Satire is a term that is often misunderstood and for good reason. With the advent of the internet, social media, and memes, it has become the main vehicle for writers and creatives to deliver their social and political commentary. But what is satire and what exactly defines something as satirical? To understand this, we’ll dive into the definition of satire, the three types of satire that exist, and how they are used in literature, films, and TV. 

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the definition of satire

What is the meaning of satire?

What does satire mean? It's a term you hear often but there are different types of satire with different approaches and results. The first step in understanding when something is satirical is understanding what is satire in general terms. To do this, let’s take a look at the satire definition. 


What is satire?

Satire is a genre in which exaggeration, irony, humor or ridicule are used to criticize and expose flaws in human nature and behavior. In addition to being its own genre, it is a literary device often used to critique politics and topical issues. 

Satire is used in various mediums such as film, literature, and even music. The purpose of satire is to both entertain audiences and cause them to think more deeply about a subject. It is often humorous, but does not have to be. 

The word satire derives from the Latin phrases “satur” meaning “full” and the phrase “lanx satura,'' which literally translates to “a dish full of various types of fruits.” While this might seem far removed from its modern meaning, the term “satire” was used by Roman critics. The origin of this genre is widely considered to be Aristophanes’s Old Comedy.

What is satire created by?

  • Irony
  • Humor
  • Exaggeration

What is satire used for?

Types of satire

Satire is an incredible tool at critiquing human nature through creative works. There are three different types of satire that writers employ depending on how they want to use it. Here's Prof. Gottlieb from Oregon State University with an overview of this genre and its function.

What is Satire?

1. Horatian Satire

Horatian satire is perhaps the most common type of satire. Horatian satire typically uses humor to ridicule a person or event in a comedic way. Further, the goal of here is to be light-hearted and a means of encouraging improvement in what is being satirized. Also, the use of parody is often found in this type. 

Horatian satire is commonly used in to provide social commentary in a light-hearted way. Today, shows like The Colbert Report and Saturday Night Live both use this satirical strategy. 

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, one of Stanley Kubrick’s best films, uses the Horatian style to provide amusing commentary on Cold War politics. One of the film’s most iconic lines perfectly sums up Kubrick’s brilliant use of this technique. 

Dr. Strangelove  •  Read the Entire Scene

Of course, not all satirical content is light hearted and humorous. So, what is satire used for when it doesn't make an audience or reader laugh? Let’s take a look at a much darker type. 

2. Juvenalian Satire

Juvenalian satire, unlike Horatian, is darker and more serious. And it is often used to express frustration or anger about a current state. Commonly found in the dystopian fiction genre, this type aims to expose the flaws of political and cultural systems. And is often controversial due to its lack of restraint.  

A great literary example of this type is George Orwell’s novel, 1984. Here, the novel uses political satire to bring attention to the flaws and dangers of a totalitarian government. Other classic novels such as Fahrenheit 451 and
A Clockwork Orange also use this technique to expose the issues at hand.

3. Menippean Satire

What is satire that critiques general systems of belief rather than a person or individual? It's none other than Menippean satire. And you may not know the Menippean satire definition, but you have definitely seen it on television.

This approach is repeatedly used in the television show South Park to ridicule topics like racism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia. Therefore, the Menippean style often requires a greater length of work to create their point. 

Satire definition literature

Satire in Literature

What is satire used for in literature? For authors, this is a tool that allows writers to provide social commentary. While many satirical novels originally provided insight on the society during the time the novel was written, sometimes its relevance can apply to society today. A great example of this is the novel The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

In the book, Ellison uses a satirical approach to comment on the social issues and racial injustices that African Americans faced in the twentieth century. While the novel was written in 1952, it became more important 12 years later during the Civil Rights Movement. 

Today, the novel remains relevant and just as is important as it was when it was first written due to the racial injustices in current events. You can learn more about Invisible Man and its impact in the Crash Course video below. 

Satire Definition Literature  •  Invisible Man

Invisible Man is not the only novel that has criticized social injustices and absurdities. Other examples of satire in novels like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace all create masterful stories with the use of satirical content.

Also, another common type of tool in literature is the parody. So what does satire mean when compared to parody? 

Difference between satire vs parody

Satire vs Parody

Parody and satire are commonly mistaken for each other and rightfully so. Both utilize similar literary devices like exaggeration, humor, and irony for an end result. And where they differ is in their motives and scale.

Satire aims to use these literary devices to draw attention to the flaws in human nature and behavior. Its motive is to cause audiences to think more deeply about a topic and to perhaps change their attitude or opinions toward it. 

For example, the satirical online news site The Onion has great satire examples of how that aim to critique human behavior. Take a look at one of their videos below that satirizes consumerism and a sense of superiority over Wal-Mart in this fake news story.

Satire Examples  •  The Onion

Parody, on the other hand, aims to mimic the style or form of something or someone else (like an artist or film) to create humor. Therefore, parody utilizes what is familiar to an audience and combines it with exaggeration, irony and humor to entertain them. 

True, many parodies aim to mock politicians and celebrities which can be satirical. However, not all parodies are satires. 

For example, take this parody of the film 1917 titled 2020 by Ascender. The video parodies the one-take style of 1917 to the events of 2020. While it mimics style and form for humor, it does not provoke further thought or express large criticism of a topic. 

2020 (A 1917 Parody)  •  Satire Examples

To understand if a piece of work is a parody, a satire, or both, take a look at the motives behind the artist. 

What does satire mean in their story? Do they aim to critique something about human nature? Or are they simply emulating the style and form of an artist, work, or genre for entertainment? 


Explore more literary devices

Satire is just one of many literary devices and types of figurative language, including allegory, euphemism, and allusion. If you're a writer and want to develop your craft fully, do yourself a favor and continue this exploration. The next article on literary devices is a gateway to many of these tools that help add substance and style to any type of written work.

Up Next: Literary Devices Index →
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