Lindsay grapples with irony and asks us to consider how it shapes our relationships with the media.
“Irony, as entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing…Irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.”
That is a quote from a dude; David Foster Wallace, to be exact. It’s one of the central arguments from his phenomenal 1990 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” which, though it was written in a time when nobody used the Internet and VH1 was almost exclusively a platform for the trafficking of Celine Dion videos, I think it still stands as one of the most relevant essays in understanding the way we live and interact with pop culture right now. His observations are particularly incisive when it comes to irony. And though Wallace doesn’t specifically address feminism in the essay, these observations from “E Unibus Pluram” kept coming back to me while reading Susan Douglas’s Enlightened Sexism and thinking about the role irony plays in her text.
Douglas is a professor at the University of Michigan, and she repeatedly notes that, in spite of how brilliant and forward-thinking they are, almost all of her young female students still confess harboring an “ironic” love of bad TV. Most of us should be pretty familiar with this phenomenon. Have you ever watched basically any dating show on VH1? Can you upon request visualize the regal exterior of the Tool Academy? Can you name more than five Real Housewives? (Confession: I can name upwards of twenty.)
Now, we’re all smart people here. We know that these shows are awful, and that they perpetuate offensive, outdated stereotypes about both men and women. “But still we watch,” Douglas writes. “There is plenty here to love, and even more to talk back to and make fun of. Because, while it’s only a start, laughter — especially derisive laughter — may be the most empowering act of all. This is part of the ongoing, never-ending project of consciousness-raising.” Douglas, I loved and agreed with almost everything else in your book, but to this argument let me say with all due respect, “Nope.”
A pretty standard, post-Morissette definition of irony is “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite.” In theory, there is something inherently rebellious about this. Some feminist theorists would even argue that irony is a pretty radical lingual device: it challenges containment within the singularity of patriarchal discourse. The fact that I can use language to mean something completely opposite from what I say exposes a multivalence and instability that, at least in the abstract, poses a threat to singular, strictly policed definitions of words. So maybe then your system of language isn’t so secure after all, eh, patriarchy?
But does real, live 21st century irony play this radical a role in our everyday lives? Again, I’m inclined to say, “Nope.” Let’s take, for example, this phenomenon of “ironic” viewings of bad TV shows. It’s something so many of us engage in, and, as I already admitted, I’m guilty too. Before reading Enlightened Sexism, if someone would have called me on it, I probably would have started out saying, “Well, I don’t actively seek these shows out. I only really watch them when nothing’s on, and even then I just put them on in the background when I’m doing something else.” Which, I realized at some point in the chapter where Douglas spells out the brutish tendencies of bad reality TV, is hardly an excuse. And what’s worse, it’s emblematic of the passivity of contemporary irony. I’m taking in these stereotypes in without even giving myself the opportunity of laughter or even the feeblest criticism. And I’m certainly not even coming close to the productivity that Wallace talks about, this “constructing something to replace the hypocrisies” my passive irony supposedly critiques.
I worry, then. Because a lot of feminist writers (Douglas included; and, um, me too) seem to rely on a tone of irony as being inherently, unequivocally irreverent, consciousness-raising, and perhaps more than anything, entertaining. But so seldom to we take a step back and turn a critical eye to the larger device of irony and the way it doesn’t always work that way, and how it sometimes lies sort of sluggish and uninspired in our interactions with the media and the world at large.
I’m not saying we should all cut that derisive, ironic laughter out of our lives (I think we all need a bit of it to keep ourselves sane) — but recognize that it’s only the first little step in consciousness raising. The further steps require more effort, and more distance and destabilization from the actions we’ve come to take for granted. After reading Enlightened Sexism, I decided to make something more productive from that laughter and boycott just one of those shows altogether (Real Housewives, I don’t even miss you guys). So I want to end this post with a challenge: do the same thing with one of those inert habits in your life (maybe it’s a particularly embarrassing TV show, or an offensive word you use jokingly but wish you didn’t); turn one passive, destructive critique into an active, constructive boycott. And you’ll probably find that even this one small consciousness-raising exercise will have a domino effect. I mean, once I’d realized how better my life was without the Real Housewives of New York, it’s not like I was going to enjoy the Real Housewives of New Jersey very much either.