The Oxymoronic Nature of Satire (aka, taking the piss)
“Only the rational can be foolish” (Gelven, 2000, p.1)
Whilst listening and viewing the musical track and its correlating music video Big Enough by Kirin J Callinan (2017) I reacted with laughter and confusion. I had to watch it a few times to understand what was going on because during the first run my brain was too distracted by the foolishness of the whole thing. I realised that like most satirical pieces of art, this was most obviously work that subscribes to postmodernism; “Postmodernists use a combination of style elements from the past … and apply them to spare modern forms, often with ironic effect” (Helicon Publishing, 1998, p. 170). Through various creative devices such as parody, irony, and satire, the music video destabilizes genre conventions apparent in western media. This destabilization serves as a critique of popular culture. To determine what specifically the artist is critiquing requires an analysis of the text, music, and film. However, since the use of satire is so apparent in the piece the “communication is indirect and takes the shape of an attack”, thus leaving a lot of the meaning-making up to the audience (Weisgerber, 1973, p. 157).
Leaving the interpretation up to the audience can have both advantages and limitations in terms of its service as critique. However, up to this point it may not have been the case that the music and its video was critiquing anything. This discussion so far has occurred as a result of my unique experience; as a student in the arts, a reader of philosophy, critical theory, but mainly fiction, someone who has watched one or two Clint Eastwood films, and so on. Although this experience may be similar to someone else's - especially someone who filters societal norms through popular culture in western society - it still stands that no one actually really knows what Big Enough is actually saying.
It is in our human nature to know or try to find the answer for anything and everything that challenges or confuses us. Some prefer to take the easy answer in order to fulfill that need while others make it their life's work. Think of those who get easily swayed by advertisements or opinion posts on Facebook, those who the sociologist and cultural theorist Baudrillard might say take “pleasure in being fooled” (Genosko, 2001, p. 72). Then there are those who search for truth to the extent that it requires vigorous discussions intertwined with politics, sociology, psychology, economics, etc; think critical theorists and philosophers such as Foucault (Rabinow, 2020), Plato (2012), and too many others to name.
Since meaning-making is an inevitable part of the human condition, the artist who uses satire must know that in doing so there can be advantages and limitations in how their message is construed. In order to demonstrate some of these advantages and limitations, I’m going to try and be as objective as I can in my analysis of a particular piece of satire used in the music video.
Through various mise-en-scene elements, there is a clear depiction of two cowboys in Big Enough. Through costume design, there is a clear reference to - as Pedestrian writer Fry (2017) points out - the protagonists of such films like The Man From Snowy River (1982), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), and just about any other cowboy/outlaw inspired Clint Eastwood film.
The cowboy trope is an integral element to the western film genre and was adapted from “celluloid” to ‘more “realistic”’ portrayals that “although adhering to certain traditions, manages all the same to offer a complex and diverse array of viewpoints” (Higgs & Lamar, 1999, p. xx). The various sub characteristics of different cowboy tropes only serve to offer the audience member a connection to their established definition of a cowboy; the stereotype that lives in their mind. This stereotype can have negative or positive connotations depending on the subjective experience of the individual. The mythology of the cowboy portrays gender roles that contradict with a lot of feminine literature as informed by hooks (2014) and many other feminist scholars. Western films project gender stereotypes as such;
“men should be rational, autonomous, and self-interested. The mythical contribution, then, in terms of sex, is how to interpret this idea of men in an explicit context of women. What the myth shows, of course, is that men should be dominant, aggressive, confident, and strong, while women should be dependent, subservient, weak, and passive. In particular, men should be competitive and self-interested while women should be compassionate and moral. Women, in effect, should be the opposite of rational men. Women should provide what a good society needs in addition to rational, competitive self-interest. They should provide, that is, a tempering context of morality, generosity, and support. Women are ‘naturally’ suited for love, emotion, and obedience, just as men are ‘naturally’ suited for dominance, aggression, and independence. In particular, women should not be competitive with men. Rather, they should provide a loving, supportive refuge for men, that is, the family” (Wright, 2001, p. 144).
If this myth has managed to secure its place in popular culture, what does this mean for Big Enough? It could be that the satire they use is to disrupt this narrative of the cowboy as a gender role so entrenched in hyper masculine and misogynistic tropes. This is further enhanced by the use of the reference of another popular film, Brokeback Mountain (2005). A movie that provoked “indignation at this film’s apparent sullying of both a cherished icon of masculinity and the myth of the American West as celebrated by the movies” from audiences (Cohan, 2012, p. 234).
Going in Circles or Getting Closer?
Every piece of new analysis I go through requires me to dig deeper and deeper to truly try and understand what is happening; what message is being put forward in Big Enough. Although it is just a piece of satirical art, this piece of postmodernism can offer so much as it “allows for a crossing of borders, a contamination of ideas, a “new conﬁguration” of politics” (Gabriel & Ilcan, 2014, p. 26). However, the implication of intertextual digging by the audience member can create a sense of frustration as in this same offering postmodernism has an “increasing inability to make tangible connections between the general conditions of life today and the practice of cultural analysis” (McRobbie, 1994, p. 12).
By trying to examine what Big Enough was trying to critique, I was able to discover that I’ll never actually know, and there is nothing wrong with that. This suggests that postmodernism and the artists who subscribe to it are not concerned with providing art that has a message or meaning, but with how audiences try to make meaning out of the various artistic devices used.
Callinan, K. J. (2017). Big Enough [song]. On Bravado. Terrible.
Callinan, K. J. (2017, August 17). Kirin J Callinan - Big Enough (Official Video) ft. Alex Cameron, Molly Lewis, Jimmy Barnes [video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvrZJ5C_Nwg
Cohan, S. (2012). ““The gay cowboy movie”: Queer masculinity on Brokeback Mountain”. In C. Gledhill (Ed.) Gender meets genre in postwar cinemas. University of Illinois Press.
Eastwood, C. (1976). The outlaw Josey Wales [Film]. The Malpaso Company.
Fry, Courtney. (2017, August 17). Oh Shit, Kirin J Callinan’s Got Jimmy Fkn Barnes In New Vid ‘Big Enough’. Pedestrian. https://www.pedestrian.tv/music/oh-shit-kirin-j-callinans-got-jimmy-fkn-barnes-in-new-vid-big-enough/
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