The role of satire within society has always interested me, mostly because, as anyone who is close to me will know, I have a slight obsession with propaganda and the artwork that comes along with it. Through my seemingly compulsive and slightly obsessive research into satire’s function within society, one can not help but notice the intrinsically interdependent relationship between periods of social transgression and their popular propaganda fuelled counterpart, Satire.
Historically Satire has been and continues to be the visual autobiography of viewpoints and the fundamental channel of communication between the general public and that of the formal legislation and electoral system. However, in this post I will simply be focusing on the origins of popular political satire in the 18thc. I will analyse the flamboyant character of the Macaroni, whilst attempting to parallel this with everyone’s favourite overused subject of Brexit.
Lets start at the beginning…
The role of satire within society and its ability to be employed as a tool in which to communicate political rhetoric has been prevalent since the consumerist revolution during the 18thc. As I mentioned previously, the production of satire seems to be historically embodied into a simple equation that inevitably follows any form of social transgression:
Questioning of Social Hierarchy + Nationalism to counteract Instability = Satire
In 18thc. Britain this equation circulated around a fear of foreignness. These anxieties stemmed from an increasing presence of foreign objects within the consumerist world, simultaneously paralleled by Britain undergoing dramatic shifts in its social hierarchical structure. Thus, resulting in the use of satire as a ‘moralising counterexample.’ Consequently, the newfound prominence of the bourgeois class, paralleled by the upturning of traditional gender roles, marked the beginning of a period of social transgression. Thus, concurrently acting to characterise 18thc. Britain as a time of tension and mistrust. The anxieties surround the blurring of class, gender, and nationality became the forefront concerns addressed in satire.
A little bit of context…
During the 18thc. satire was at its height of popularity as Britain underwent dramatic shifts in its social hierarchical structure, providing Bourgeois individuals with the opportunity to ascend the social rankings of British society. These Bourgeois individuals then projected their newfound success through the purchase of fashionable foreign luxury items. Similarly to how in contemporary society somebody may buy a fancy car or pair of shoes, etc. then proceed to obnoxiously post their success on social media.
*please don’t be this person you will be verbally satirised by your envious friends*
Following this thread of resentment… the collection of foreign items in 18thc. Britain was soon to become associated with the over-compensation of ‘the self-made man’, who elevated himself in status through material items. Consequently, these anxieties were simultaneously represented and reinforced through satirised characters such as the Macaroni.
Who is the Macaroni?
The Macaroni character represented the over-indulgent ‘self-made-man’ who participated in the Grand Tour – travelling through Europe and studying the arts. The Macaroni character can be easily identified by his love for European luxuries, with an emphasis on French fashion. The satirised Macaroni character acted to reinforce, as well as represent British anxieties surrounding the idea of moral corruptibility and loss of ‘Britishness’, caused by one’s indulgence in foreign luxuries.
The characteristics associated with ideal British masculinity during the 18thc. were that of ‘thrift, modesty, private [and the] rejection of courtly ornament.’ Therefore, the effeminate Macaroni character reinforced fears of the feminisation of Brititsh culture, as their decorative attire seemingly submerged all sense of the – and if I may say – boring masculine ideal.
These feelings of mistrust and disgust are represented and reinforced in William Hogarth’s series Marriage a la Mode, Plate 1. It depicts an interior scene which portrays the negotiations of a marriage contract. The groom-to-be is on the edge of the print, sat gazing at himself, seemingly too enraptured in his own self obsession to give notice to his fiancée. Furthermore, he is easily identified as a Macaroni, as he is depicted in French fashion with elegantly pointed feet, marking him as effeminate in nature.
As I mentioned previously, traditionally the characteristics of ideal masculinity were that of the rejection of overindulgence and preferring to find simplicity in taste. The Macaroni represents the direct opposite to this ideal…
Therefore, through the subversion of ideal British masculinity, Hogarth reinforces the negative connotation, and thus the anxieties associated with the Macaroni. Through visual satire, Hogarth could represent the corruptible capability of foreign luxury objects to the public. Successively, resulting in the Macaroni’s rejection of British values and aligning himself more with the French than the British. Through satire, Hogarth is depicting the negative qualities and anxieties associated with foreignness and embodying them into the character of the Macaroni.
Consequently, the mocking and distaste for foreign luxuries became a ‘patriotic cause’, as the collection of such indulgences became aligned with characters like the Macaroni and their lack of national spirit. The Macaroni and his inability to be categorised into any recognisable traditional social grouping, came to symbolise the anxieties of the British public surrounding foreignness and its tainting of British values.
Whilst analysing the themes of one’s fear surrounding change and the loss of a nation’s’ identity, one cannot help but see the parallels with contemporary issues like Brexit and the satire used to ridicule the political parties failing to deliver on the referendum and the highlighting of the extreme divide between remain and leave- as cliché and now overused as this parallel is.
However, the satire of today is not only found in prints and cartoons, but on our screens as we watch satirical programmes, such as ‘The Thick of It’ or ‘The Last Leg’, or simply when we read through political commentary on social media. Contemporary satire is no longer simply a medium using humour to emphasise ideal societal values of one social grouping; the elite, but is now a form of journalism in itself. It is used as a ‘watchdog’ of the artifice of governments in our ever increasingly conscious culture media-based society.