All posts by Teaghan Cowles

The Effectiveness of Social Satire During 1960’s America

The 1960’s were a consequential time period in American history. The Cold War was at its iciest with multiple occurrences of near catastrophe in world geopolitics, the U.S. was getting involved in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement was picking up momentum for change, and society was in the midst of a sexual revolution. The cinema of the time period reflected this growing tension and changing ideological shifts, a prime example of which is the so-called ‘satire boom’. During this decade an influx of satirical and black comedy films were produced (the most well-known being Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove). Popular culture is immensely important in shaping societal attitude and norms, and well as crafting a culture’s identity. Studying this specific genre of films gives an insight into exactly what was changing about American views in the 1960’s and pinpointing any stagnation.

While  many historians and critics like to focus on the implications of the political mockery of satirical films (especially their condemnation of American foreign policy), I’m more interested in the social critique authors imbued these films with. Humor that causes audiences to think critically towards themselves and their own lives is extremely powerful. Many of the satire films of the era took shots at outdated sexual morals, unfair social hierarchy, and race relations. However, while watching I noticed there was a lack of women and people of color being portrayed in these films and even if they were it was in minuscule roles. How can satire’s social mockery be as productive as the political mockery given the fact that so many voices are left out? To what extent does this kind of satire, even in its most progressive moments actually work as a system of silencing if steps were not taken to include diverse viewpoints? This is where I plan to direct my research of the 1960’s ‘satire boom’.

Mind Map

My mind map details the areas I need to address in my RBA. First of all, I need to acknowledge the current academic discussion. Then I want to go on to discussing the power and importance of social satire, followed by a brief discussion of central films. To determine the actual effect these movies might have had, I am going to look at critical reviews, polls, and box office demographics.

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Social Critiques in the 1960’s Political Satire Boom

I am researching the 1960’s  influx of American black comedy and satirical films which profoundly affected the entertainment medium as well as society itself.  Analyzing and mapping the influence such films had on the film industry and American culture is integral to understanding the full psychological and societal effects of Cold War rhetoric on citizens.

Humor has always offered an outlet for myriad emotions, however when artists express political frustration through humor their work usually evolves into a satirical work. Satire is a medium that allows artists to be critical of societal institutions while simultaneous expressing the feelings of anxiety, fear, and insecurity, in a humorous way. Most academic discussion around the so-called ‘satire boom’ of the 1960’s, revolves around the notion that the presence of these films reflected a changing popular opinion of capitalism and American foreign policy. Humor was mixed with comments on the fear and anxiety surrounding the ever-present threat of nuclear devastation to create some incredibly black comedies during this time period that reflected that growing shift in cultural attitudes. However, through the viewing of these films I’ve found that the more important target of their jokes is rather the social norms of the era.  In this way, satirical films caused the audiences of the 1960’s to not only look critically at the government, military, and nuclear politics, but to also turn that critical gaze upon themselves. My research focuses specifically on such critiques made by specifically on Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961), Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), and Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966).

 

Science Fiction’s Political Nature as Seen in “Star Trek”

In Sarantakes’ article, “Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series”, he mentions several allegories used by Star Trek creators to deliver political messages to audiences. One such allegory is the Federation’s “prime directive”. In the Star Trek universe this regulation is the cornerstone of the Federation’s policy when it comes to dealing with other cultures and essential states that Federation officials are to “avoid interfering in the natural development of less developed societies”. At its core the principle echoes a very real anti-colonial sentiment present in the critique of American foreign policy during the 1960’s counterculture era, that of Star Trek’s original airing. The continued use of the prime directive as a plot device in many episodes, including “Errand of Mercy” acts as representation of importance of understanding “the limits to power, even American power”.The prime directive reminded viewers that  even in the hands of the “good guys” needs, power to be kept in check else it be used for the wrong purposes.

 

Science fiction has the unique advantage of being set in the future, so that it can address the current social and political issues, under the veil that it is written about a futuristic/fictional world or society. For example, if a subject seems a little too controversial to be considered for the subject of another genre in media, simply placing it in a futuristic, speculative period separates it from the current era, at least enough that the material flies under the radar of censorship. Star Trek’s critique of imperialistic tendencies during the strict censorship of the Cold War era highlights this ability. Every time someone talks about the future, the conversation is inherently extremely political, as their personal ideology is representative of what they believe society should eventual progress towards. In this way the science fiction genre is always politically charged, and has been an avenue for many artists to remain controversial while avoiding censorship.

An Unimaginable Fear Proven Imaginable Once Again

Matthew Farish, in his paper, “Disaster and Decentralization: American Cities and the Cold War”, discusses the popular flight from cities to suburbs during the late 1940’s and early 1950’ s. An important point that he made was that “the postwar climate was responsible for ‘feeding, not breeding’ the landscapes of fear, violence and misogyny already present in noir progenitors such as prewar hardboiled fiction and tabloid street photography.” The paranoia of destruction and an attack on people’s ways of life were already in their minds before the mass migration to the suburbs. Influx of immigrants and minorities had already put many white families on the defense, and the advent of the nuclear threat gave them a tangible reason to flee the city. It was evident in the popular culture and entertainment of the time period that underlying fear of urban life had been brewing in some parts of the population for a long time.

As for the imagery of the Twin Towers after 9/11 and their mirrored affect to that of the imagery to Hiroshima, I think that the non-stop barrage of videos and photos of the terrorist attack would have had more effect on the populace than even Hiroshima’s destruction. The fact that 9/11 was on U.S. soil, with U.S. casualties brought forward an already present fear of urban danger. The imagery of Hiroshima had sparked that fear decades before, but the tangible destruction at home threw gasoline on the flame of American paranoia and suburb flight. While Hiroshima’s body count and destruction outweighs that of 9/11 enormously, the fact that paranoia and fear was proved valid had a deeper impact on American psyche.

The Power in Leaving the Specifics to the Audience

While reading Lugo’s Ch. 1: “G.W. Bush Administration Narratives of Threat and Containment” it was surprising to me how powerful the vaguer language of President Bush’s rhetoric was during the post-9/11 period.

Lugo quotes President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address in which he claims that the government will answer “every danger and every enemy that threatens the American people”. He’s not naming specifics but rather implying that the threats are abundant. The viewers and American public are left to their own preconceptions and stereotypes of dangerous individuals. For the overwhelming majority of people, dangerous activities and identities are ones fall outside the norm of their own personal experiences (e.g. different ethnicities and sexualities). Rather than coming off as intolerant for naming certain groups as immoral and worthy of hate (rhetoric like this occurred in other speeches however), the Bush Administration did nothing to stop the association of the Other with Evil.

Another example of this vague language is when President Bush comments on the AIDS epidemic, calling it a “plague of nature”. This allusion instantly evokes in the minds of Christian Americans the story of God’s wrath against the Egyptians in the Old Testament. He never outright calls the LGBT community sinful, but he did symbolically by linking the AIDS epidemic to a biblical punishment. The language preserved the illusion of a small amount of tolerance within the Bush Administration, but in reality heightened the public’s discrimination of the LGBT community.

The Terrifying Humor of “Dr. Strangelove”

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is a political satire film directed by Stanley Kubrick that revolves around an impending nuclear war. Although hilarious, because this film came out during the tumultuous Cold War era it was likely viewed as a horror movie by audiences. During 1964, the prospect of the the U.S. and U.S.S.R annihilating the planet was not ridiculous; it was a fear the world was learning to cope with on an everyday basis. Just two years prior to Dr. Strangelove’s release, humanity had watched as the two superpowers narrowly escaped mutual destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In Kubrick’s film, General Ripper orders a nuclear attack on a Soviet target and cuts off all contact with the B-52 bomber so that additional orders can’t stop his plot. The movie then switches settings from the cabin of the bomber, the “War Room” in which the U.S. President and advisors frantically search for a diplomatic solution, and an army base where Colonel Mandrake hurriedly tries to send new orders to the bomber. The titular Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist, acts as an advisor to the President and gleefully rejoices in the inevitable nuclear apocalypse.

While the film plays off widely held fears, Kubrick’s work systematically turns commonly used containment rhetoric on its head. The ideology of “us versus them” is broken down constantly as most interactions between American and Soviet leadership are congenial. A memorable example is when the President greets the Soviet Premier in a warm, friendly manner as “Dimitri” over the phone. For the majority of the film these two sworn enemies are working together towards a common goal, which was a radical way of portraying the U.S. and U.S.S.R.’s relationship to most viewers. 

Kubrick validates the American public’s fear; the world is truly teetering on the brink of war and one person can disrupt the balance. But he simultaneously displays that the person who could push humanity over the edge is not a foreign leader or a communist sleeper spy but rather an American, one that holds nearly the same values as those of the audience. Dr. Strangelove is a movie that never fails to make me laugh, and never fails to terrify me of the fragility of our world.

Check out the trailer here: