In Australian public discourse, there’s an increasingly fuzzy edge between the offensive episodes we allow in the name of free speech, and those we condemn as socially corrosive. It’s in this "edgy" territory that taboo ideas such as racism, misogyny and child abuse are freely expressible and can seem casual and even tame.
Offensive smart-arses have been about for many years — the career of Sam Newman attests to that — but this year seems more outrage-filled than usual. Perhaps we’ll look back on 2009 as a watershed year for edginess.
In June, The Chaser‘s "Make A Realistic Wish Foundation" sketch angered many when it lampooned children’s cancer charities.
Also failing to "think of the children" this year was clothing chain Cotton On, which in August was castigated for selling a T-shirt for babies that alluded to child abuse with the slogan "They shake me".
An abused child, too, was at the centre of Kyle Sandilands’ disgrace when, in July, the radio host’s response to learning a 14-year-old girl had been raped at age 12 was "Right … is that the only experience you’ve had?" Sandilands was barely back from the sin bin when he quipped that comedian Magda Szubanski, the public face of a weight-loss company, could lose even more weight in a concentration camp.
Proving she could give as well as she got, Szubanski used a Good News Week appearance to rail against Lycra-clad cyclists. She and fellow comedian Julia Morris suggested motorists should "just take them out … open the [car]door!"
And just a week after a contrite Szubanski vowed to don Lycra for National Ride To Work Day, Hey Hey It’s Saturday hit the headlines for that blackface skit. John Safran also waded into the murky debates surrounding blackface in his ABC TV series Race Relations — that is, when he wasn’t sniffing women’s underwear and pashing his ex-girlfriends’ mums.
Edginess tends to come in two guises: populism and in-joke. In their populist guise, edgy episodes like to call bullshit on "political correctness". This kind of edginess is often couched as inclusive and indeed not even that controversial, defying the killjoy elites who constantly find fault with "harmless entertainment".
The Hey Hey blackface skit was a prime example. Many viewers felt blackface minstrelsy to be daggy and old-fashioned rather than disrespectful and bigoted. The backlash, first from Red Faces judge Harry Connick Jr and then from other media commentators, seemed to surprise those who hadn’t minded the initial skit … but who quickly became offended by being branded racist.
Meanwhile, edgy in-jokes are designed to be appreciated by the relative few who can contextualise the joke, and to be offensive to everyone else. Not all edgy in-jokes are actually jokes. Bill Henson’s photography, for instance, appeals only to people capable of aestheticising his imagery and placing it in the context of other artistic traditions.
But as The Chaser‘s Julian Morrow pointed out in this year’s Andrew Olle Media Lecture, what may be appreciated by a certain "primary audience" quickly becomes known to a "secondary audience" via online news and social media. These people aren’t in on the "joke", so it’s easy for them to be outraged by material they wouldn’t have sought out on their own.
"In the eye of the [media]storm, the views of the secondary audience — that is, people who only know about the content because it’s controversial — loom way, way too large," said Morrow.
"And I don’t believe there’s any convincing evidence, or even a theory, that taking steps to try and placate the secondary audience is prudent, or can be effective. I tend to think it only fuels the fire."
Morrow’s concern is to maintain "the quality of public debate" and "the prospects of a robust, diverse and daring broadcast culture". But I’m more interested in the reasons why so many marketers and entertainers increasingly set out to offend. Some do it to court publicity; others in the name of humour; still others from an impulse to appear original or iconoclastic.
It’s imperative that observers of edginess don’t fall into the trap of refusing to consider either its motivations or its audience appeal. The media coverage condemning Kyle Sandilands and Hey Hey It’s Saturday often seemed to begin from the assumption that these episodes were so self-evidently stupid and hateful that anyone not instantly repulsed by them was also stupid and hateful. Of course, the truth was much more complex than this.
Given that so many of 2009’s edgy episodes were calculated to offend, it’s disingenuous at best to claim they advanced the quality of public debate. As critics of "trollumnists" such as Andrew Bolt, Catherine Deveny and Miranda Devine will agree, there’s a difference between being provocative and being thought-provoking.
Indeed, commentators often deliberately choose edginess as a rhetorical strategy because it can never be conclusively proven as a sincerely held belief. It’s a strategy that militates against critique because edginess can always retreat into irony or parody, leaving critics caught short as embarrassing dullards who just don’t "get it".
The notion of "getting it" is also a key to understanding the way edginess carves out feelings of belonging in its audiences. Edgy cultural episodes invite media consumers to feel edgy themselves; by finding an act of edginess funny or absurd they get to feel more sophisticated than those who are upset, embarrassed or angered by the same episode.
Conversely, by expressing their offence at an edgy episode, other audiences can colonise a moral high ground and feel more sophisticated than the ignorant fools who find it funny or entertaining. Edginess often feels like a kind of class warfare, in which your social rank is revealed by the direction you tumble when you fall over the edge.
Take Sandilands. The Kyle and Jackie O Show is predicated on edginess: an atmosphere of barely controlled mayhem, where just about anything might happen and social norms only exist to be challenged or violated. And his loyal audiences love it. A delay button might have prevented the whole lie-detector scandal but it would also have defiled the "spirit" of the show.
Like Sandilands, John Safran is a professional provocateur; however it’s telling that his audiences tend to interpret his work as satirical entertainment rather than volatile demagoguery. Much like criticism of The Chaser, criticism of Safran tends to be framed in terms of whether his satire has lost sight of its target and become merely gratuitous edginess.
Of course, gratuitous edginess is Kyle Sandilands’ key professional tool, one from which he’s parlayed a large income. There’s money in edginess. As Cotton On revealed in the wake of the "They shake me" outcry, it has turned edginess into "a market that demands confident and innovative children’s clothing".
Perhaps this was also a target market who pride themselves on being what Julian Morrow called "robust but fair-minded". There’s a lot of fretful talk in the baby products market of how fragile and delicate babies are; wouldn’t it perhaps be refreshing to think of you and your baby as tough and able to take a joke?
Speaking of babies, in November the Advertising Standards Bureau ruled that an edgy television commercial for Baby Love nappies — which showed a "poo explosion" filling the inside of a car — was not offensive.
While it certainly offended some viewers, the manufacturer, Unicharm, was able to quote from extensive market research that proved parents of small children know just how brutal baby poo can get. Perhaps they could show media commentators a thing or two about coping with shitstorms.
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