No doubt about it, we are living in an age of sarcasm. Our media, advertisements and simple communication are riddled with what Oscar Wilde called the lowest form of wit. As a Brit I have never engaged in sarcasm, British people hate sarcasm. (That was sarcastic, in case you couldn’t tell!)
Sarcasm and its brothers, satire and irony, have long been employed as comedy techniques. There is nothing new or strange about this. A glance into the medieval manuscripts of the Arthurian legends, written by British authors Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Mallory, will provide you with wonderfully satirical tales of England’s legendary King Arthur and his very sarcastic wizard, Merlin.
Yet it seems to be just within the last decade that we have started examining and celebrating just how sarcastic our television and media are. The act of ‘throwing shade’ (making harsh sarcastic comments) is a wildly celebrated public act and a ‘roast’ no longer means the joint of beef for Sunday lunch but instead is the act of publicly mocking a friend or colleague, with their consent, we hope.
As the world fully embraces this slightly nastier form of sarcasm we find ourselves noticing it more and more in our children’s media, most particularly in children’s TV shows. That is not to say that there haven’t always been layers of satire and sarcasm running through children’s fictional content. Just look at the sarcasm of every Disney villain and their sidekicks, from the moans of Scar in the Lion King to the witty asides of Jaffar and his parrot, Iago in Aladdin sarcasm is everywhere.
However, this dry, cutting wit has moved from the villian to the hero, which isn’t such a terrible thing. There is nothing inherently bad about sarcasm and satire in itself. However, the way in which it is being employed seems to be ringing alarm bells, not necessarily amongst parents but in society in general. Are these sarcastic characters causing our children to grow up rude and impertinent?
Peppa, a pig and the titular character of the British children’s show, Peppa Pig, is often pointed out as the worst offender for corrupting young children. Peppa’s sarcasm is oddly legendary. A quick search on YouTube brings up videos with titles like, Peppa Pig Savage Compilation. They are numerous and average half a million views. This may simply be because Peppa currently reigns as Queen of children’s television but probably has more to do with her constant sarcasm and displays of ‘attitude’ directed at her parents, friends and teachers.
It is certainly funny and provides entertainment for both children and their parents, but should it be something to be worried about?
According to the British Journal of Developmental Psychology children can understand irony as young as four years old and are able to grasp the concept of sarcasm by the age of six, meaning the humour is not lost on them. Instead it is something which they make take on purposefully.
For American mother, Kelly, this was something she found with her daughter. “Well intentioned people were laughing that *Sally was “so cheeky”, cutified her bad behaviour and mostly just made Sally think that acting like a punk was super adorable. Much of that cheekiness was re-enacting things she’d seen on shows like Peppa Pig.”
But for Christian mother, Hailey, the sarcasm of Peppa Pig is part of the appeal of the show, “If my child grows up to emulate Peppa Pig I know that I've done my job correctly as a parent. Sometimes we supplement the children’s scripture study with Peppa episodes because there's just not enough canonised sass.”
In fact, some would even question whether there is an increase in the levels of sarcasm present in children’s television shows, or if this is just a consequence of people’s increased perception of the global media market and the influence of Hollywood. Where sarcasm has long found a home in British television it is not something that has always been as present in American children’s TV shows.
When asked his thoughts on the issue, drama teacher, Leigh, said, “I suspect that the perception of increasing sarcasm in television comes from American television, the norm to which we compare our media, not being sarcastic enough. Especially now The Muppets are gone.”
This idea is supported by Kelly, who said, “I remember a friend trying to explain cheekiness to me because honestly, it’s really not a cultural concept here. She said, “It’s cute in other people’s children but not something you’d want your own kids to do.”
Whether or not sarcasm is on the rise in children’s TV, it would appear this isn’t something most people are worried about.
Australian, Caillin, summed up the general opinion rather well, saying, “Let's face it. Compared to the crude, satirical, innuendo filled and sometimes outright racist kids cartoons that were around when I was young and impressionable, Peppa Pig is pretty tame.”
*Name has been changed.