What HBO’s “Succession” reminded me about “punching up”
The super entertaining HBO series “Succession” is back for a second season.
Like many of you, including a viewership in the Upper Peninsula I was not expecting, I am here for it.
Heard of it, but haven’t watched it? I’d describe it as a “House of Cards” for the media conglomerate-owning 1 percent. It’s all chessboard-esque strategies geared toward “getting ahead” among the members of a cut-throat, Murdoch-y family business that is waaaay more “business” than “family.”
I love it for a few reasons, including the fact that I am a total sucker for a series that features a load of strategy with a heavy dose of patience. I have a deep affinity for characters who think 12 steps ahead (maybe because that’s downright exhausting to me, personally). Because of all that, along with shared trauma among the show’s Roy family and an intense sibling rivalry, I am obsessed.
My “Succession” obsession extends beyond just watching it, which is why I’m also listening to the dissection of each episode weekly by Vanity Fair critics Joanna Robinson and Richard Lawson on the podcast “Still Watching.” Their analysis is full of interesting notes and funny insights, particularly when it comes to the all-too-real portrayal of the money behind digital news sites.
Joanna made note of a dynamic among the Roy children -- Connor, Logan, Siobhan "Shiv," and Roman -- in the podcast’s first episode this season that struck a chord with me. She said something along the lines of, “If all the Roy kids just banded together and ‘punched up’ they could take over from their father. Instead, everyone focuses on punching down.”
“Punching down.” In situation after situation, the Roy siblings continue to look among each other for the weakest and then work to make sure that person, or people, stays low. After all, if another is on the bottom, they are not.
“Punching up,” however? That’s something else entirely. I just keep coming back to that phrase weeks after hearing Joanna say it. I think there are a few reasons for that.
1. “Punching up” is about challenging power. Just typing “punching up” into a Google search and you see it described as a phrase for “deploying powerful techniques of criticism and rhetoric to critique and dismantle power structures, rather than to harm people disempowered relative to yourself.
2. It sounds a little meta, but “punching up” makes me conjure up the physical movement of such an action. And I don’t even mean in a “violent, do-harm” kind of way. I mean it as a movement. To spread out. To claim a position. To take up space.
While “punching up” presents challenges and questions in an effort to establish better footing and improved understanding, “punching down,” I think, is all about holding still, keeping position and limiting the movement of others.
Legendary columnist Molly Ivins noted the distinction, using satire, in a 1991 People magazine interview. She said, "There are two kinds of humor. One kind that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity … The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule -- that's what I do. Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel -- it's vulgar."
For a while, it has felt like many people in this country are in this dash to get up high and swing low. It has seemed like a lot of looking around for the lowest person, or people, on the totem pole and then starting to swing so you don’t lose that dang spot.
I think we’ve got a choice: we can “punch down” in an effort to hold on to what we have or we can “punch up” so maybe we can have more for everyone.
Amy Bailey was a member of the Michigan Capitol Press Corps from 2000-2006. She lives and works in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with her husband, son and an easily excitable Australian Shepherd. Amy's guest column, Something to Say, publishes periodically. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.