Occasionally I request a comment from a regular reader who has special expertise; for example, I have asked “Curmie,” a drama teacher, director and superb blogger when he has the time, to weigh in on theater and casting ethics controversies. (And I just remembered that the last time he commented, he submitted a Comment of the Day that I neglected to post! Arghhh! I’m sorry, Curmie…it will be up today.) This time, the surprisingly lively debate over the allegedly racist Serena Williams cartoon prompted me to send out a Bat Signal for the reactions of King Kool, aka Jeff H., who is a long-time reader and a cartoonist himself. (His submission for “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” periodically appears in the Ethics Alarms header.) He answered the call, and did so superbly.
There have been some new developments. The cartoonist, Mark Knight, has suspended his Twitter account because of all the hate coming his way. Knight said he was amazed at the reaction to his drawing. “I drew this cartoon Sunday night after seeing the US Open final, and seeing the world’s best tennis player have a tantrum and thought that was interesting,” he said. “The cartoon about Serena is about her poor behavior on the day, not about race.”
Popular Australian Broadcaster Neil Mitchell, among others, defended Knight, saying, “This shows an awful misunderstanding of Mark Knight and this country. I looked at that cartoon and it didn’t even cross my mind it was about race. It was a sports bully, a petulant child throwing a tantrum about losing…I drew her as an African-American woman. She’s powerfully built. She wears these outrageous costumes when she plays tennis. She’s interesting to draw. I drew her as she is, as an African-American woman.”
As I have explained elsewhere on the Ethics Quiz thread, the reason I made the issue a quiz rather than an ethics position post is that Knight’s cartoon struck me as racially provocative.
I believe it is racially insensitive, but I am not certain that in the field of opinion cartooning racial sensitivities should be ignored. If a white, male player who behaved like Williams—it is astounding that so many pundits are defending her—a mocking, tough cartoon, showing ugly conduct by portraying its perpetrator as symbolically ugly would be appropriate. I do not think it is fair or healthy for special immunity to be granted to a similarly misbehaving player, especially a repeat offender like Williams, because of her race and gender. This why my vote in the poll accompanying the quiz was the somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Whatever it was, she deserved it.”
That response has gleaned 13% of the votes, with over 72% voting for the position that it’s just a cartoon. Against the 85% that are inclined to support Knight (all old white men who are constitutionally unable to recognize sexism and racism, according to one unbiased, unbigoted commenter), 14% agree that the cartoons is “racist.”
To its credit, Knight’s paper, the Herald Sun, took the remarkable step of devoting its entire front page to Knight’s defense, which you see above.
Here is Jeff H.’s Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Quiz: The “Racist, Sexist” Cartoon:
One of the reasons I didn’t pursue doing political cartoons is because… no matter how much I practiced at it, I am absolutely awful at caricature. I tried drawing John Kerry dozens of times, and could never get it down. (Not that it ended up mattering.)
The image of Serena Williams has been called ‘something out of 1910,’ which I think it an exaggeration. However, the large lips, even the ponytail pointed straight up… to me, it does invoke some insensitive imagery of old caricatures and similar things. Maybe even the pose itself, her being completely in the air, maybe that is bothering some people for possibly comparing her motion to that of primitive man, or even that particular animal that racist jerks compare persons of color to. But that might be a stretch.
Again, that’s just my interpretation. I am not ascribing blame or intention. All I’m saying is… if the cartoon looked indubitably like Serena Williams, people would have a lot less to complain about, even if you could focus on part of it and say it parallels older racist art.
If it were me drawing this cartoon, I would have had Serena facing away from the ‘camera’ if I couldn’t make it look like her. The whiny facial expression isn’t important visually. We see her stomping the racket to pieces and the pacifier. The intention is clear. And thus, now that face is all we’re talking about.
Obama was drawn in caricature a lot during his term. Most chose to exaggerate his smile, as that was his most prominent facial feature. It’s not entirely different from how Carter was drawn. If a caricaturist chose to instead exaggerate Obama’s lips… well, that would be silly AND it would at least be evidence that the artist might not be trying very hard, and may well be dipping into artistic stereotypes.
Unsophisticated artists (like me!) have to do silly things to make it clear who they’re drawing. Remember how far out Ted Rall’s ‘caricature’ of Bush became, just to make him stand out from all the other interchangeable sideways heads he drew? I don’t think this artist TRIED to draw something racist, but I think the drawing can be fairly interpreted that way.
Just like looking at Serena Williams’ record of how often she blows her stack at officials would give us a better picture whether or not she’s a diva or just occasionally gets mad, or looking at this official’s record at officiating will tell us if there’s some bias in his history… unless the cartoon is galling and unambiguous, it doesn’t mean the creator is racist in a vacuum. If there’s a history of drawing persons of color in insensitive or questionable ways… then maybe it’s worth calling him out.
But to respond to your point that political cartoons are supposed to be mean and ‘make people gasp…’ that parallels what I’ve heard from other cartoonists who worked under political cartoonists. They mentioned an example where they showed the Grim Reaper dunking a basketball over Magic Johnson’s head. This followed his AIDS diagnosis, of course.
If someone can tell me what the message of THAT cartoon was, other than “fuck you, Magic Johnson, for getting a disease in the midst of your enviable career,” I would love to know it.
When I was a child, I remember reading in a cartooning book by Bruce Blitz that caricature is not meant to hurt anyone. I took that to heart earlier than I learned not to make fun of people for stuff they can’t control, like being bald or a diastema. You could represent those things in drawing, but you shouldn’t make it grotesque or in some way to hurt someone.
Now, as I said, the drawing doesn’t REALLY look like Selena, so maybe it won’t bother her personally. But the notion that political cartoons are just meant to rile people up and get under people’s skin… I don’t think that’s an ethical pursuit. Or if it is… I don’t have the nerve for it anymore.
That’s the other reason I put down the pen. I wanted to make jokes, or use jokes or observations to get people to let their guard down and see something differently. The career apparently called for the closest thing there was at the time to attention-getting clickbait.
(By the way, I voted “racist, not sexist,” even though I’m not entirely convinced it was racist. It’s definitely easier to make that claim than the sexism.)