Let’s get Reality Bites out of the way, shall we? The definition of irony offered to the perplexed Lelaina (Winona Ryder) by the insufferable Troy (Ethan Hawke) is “It’s when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.” Well OK, cheers Troy, but it’s not that simple.
Hawke, who’s a reasonable writer, might have objected to the line. While the definition’s not incorrect, it’s far from complete; what he’s presented there is basically sarcasm, which is the root – but not the whole – of rhetorical irony. You know what a rhetorical question is, right? Well, rhetorical irony combines the rhetorical question’s implicit shared knowledge with Troy’s meaning-opposed-to-the-statement form. By wearing that violet DEBBIE GIBSON ELECTRIC YOUTH TOUR 1989 t-shirt, the hipster in the corner is saying “You know, and I know, that Debbie Gibson was rubbish. So it’s highly amusing to wear this t-shirt, which suggests I actually like her music. Aren’t we clever?”
That’s the easy version. His t-shirt’s ironic, he’s wearing it ironically, he’s being ironic.
Let’s take a closer look. The Debbie Gibson t-shirt, which the hipster thinks is cool, smacks of trying too hard. Was it a lucky charity shop find? Cool, but it probably wasn’t. Did it come from nearby “vintage” mecca Beyond Retro? Probably. Did he shuffle through the racks to find just the right hilarious ironytastic shirt? I think he did. And now he’s all self-conscious in the corner, hoping the right people will get it. However, I’m grateful to the hipster for introducing a second, more complex variety of irony: He planned to achieve cool, but the plan’s execution and result were anything but.
This second variety, which I think of as situational irony, is a trickier proposition than the rhetorical type. It’s much easier to provide examples: Yes, we know the situations portrayed in Alanis Morissette’s song aren’t ironic. They’re bummers (Isn’t it a bummer? Don’tcha think?), although the spoons/knife business comes close. Yes, the fact that the situations portrayed in Alanis Morissette’s song aren’t ironic is itself ironic – isn’t it? Or is it just another bummer? Anyway, here’s a real life true story that actually happened.
Around 1996 I was admitted to hospital after spending most of the night puking blood. An endoscopy showed that I had two duodenal ulcers, and the answers to a few questions explained their presence. I had my first professional job after graduating from an industrial design course, working for a packaging design company; I was a modelmaker, and the other basement boys and myself were always the last people to work on a project, producing mock-ups to present to clients when the “creatives” upstairs had finally finished fiddling about. Sometimes we worked late into the evening or even overnight, with little room for error. Sharp blades, hot vacuum-formings, toxic fluids and whirling lathes and mills were the tools of our trade, and for some reason I’d taken to chewing gum all day. So my stomach thought it was going to get filled, I was understandably tense, and acid was eating away at my duodenal lining.
And the job – what was the precise nature of the work in progress at the time of ulcer diagnosis? Developing new packaging for Zantac. As you may or may not know, Zantac is the world’s number one ulcer cure. How’s that? I think that’s a pretty good example. Bit of a shaggy dog though. Zantac gave me ulcers.
Actually Zantac cures ulcers caused by the Helicobacter Pylori bacterium, which is most ulcers, but not stress-originated ulcers. Is that ironic? It’s certainly a bummer.
That’s my personal example, but my absolute number one ne plus thingummy is at the end of Nick Broomfield’s documentary Kurt and Courtney. Attending the annual American Society for Free Speech convention, he gets up on stage to ask the society’s board members why they’ve invited Courtney Love to be their keynote speaker, when she “…has repeatedly cajoled and threatened journalists…”
Aaand…he’s escorted off the stage. By the Society for Free Speech. I was at home on my own when I saw this, and I still applauded. Partly because of his supreme ballsiness, and the way he used his mild-mannered Britness to do something so outrageous, but mostly for the perfect situational irony.
(Right now, the music here in the coffee shop is Hole’s Malibu. Appropriate? Coincidental? Yes. Ironic? No. I like that song, in a non-ironic way.)
Crikey. I had a scare there; I looked up Kurt and Courtney on YouTube, and couldn’t find the scene I just described. Did I invent it? Surely not, I definitely clapped. Has Love’s legal team suppressed it? That would be the cherry on the icing on the delicious irony cake. But no, I found it, and thankfully it was pretty much as I remembered. A great relief, actually, because, well – I’ve recounted that scene a few times over the years, citing it as my favourite example of an ironic situation; imagine if I’d been getting it wrong all this time. You know what that would be, right?
It wasn’t The American Society for Free Speech, because that doesn’t exist. It was the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Broomfield’s words were “…unless it is considered appropriate behaviour to threaten, or cajole, or manipulate journalists who have written unflattering reviews, I find it a strange decision on the part of the ACLU to choose Courtney Love as a special guest here tonight. And to Courtney Love I would like to just ask what you feel about…” – after which he is lead away. He claims that the voice clearly shouting “Get off the fuckin’ stage!” is that of the ACLU’s president.
Examples, yes, but we’re no closer to a definition. Even if I stick with the situational type it’s still going to be unwieldy; it’s quite hard to define without actually using the word ironic. Nevertheless, how about:
The character of the statement made or the outcome of the situation is opposed or tangential to the supposed principles of the person/people making the statement or the situation in which the action takes place or to its intended outcome.
Snappy eh? (That was sarcasm which, although it may be the lowest form of wit, is sometimes just the job.) Troy Dyer was a monumental smartarse, but that line would have been a bit much even for him.
Let’s go back to examples; the simplest I can think of is: Getting run over by an ambulance.
Reality Bites, which I was going to get out of the way right at the start, is a rotten film. And yet we still have affection for it, probably because of the bit where they dance in the petrol station. Well, grumpy Troy doesn’t, but let’s leave Leilana, Vickie and Sammy in the scene’s final shot, jumping around to My Sharona, surrounded by darkness in their Edward Hopper lightbox.