believes by reading this that I am advocating for something like that, then they are really not getting that right. This is satire.”
Now, juxtapose this to the reality of Kathy Griffin, and the not-so-subtle message she appeared to send. Anyone who is familiar with either the comedian, Griffin, or the actor, Penn, knows that they aren’t individuals prone to making such literal or violent appeals for change. However, because of the general sense of insecurity prevalent in society today, they use satire and comedy to drive a message of change.
So, is Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff really a piece of satirical fiction that is critical of the current occupant of the Whitehouse? Is Penn trying to show, through the frustration and anger that Bob Honey feels, that the country is lacking leadership? Perhaps not! In the author’s own words:
“It isn’t about leadership. It’s about the culture in the country”
What Penn’s Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is doing is, through a satirical lens, looking at the absurdities (as he sees it) that are prevalent in the 2018 social and cultural landscape and encouraging readers to think for themselves and really take a close look at how irrational things have become.
We have a perfect example of this real-life-meets-satire moment in Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, towards the end of the novel. Penn writes a poem that seems to reflect his views (as espoused through Bob’s eyes) about the #MeToo movement:
“Is this a toddler’s crusade?
Reducing rape, slut-shaming, and suffrage to reckless child’s play?
A platform for accusation impunity?
Due process has lost its sheen?”
The poem at the end of Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff appears to wade right into one of the more contentious social issues of 2018. Readers may think that protagonist Bob feels #MeToo is over-hyped and that society is endorsing a “jump on the bandwagon” scenario. The author (through satirical glasses) likens this social movement to a 3-year old’s response to the fact that his brother got a new toy. The youngster makes his feelings known, that he too wants one, by saying “Me too, me too!”
Of course, Penn received some serious backlash from #MeToo organizers. But what Penn was really trying to get across, through his satirical verse, is that individuals have a right to question and challenge everything that today’s society has to offer. In his own words:
“Skepticism is more necessary and valuable than any blind belief anybody has about anything.”
An Environment for Change
Penn also uses satire in Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff to draw attention to yet another 2018 hot-button issue – climate change and the environment. The current administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement left the US socially and culturally at odds within and outside the country. Ironically, when Penn’s chief protagonist Bob is killing elderly Americans, it is (ostensibly) to reduce their carbon footprint and help preserve the environment.
The need for change in 2018, in media relations and race relations (such as between citizens and law enforcement), is also covered here. So much of what’s happening in the police-versus-citizens domain is satirical, that it is hard to write about it in satirical terms. Life is outdoing satire again!
Following a shooting of Dallas police officers in the book, Bob is ever more convinced that the state of racial tensions (between police and public) lead to the shootings. Clearly, like many Americans, Bob is frustrated at what society has become – but he blames the media for stirring emotions that lead to the killings.
Penn doesn’t shy away from taking a satirical shot at another cultural pressure point for America in recent years – #BlackLives Matter. However, like a typical satirist, the character of Bob Honey speaks of “Yellow Lives Matter” – but the reference shouldn’t be lost on anyone reading the novel. Yet the divisive nature of this issue is exactly what Bob Honey is trying to expose to the masses:
“I believe every black person can have a point of view on a white person that is legitimate to express. Every man who has a point of view on women’s issues, it is legitimate to express, and vice versa.”
In 2018, freely expressing such sentiments would receive great pushback from some segments of our society. Yet, if we wish to grow as a society, there needs to be an environment of change. Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff’s real-life-meets-satire approach is able to facilitate that change by having Bob Honey express his opinion and get away with just a few bruises (or a black-eye from critics!).
A Modern-Day Crisis of Identity
2018 America is facing an identity crisis, with social and cultural priorities in strong disagreement with each other. It is in this backdrop of contemporary America that Penn uses his satire to highlight the challenges that ordinary people face. And he does it using the persona of Bob, someone who possesses:
“…an ultraviolent skepticism toward the messaging and mediocrity of modern times.”
To the reader, it’s a bit of a puzzle to peg who exactly Bob Honey is: a successful septic tank salesman, contract assassin, or a delusional character “…who just do stuff.” It doesn’t take too much imagination to hyper-impose Bob’s character onto the identity crisis that 2018’s America is facing.
When art mimics life, people tend to take things in their stride. When life mimics what might otherwise only be seen in art, we fail to identify it and feel insecure. How can this happen? What should we do about it? Well, in Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, Penn addresses the apprehensions that people have about what’s going on in society today. The author writes that these anxieties are turning into:
“…an insatiable hunger bent on having one’s own insecurity empowered.”
It’s difficult to write a parody based on a situation that itself is a parody. Traditional satirical commentators, like Stephen Colbert for instance, would have lots of material to work with – because the politicians never revealed their “true” selves. So, when you say one thing but meant another, that’s fodder for satire. Other reviews haven’t been as positive, interpreting Penn’s satire as offensive material or criticizing his rambling style. Penn responded saying his worst reviews have given him the best laughs.
Now, with the current White House tenant unbridled in every sense of the word – speaking his mind and acting out regardless of political correctness – it leaves little room for satire. Reality is stranger than fiction and it takes a different kind of satirical writing to make the masses understand that.
In many ways, that’s exactly what this novel does. Sean Penn has created a social commentary that holds a mirror to contemporary American culture and then shows us that what is happening isn’t life, but something that’s mimicking satire. Social commentary is grounded in the ability to see and recognize the absurdity of one’s cultural counterparts and that’s why Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is an important piece of literature to contemplate in 2018.
Find the book through Simon & Schuster.