Good Idea, Bad Idea: Girlfriend List Satire

I am a huge fan of satire. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was a delightful read. Irony is my bread and butter and I appreciate it when people can use it to great effect. But, therein lies the rub: most people can’t use it to great effect. Most people can’t even use it properly. Heck, I’m not even sure that I could effectively satirize something, which is one reason why I stick to only short bursts of sarcasm.

And yet one of the most common responses I get when I criticize a girlfriend list is that it’s a “joke”, a “satire”. That may be so, but for the satire to succeed then it needs to be more than vicious criticism of something, it needs to question a person’s assumptions about the nature of the subject at hand. Because otherwise what you’re left with is a piece of vitriol that is offensive without being thought provoking.

I. The satirical subject

When making a girlfriend list a satire, there are many possibilities for satire: the phenomenon of the list itself, the gender stereotypes employed by the list, and the geeky stereotypes employed by the list are the ones that spring to mind. In my opinion, a good satire would most likely include all of the above.

We’ll start first with what I consider to be good satire: Advice for Artists & Writers: Getting The Elusive Female Audience by thomwade. Although not strictly a girlfriend list, Getting the Elusive Female Audience is definitely drawing on the phenomenon for its premise:

Time for another installment of my advice for my fellow aspiring female audience. Comics are not just read by geeky boys who can’t get dates with girls anymore. Now those girls they can’t get dates with are reading them as well.

Right off the bat Wade tells us what he’s going to be satirizing: the way that female audiences are appealed to. He then makes his first jab, giving a nod to the girlfriend list phenomenon while sarcastically using the stereotype that geek guys 1) are horny bastards that 2) can’t get girlfriends. He finishes by bringing it back to what by now should be obvious is his main subject.

Let’s compare that with Red Assed Baboon’s Why You Don’t Wanna Turn Your Girl Into a Gamer. by Faith Naked. I’m not sure I’d call this a straight up satire, but it uses the same semi-sarcastic tone as the other lists I’ve come across which have been defended with cries of “it’s a parody! satire! a joke!” so I think this one’s a good one to use for an example.

Faith piece, like Wade’s, gets straight to the point right off the bat, but with her it’s not until the second paragraph that she really gets to the meat of the issue:

First let me paint you a picture: You have this great girlfriend/wife. She cooks, cleans, goes to the gym three times a week, and loves to shop. She has a few annoying habits like spending too much time in the bathroom, hating guys night, and always nagging you when you spend too much time playing video games. You love her to death though, and the only thing that would make her even more perfect is if she played video games. Does this picture seem familiar? Well, if it does, then you don’t want this girl to be a gamer.

Faith’s point is clear: you really don’t want to follow the advice of girlfriend lists. What she appears to be satirizing, however, are the men who actually think that a girlfriend list is going to make their lives better. I can’t say the subject matter is a top choice for a good satire, but if done well, it could be a funny piece.

II. Evidence for hilarity

Both articles spend the meat of their time on stereotypes appropriate to their theme: Wade focuses on the portrayal of women in comics while Faith focuses on stereotypes of women and men. This is arguably the most important part of the piece; the way the examples are presented are what takes the sarcasm and transforms it into biting commentary.

Let’s first look at an excerpt from Wade’s piece:

1. Skirts and Stilleto Heels:This is important. Nothing is more believable than a female superhero in stilletos. And how about skirts? Nothing tells people a female hero means business than a mini skirt that might let you see her girl bits or underwear. And women appreciate this attention to their fashion sense. If you are drawing a book and these do not appear in the character design? Ignore it and add them!

Wade uses key phrases like “nothing is more believable” and “nothing tells” in order to maintain the satiric tone. Because of those cues when he employs a common stereotype about women, further utilizing the sexist trope of men deciding what women want, we as a readership are clearly supposed to recognize the phrase from non-ironic usage of it and then recognize that its precisely the non-ironic usage that is under attack.

Another tactic Wade employs is by taking elements that, in their original context, are taken for granted (and therefore not thought about by a typical audience) and bringing to light their absurdities. This both maintains the satirical tone and brings it back to his main theme by pointing out why, exactly, elements such as the above are doing their part to keep female interest in comics down.

Faith also uses hyperbole, but is not so faithful in maintaining the satiric tone:

The first thing that will change will be her looks. That perfect hair, the makeup covered face and amazing fashion sense will be no more, and instead you will have a pony tailed, no makeup wearing girlfriend, walking around the house in your old band shirt and sweatpants. Those 5 hours she spends in the bathroom will be reduced to hour or two if you’re lucky, so she can squeeze in extra time to finish leveling up in Final Fantasy X.

Throughout her piece, Faith both plays into and criticizes the stereotypical male viewpoint. She uses stereotypes of women — the same stereotypes that are the foundation of girlfriend lists — to create her argument, using hyperbole such as “perfect hair”, “amazing fashion sense”, and “5 hours she spends in the bathroom”. Though not clear from the quote, her entire article has a bitingly sarcastic undertone of, “What kind of idiot would want the prototypical girlfriend list girlfriend to become a gamer?”

But, perhaps because the piece was meant more as a sarcastic piece rather than a satire, Faith fails to go that extra mile. The punchline never comes. The stereotypes are never truly questioned, and in the end everyone comes out looking bad: girlfriends can either be beautiful (and beauty-obsessed), sexual non-gamers or be the undesirable and unwashed, non-sexual gamers; the men she’s addressing are talked to as if they’re idiots, but the way that they view their girlfriends as objects for their gratification is never really challenged, it’s just used as a threat to keep them away from the lists.

III. The side-splitting conclusion

Conclusions are normally icing on the cake, a way to bring things back to your point and get one last chuckle. In some pieces, however, it can be where your true motive is revealed. A not often employed, but nonetheless effective method is to get your reader nodding along with you the entire way and then turn the tables on them and get them to challenge their heretofore unquestioned assumptions.

I need to give credit, where credit is due. I could never have compiled such a list without the kind folks at Girl Wonder as well as other female fans on the web. I know they will really appreciate me putting together this advice for artists and writers, so we can continue to get the fine portrayals of women in comic books that we have gotten for years.

Wade chooses the first approach, again making his satiric intent even more clear by the mention of the feminist organization Girl Wonder. He employs the “what women want” trope one more time and links his evidence directly with his theme by mentioning the “fine portrayals of women in comics” that he has spent the main part of his article discussing.

So, I gotta ask after listening to all of this, do you still wanna turn your girlfriend into a gamer?

Faith goes for a short and sweet conclusion, but in light of her article it leaves much to be desired. The satire in Faith’s piece remains untapped, leaving the liberal use of hyperbole and sarcasm dangling without a foundation of social criticism to ground it.

But, without that foundation, the piece is merely reinforcing the tropes it employs; women just are the traditional feminine stereotype (or, in the case of gamers, they are the traditional geeky male stereotype) and gamer men just are the traditional geeky male stereotype. In the end, Faith has done the same exact things that the girlfriend lists she’s writing in opposition to have done: paint a dismal picture of humanity where men are from mars, women are from venus, and everyone’s an asshole.

With Wade’s piece everyone’s in on the joke; even if you don’t agree with his conclusions you’ll probably have let out a chuckle or two by the time you’re finished. But with Faith’s even if you do agree with it you might not like the fact that, no matter who you are, the joke’s on you.

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