Sacred Cows and How to Kill Them

What does it mean to kill a sacred cow, and why is it important for writers to kill them?

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Long used as an idiom to describe iconoclasm, the idea of ‘killing a sacred cow’ refers to modes of storytelling (or works of art) which defy received wisdom, or overturn respected traditions or customs. The term ‘sacred cow’ stems from a reference to the much-vaunted position of cows in Hindu societies, held as they are in high esteem and placed beyond criticism. Essentially, if a writer creates a story intended to critique anything which is deemed irreproachable, he or she is killing a sacred cow.

But what exactly are those cows, and what makes them sacred? It’s easy to understand the notion that killing one would imply sacrilege, but how is it possible to identify which particular topics are worthy of abating from a writer’s perspective? A general argument could be made that anything which expects conformity—whether to a set of beliefs or expected behaviours—could be a sacred cow, so any attempt to buck against the consensus of majority opinion could be valid. However, here’s a handful of likely candidates which I think fit the description.

1. The trappings of religious belief

Once spiritual learnings ossify into rigid dogma, there can be great controversy caused by questioning the tenets of any religious faith. Creatively, having the bravery to take on the moral contradictions inherent in religion led the satirist Jonathan Swift to take on the might of the Church in A Tale of a Tub. The prose parody from 1704 sought to explore three differing branches of Christianity by personifying them as three brothers, each of whom defy their father’s wishes. In a metaphorical sense, Swift’s work often sought to kill the sacred cow by demonstrating how religion preaches unity and togetherness but in fact drives people apart:

All arts of civilising others render thee rude and untractable.

The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift

In essence, this quote best captures Swift’s observation that controlling others only leads to ignorance. The ties that bind, therefore, are prime candidates if you wish to herd up this sacred cow for creative assassination. In his time, Swift’s genius at critiquing religious attitudes and recognising how they impose expectations on others which nobody can possibly meet offers many writers a lesson in how to use religious satire to your advantage in this regard.

2. The institution of marriage and/or family

Any custom which tethers us into kindredship—such as marriage—is worthy of social commentary. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin offered a timely contemplation on modern marriage and women’s liberation in 1970s Connecticut, in which a young mother starts to suspect her neighbouring housewives are, in fact, robots created by their husbands. On the surface, this satirises the dehumanising effects of marriage, but on other levels, it goes much deeper.

That’s what they all were, all the Stepford wives; actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos, and detergents. Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real.

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

As a work of social criticism, the Stepford Wives understood that the strictures of familial obligation, as well as conformity to social expectations when it comes to gender roles, can prove deeply challenging and unsettling if tackled with satirical deftness. However, this sacred cow does not entirely have to be restricted to marriage—it could also be about parents against children, for instance, which is just as potent at conjuring social paranoia. Essentially, if you observe ways in which family duty harbours a controlling inclination, then it’s easy to identify a sacred cow just waiting for you to round it up.

3. The purity of political ideals

No matter the ideology, politics can often stir up strong emotions, so it’s fair game to satirise the moral short-sightedness of the Right just as much as it is to parody the naive utopianism of the Left. However, where killing the sacred cow gets most interesting is when it attacks people’s propensity for being blinded by political idealism, particularly when it comes to cults of personality, or cherished institutions. This is particularly evident in the non-fiction memoir about the National Health Service, This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, which is a stark and darkly humorous exposé of life as a junior doctor.

So I them the truth: the hours are terrible, the pay is terrible, the conditions are terrible; you’re underappreciated, unsupported, disrespected and frequently physically endangered. But there’s no better job in the world.

This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay

Though Adam Kay’s book falls short of outright criticising the ethos of the NHS—unwilling to challenge the core ideals at the heart of its inception—it does hold up a mirror to a political truth some of us may wish to avert our eyes from. By pulling down the hospital curtain and showing the reader its dark underbelly, the NHS is seen warts-and-all, causing us to question the viability of our expectations when contrasted with its grim reality. For this reason, the green space between idealism and truth are where many sacred cows graze, so this is something to consider if you want to spot where the political rot sets in.

 

All in all, sacred cows are worth killing if writers wish to explore topics which expose a deeper truth about humanity. If done well, such a story should question the very heart of our own experience, placing notions of social conformity firmly under the microscope, and aiming to root out hypocrisy wherever it can be found. If writers keep those objectives in mind, then killing a few sacred cows along the way is just a means of cutting ourselves free from our inhibitions, all in the name of helping readers find new ways of understanding each other. Or so we can hope.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and aspiring novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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