Satire and the normalisation of gender and cultural stereotypes | Angele Deguara

Hiding behind satire to spew a barrage of sexist and racist ‘jokes’ while accusing a non-Maltese, non-white character of sexism is not on, particularly in a society where sexism and racism are still rife

Gianni Zammit’s ‘Ali Bubaker’ on Muzika Muzika
Gianni Zammit’s ‘Ali Bubaker’ on Muzika Muzika

Despite the struggles for equality and social justice; despite equality legislation and the enhanced awareness about the negative effects of stereotyping, in Malta, as in other parts of the world, we still live in a society which is rife with instances and experiences of stereotyping on the basis of various factors such as age, colour of skin, disability, gender, social class, religion and ethnicity. In this article, I am going to focus specifically on gender and cultural stereotypes and on how these are often reinforced by the media which may have a central role in their normalisation and trivialisation. Stereotypes are images, representations, or characteristics that tend to be associated with a particular category of people in a generalised and often exaggerated way.

It is well documented that media representations often tend to reproduce stereotypes, inequalities, and ideas which are widespread in society. When this happens, the effects tend to be quite powerful. Although the media may also challenge existing ideologies and perceptions regarding gender and ethnicities, very often women and men are portrayed in ways which reflect traditional gender stereotypes such as the sexualisation and objectification of women and the portrayal of men as strong and occupying leadership positions.

There is also evidence that individuals or groups belonging to ethnic communities are represented in a stereotypical fashion on the media, often reflecting an ethnocentric approach which not only does not do justice to the cultures that tend to be portrayed as inferior, ridiculous or backward but also continues to encourage cultural divisions in society rather than a multicultural, open society which embraces diversity.

The media has various means at its disposal through which to transmit its messages. One tool which may be used by the media to reproduce stereotyped gender or ethnic representations is satire. Satire is the use of humour for critical purposes. Its aim is to engage with issues, particularly of a political nature, in a humorous way in order not only to ridicule them in a critical fashion but also to instigate critical debate. However, rather than reaching such aims, the use of humour by the media may serve to further reinforce widespread negative assumptions about certain categories of people such as women and ethnic minorities. Under the guise of satire, the media may reinforce rather than challenge gender and cultural stereotypes, leading to the trivialisation and normalisation of sexist and racist ideologies and experiences.

One example that can be mentioned is a sketch that was aired on the national television station during the Mużika Mużika festival some weeks ago. The sketch involved the presenter of the show and Mr Bubaker together with three female presenters that entered at a later stage.

The sketch was riddled with sexist and racist humour, to which the audience responded with laughter and enthusiastic applause.

Mr Bubaker, a character from Tajikistan, painted brown-face and all, was the target of racist comments by the presenter of the show, suggesting that the culture of Tajikistan is not as advanced as that of Malta especially in how we view and treat women.

Mr Bubaker constantly made sexist remarks not only in relation to the three female presenters that were on the stage, but also involving other female public figures including a politician and a singer as well as the presenter’s wife.

The tactic of lampshading was used during the show to draw attention to these blatantly sexist comments made by a foreigner, seemingly implying that Maltese men are not sexist, when the sketch was presumably written by a Maltese person.

As Moviment Graffitti we fight against gender stereotypes and would like to see them less normalised, not least by the national broadcaster. Therefore we felt that we should lodge a formal complaint about this with the Broadcasting Authority, which in turn asked PBS to send us its reply.

The national broadcaster justified the sketch by claiming that the scope of satire was to criticise issues such as sexism and racism, consequently dismissing Moviment Graffitti’s complaint.

The problem is that while we believe that political satire is a sign of the political maturity of a nation, we also believe that it is a shame for the national broadcaster to use satire in a way that only reproduces stereotyped assumptions about women and certain ethnic communities without instigating any mature debate about the subject.

In our changing, culturally diverse society, a central role of the public media is to contribute to critical public debate and to promote social change.

Hiding behind satire to spew a barrage of sexist and racist ‘jokes’ while accusing a non-Maltese, non-white character of sexism is not on, particularly in a society where sexism and racism are still rife.

Dr Angele Deguara is a sociologist and a member of Moviment Graffitti