February 23, 2023 - 3:34pm

Satire is supposed to be funny. It can be shocking, like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, and it is sometimes cruel. What it shouldn’t be is a cover for an outpouring of envy and malice. You might think that the publishers of a satirical magazine would know that, given that it’s their stock-in-trade. But the current top ‘story’ on the website of The Onion is a fabricated ‘interview’, with the author J.K. Rowling, whose sole purpose is to launch a series of attacks under the guise of satire. This isn’t the first time the site has mounted a lazy attack on her, either.

The interview opens with Rowling, or at least the website’s imagined version of her, demanding to know “which genitals you have right now”. The joke is actually on The Onion, because it’s trans activists who are obsessed with pronouns and how people ‘identify’; I’m sure Rowling belongs to the mass of humanity that is able to correctly recognise someone’s sex without even thinking about it, let alone believing it requires a discussion. 

An obsession with her wealth and success is not even thinly disguised, while the ‘questions’ are just an excuse to insult her. (“Why are you such a huge fucking hateful dork?”) The whole thing could have been written by a 14-year-old with mummy issues who thinks it’s clever to throw around words like ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’.

At one level, it’s just further evidence of how far gender ideology has spread in the US, where The Onion is published. Preposterous figures such as Dylan Mulvaney, a man who posts TikTok videos of himself posing and pouting in a caricature of teenage femininity, are treated as icons and even get invited to the White House. It would take a brave author or producer to laugh at a group of people who have acquired a sort of secular sainthood.

It’s much easier and safer to take aim at women who oppose gender ideology, pretending that sarcasm and ageism are a species of wit. It’s not the first time that satire has been used to excuse misogynist attacks, as the suffragettes discovered to their cost. An image from 1900 showed a bawling baby above the phrase ‘Mummy’s a Suffragette’, while another from 1909 has a husband up to his elbows in a washing tub. ‘I want to vote but my wife won’t let me,’ the caption says.

The ideas behind them are as old as the hills — a woman’s place is in the home and men are emasculated by feminism — but they can always be recycled. It’s a familiar reversal, attributing excessive power to women who actually don’t have much, and it’s traceable all the way back to Juvenal’s sixth Satire — a great resource if you like Roman mother-in-law jokes. 

Satire works when the target has something to hide or is guilty of hypocrisy. Neither is true of Rowling or most gender-critical women, who offer a reasoned critique of the claims of trans activists. It’s not feminists who threaten to kill or rape people they disagree with, while attacks on Rowling’s wealth look ridiculous in light of her huge charitable donations

Mean-spirited personal attacks are not satire. Social media is full of trans-identified individuals claiming to be ‘better’ women than those of us who were born female. That’s a subject for satire if ever I saw one, but I don’t expect The Onion will publish that interview.

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.