Rhetor Intent and Audience Interpretation–Exploring Irony, Contradiction, and Oxymoron in Feminist Activism

The new NBC sitcom Up All Night is very entertaining. For many reasons. To be addressed in a future post. But one thing caught my attention in last week’s episode. Christina Applegate and Will Arnett’s characters are reviewing their facebook pages and considering how cool they appear. Applegate is critical of Arnett’s music “likes.” Train? she asks him. It’s ironic, he answers defensively. It is not ironic if you really like them, she responds.

And that is the thing with irony–it can be hard to discern and difficult to negotiate the subtleties. Also interesting is that irony is easy to assert and hard to back up. Finally, is irony always within the realm of the rhetor, or do audiences create it? Let’s look at an example:

This is Sara Miller, described by a 2008 blog post as Denver’s foremost feminist activist. Oh, yes, and the post is titled “Denver’s Most F***able Activist.” Is this ironic? Is this sexual empowerment and the use of contradiction to further a feminist message?

I want to say it is up to Ms. Miller to make that point. It is her responsibility, particularly as someone seen as representing feminist politics, to make overt how sexuality and sex may be used as an empowering contradiction for women and girls in a society wherein sex and sexuality are the first and often only means by which they are valued. And if she does that, it may help assuage observations like this one, from the blog post “This girl is so full of passion, courage, and white-hot rage, you can’t help but fall a little in love with her right away.”

But my rhetorical studies background makes me pause. Rhetor intent is often the most uninteresting component of a message. Who cares what the rhetor meant to say, let’s dig into what meaning was created, how was it interpreted, what insight does it provide, what provocative thing can we do with it? Those are the interesting, interpretive elements of the message and those don’t have a lot to do with its creator. So should it be up to the audience to find the irony within a message and assign a political reading to it?

I am not sure, but I do know I agree with Applegate’s character. It is not irony just because you say so. Irony, and the use of contradiction–I think these things require more responsibility than that. It’s not irony if you can’t make the connection between the message and the discordance you seek to reveal or explain the incongruity and how it may help us with perspective or power or politics.

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