Grim Dark’s Media Satire
From satire to reality, from mismatched obscenities to grim comedy.
The mid-90s game Crusader: No Remorse was amongst the first games I ever played, and very much a late 70s-80s style dystopian action sci-fi along the same lines as RoboCop and Judge Dredd. You play a supersolider renegade from the corporatocratic authoritarian state, the World Economic Consortium (WEC). It is divided up into different missions (secure robot schematics, blow up factory, assassinate X, retrieve operative), but between missions you also return to the Resistance base, where you can buy various equipment, interact with fellow rebels (albeit silently) and receive fresh mission briefings.
The rebel base, however, had another feature: a television located in the bar on which you could watch the state-controlled news-media’s propaganda, generally a false spin on the mission that you had just completed. This was an opportunity for much satire, and although clearly sledgehammer humour, it was nonetheless an aptly amusing part of the game. There is a kind of genre to this trope.
The aforementioned RoboCop (1987) does it throughout, but specifically in the form of commercials through which the dystopian logic of the film’s world is revealed. Paul Verhoeven and Edward Neumeier’s 1997 film adaptation of Starship Troopers (although in fact more a satire of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel) does it too in the form of military agitprop and recruitment videos. Much more recently, the Hunger Games franchise depict a literal back-and-forth war of propaganda; although aesthetically distinct, it has many of the same features of these earlier cultural artefacts.
The joke relies on the cognitive dissonance between the primary and secondary layers of these fictional worlds; the simulacrum of propaganda juxtaposed with the grisly reality. As mentioned previously, grim dark is a properly satirical genre (indeed, poorly utilised for anything else), and this juxtaposition is common because it helps establish the comedic exaggeration at the heart of this tradition of storytelling. The miniature wargame Warhammer 40,000 accomplishes the same thing differently, with various quotes from officials of the Empire of Man contrasting to the realities of the world supplied in army codices and game rule books
The deployment of this trope is a good if probably not perfect litmus test for whether something is even grim dark or just grim. Here I will snidely note that Christopher Nolan never draws on this aesthetic dissonance in his grimly dull works of dystopia.
There is a tendency for reality to largely conform to the best satire. The combination of militarism, authoritarianism and social decay, oddly blended with a fetishisation of the individual, glib commercialism and a distinctly disenchanted world (in the Weberian sense) is the staple for a grim dark satirical dystopia and I would argue merely picks up on the fascistic trajectories inherent to the managed slow crisis of neoliberalism.
There has never been a point in my life when media reality conformed with my reality. As a home-educated child I saw the demonisation of home-educators on the BBC, Guardian and elsewhere, I saw the mischaracterisation of events, the outright lies and distorted representation. In much the same light, as someone with ASD and then post-viral fatigue I saw the similar victimisation of the sick, disabled or just different. As someone married to a foreigner, I saw clearly how this process was applied to immigrants and refugees.
Being white and in many other was privileged I have not been at the forefront of media misrepresentations, so I in no sense aim to pretend otherwise. Nonetheless, I have through my life seen enough to have a deeply embedded distrust of how reality is represented (or manufactured, to use the language popularised by Noam Chomsky). This has certainly informed my love of grim dark satire, as it has my politics (in good ways, my current socialism, and bad, my predictable but fortunately short-lived teenage flirtations of right-wing libertarianism).
Lately, however, this trope has been more and more in my mind. As a profoundly pessimistic participant in the 2019 General Election I saw a disconnect between reality and news media that was bad even by usual risible standards. The Tory Party itself creating fake fact checkers on social media, publicly threatening media like Channel 4 with ruination to get them to tow-the-line and pumping out ads that were deemed to be 88% fabrications, which was reported by the BBC under the profoundly misleading title ‘General election 2019: Ads are “indecent, dishonest and untruthful”’.
I joked at the time that the seemingly over-the-top caricature of state media in Crusader was being overtaken by the reality of the BBC, but that was a fair assessment and nothing that has happened subsequently has dislodged the opinion. Again, it is not that the media lies or spins that is being highlighted, it is that it creates a completely fictional world that has almost no veridical correspondence, to the extent that any mirroring between reality and the irreal fabrication is necessarily funny.
The worst of it came with the Coronavirus pandemic crisis. The whitewashing of BAME deaths could absolutely have been something encompassed in one of those old dystopian fictions. And in the context of the resurgence of bourgeois Eugenicism, the travesty of death and pain unleashed against the disabled and care homes has been astonishing to anyone even dimly informed—which, much the point, is no easy thing to be. Moreover, just the general mismatch of messaging, blaming and framing from the media has made an already horrific period of time greatly worse. Both the media and the state, as deeply entwined as they are, have drenched themselves in blood.
It is now strange to think that the dystopia I increasingly find projected back to me by the world is not that of the serious books of the early twentieth century (largely either anti-USSR or anti-Nazi Germany in character), but the comic books and computer games of my own youth. The fictions I would have dismissed at the time as extravagantly embellished pulp escapism. We live in obscene times, not just in terms of moral content (history is generally a parade of atrocity), but in its overt presentation. The art that gets that engages willingly with obscenity, and with dissonance.
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