When it comes to the sobering, saddening and often downright depressing subject of intensive-livestock farming and the ills it inflicts on our world, a little dose of levity can go a long way. It might sound counter-intuitive – after all, factory farming is hardly a laughing matter – but, used in the right way, humour can be a clever and compelling way to convey otherwise difficult messages.
The last thing you want to do, when you think of stressed-out farm animals crammed together in barren pens, crates and cages, is laugh.
Indeed, for the animals so cruelly trapped inside them, intensive-livestock systems are distinctly unfunny. And when you consider the human-health problems associated with the poor-quality meat they yield, as well as the environmental damage they’re causing all around us, you see that the agricultural status quo is far more frightening than it is funny.
But, as centuries of satire, parody, ridicule and irony have proved, laughter – in its many forms – can be a potent tool for social commentary and a vehicle for lasting change. Below, we give three examples of how a certain breed of black comedy is being used to highlight the horrors of factory farming.
The first example is an article from the news-satire website, The Onion. Its title – "Factory-Farm-To-Table Restaurant Proudly Serves Locally Tortured Animals" – might be a mouthful (excuse the pun!), but it sets out the immensely ironic tone of what is to come: a summary of a restaurant that promises to use "the freshest, most inhumanely treated ingredients" and suppliers that "adhere to the highest standards of cruelty". Tongue, of course, remains firmly in cheek throughout.
In a similarly outrageous vein, a video from the American NGO Food & Water Watch caricatures the well-meaning "ethical" foodie by creating their antithesis – the overly conscientious unethical foodie. What ensues is an over-the-top discussion between a couple and a waitress about the provenance of the chicken on a restaurant menu – and the twist is that they are all celebrating its unsustainable, polluting and antibiotic-ridden credentials. As the discussion unfolds, you get a full picture of the impacts of factory farming – on animals, people and the planet. But you also get a large, and very welcome, dollop of drollery.
The genius of both of these pieces, of course, is that they manage to convey all the facts about the appalling conditions inside factory farms – the squalor, the stench, the stress – but without alienating the reader/viewer. In other words, they soften the terrible blow of the truth. But they go further than this; the tension between the horror and humour, the bitter and sweet, actually serves to throw the formidable facts into even greater relief, the result being that the message is heard loud and heart-breakingly clear.
Lastly, The Onion recently released a video exposing the "horrifying" ways in which humans consume meat. It’s a grainy, sombre film that includes "extremely graphic" images of meat being "crammed into people’s jaws, rapidly torn to pieces, and ground into a pulpy, uniform slurry in a matter of seconds".
Of course, it’s designed to mimic the sort of "stomach-turning" undercover footage you might witness in a factory-farming exposé, only here, the consumers – "poor beasts" – are presented as the victims. They are "crammed into...cramped diner booths and filthy cars where moving their limbs is either uncomfortable or impossible"; they suffer from "bloating, belching and outright physical pain".
Making use of disturbing language and disgusting close-ups of mouths full of condiment-drenched, factory-farmed flesh, this video’s meaning is clear: we are fools for eating this kind of meat in this kind of way; we are the puppets of a global agricultural system that’s all too focused on making money; and we are damaging our bodies in the process. And by engaging in the lexicon of a factory-farming exposé, the film reminds us that what’s really grisly and gruesome about the food we eat is the system that's producing it, which people too often ignore.
Comedy for progress
So the canny use of comedy can be a skilful strategy in the fight for better food and farming. By making light of intensive-livestock farming, not only can you keep people watching and reading – and possibly even sharing – but you can effectively highlight the system’s overwhelming, outrageous flaws.