Lazy labourers and bulging bourgeoisie

The early 20th century was the heyday of Finnish political satire magazines. Strong winds of change were sweeping through Finland, and the magazines served as a battlefield for changing world views.

“Satirical magazines were published by political parties and dailies, and they dealt with various topics such as the women’s suffrage movement and alcohol policy,” explains literature researcher Sari Kivistö, who has studied satire. “The squabbles between political parties were just one theme among many.”

Kivistö links the early 20th-century boom in political satire to the social changes of the period.

“Industrialisation and urbanisation created a large urban class of poor factory workers, while enabling a select few to exploit the markets, achieve financial success and climb up the hierarchy,” she says.

The polarisation of social classes manifested itself as a struggle between world views in the magazines. Right-wing magazines scoffed at the workers, who were depicted as lazy and grimy, while socialist publications caricatured the clergy and factory owners as fat, greasy and selfish bourgeoisie.

In search of a national identity

“One of the salient elements in the golden age of satirical magazines was the pitting of Finnish and Swedish cultures against each other,” says Kivistö.

Swedish satirical publications mocked Finnish country bumpkins, who didn’t appreciate civilised European manners. Finns, in turn, criticised the dominance of the Swedish language and the posh behaviour of Swedish-speakers.

“The Finnish Swedes were considered to be idle and rather useless folks, who did nothing but sail, drink whisky and smoke cigars at their clubs.”

According to Kivistö, the magazines and other satirical criticism played a big role in formulating a Finnish world view.

“Not only did people seek independence from Russia, but also a definition of what it meant to be Finnish. The image of Finnishness was constructed with the help of this kind of criticism.”

Stereotypes age

“In their glory days, Finnish satirical magazines were often right-wing, which may come as a surprise, as satire is now considered to be quite leftist,” Kivistö remarks.

These days, the world view of satire does indeed lean to the left, because satirical criticism typically focuses on those in power. Today’s leaders are often portrayed as using power mainly to boost their own status and wealth instead of working for the common good.

“In the past, cartoons had real political impact, but today they are more of a form of entertainment.”

According to Kivistö, certain forms of presentation and stark juxtapositions still live on, but traditional stereotypes are felt to be outdated and lacking in taste.

“Modern cartoons mainly focus on caricaturing the features of political personalities, and politicians are happy to appear on satirical TV shows. The mockery is so good-natured that it is considered good publicity.”

In March and April 2015, researchers and other experts will take us on journeys into different world views. Read more about the New World View science programme and join the conversation (#maailmankuva).

Sari Kivistö will be at Think Corner on 9 April to discuss political satire as an instrument of power.

New World View 16 March – 12 April 2015

Think Corner