From early history, satirists have used depictions of man as animal to critique the tendencies of humans to exhibit savage behaviors, but cover them up with society’s gloss of civility. It is not surprising that satirists would pick society’s tendency to be animalistic while distancing itself from nature, as satire is intended to criticize the greatest of follies with the hope of also enlightening humans to the truth. Thus, analogies comparing humans to animals exist to reveal to society that its behaviors are lowering humanity to the level of beasts, and perhaps open people’s eyes to the fact that the acts they are engaging in (whatever they may be in the contextual time of the satire) are wrong. Because people seem to be particularly offended at being depicted socially equivalent to an animal, these satires become a strong critique of our society.
Depiction of animals in satire can be seen all through history, from the time of the Greeks, through the Renaissance, and into modern day. George A. Test comments that in Greek plays, animal satire was “used for mockery and ridicule, animals and animal-like figures [coming] to represent freedom to the point of chaos.” So, even in the time of the Greeks, animals were a representation of wildness or nature, and seemed to be a satire for human society choosing to suppress its wilder tendencies and conform to a civil norm. In the eighteen hundreds comparing humans to brutes was one of the lowest analogies one could draw. In his paper “Satires on Man and ‘the Dignity of Human Nature’” Bertrand Goldgar explains that responses to the satirization of human nature in the first half of the eighteenth century “fell into general disfavor” as the implication that human beings were inferior to brutes particularly offended the public. Works such as Gulliver’s Travels, were particularly offensive for degrading mankind and were criticized as being insults on the “’dignity of human nature.’” It is important to note, however, that although criticized, these works received a multitude of attention from readers and critics, as in the example of Gulliver’s Travels. Perhaps attention was the desire of the satirists. Even negative attention is attention nonetheless, which is what these satirists desired to do. Though being degraded to an animal might offend some, satirical degradation has allowed and continues to allow satirists to criticize events in human history as being brutish and cruel, making the satirization of humanity a particularly useful tool for inspiring change.
While animal satires continue to be used in the present, it seems that our society is less offended by animal comparisons. It may be possible that it is not the society, but the form of satire that has changed. While most satirical pieces in the 1800’s took a direct approach to criticism, taking a look at the satires that are popular today, it is noticeable that they are less direct in their criticisms. Kathryn Hume, in her paper, “Diffused Satire in Contemporary American Fiction,” explains the term “diffused satire” to be a new satirical genre. She argues that while the old, more direct form of satire that we saw in the past is still present today, it is less popular. Therefore, most of the popular satire we see today is likely to be “diffused satire.” Hume explains that the main difference between satire and “diffused satire” is that “diffused satire […] lacks intensity.” Hume describes “intensity” to be “the clarity and directness with which a subject is targeted.” So, although in its nature to target and criticize a particular aspect “diffused satire” remains the same as regular satire, the targeting of its object is less direct, and thus the result may be less offensive. We will see this example in many of the newer works within the anthology, including the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, where the satirization of the animals still makes a claim on human society, but does so in a light and playful fashion.
Perhaps by being less direct, “diffused satire” actually accomplishes more. When people are offended, it is likely they will respond defensively rather than critically and logically to the satire. However, since all satire aims either to bring certain features to attention or actually inspire change, offending people may not be the best way. Therefore, by diffusing the intensity of satire satirists are able to accomplish more by offending less. As a result, this new satirical genre has become so wide spread that it seems to have forced itself into every crevice of our lives. Thus, we have become an entirely satirical society.