January 19, 2015 2 Comments
Stumbled onto Dan Fincke’s lengthy defense of Charlie Hebdo in my feed reader, so I decided to see how it addressed my own point. It didn’t, really, just making the tired “it’s okay because they’re liberal” argument that holds water about as well as most sieves. Fincke specifically brings up South Park’s hilarious use of antisemitism used to skewer antisemites and Colbert’s anti-rightwing schtick, conveniently ignoring1 all the times both those shows have, despite liberal (or left libertarian in South Park’s case) intentions, crossed well into racist, misogynist, transphobic, or otherwise bigoted territory, without making the bigots the butt of the joke. Read some trans people’s writing on the number of jokes at their expense on primetime TV someday. It rather takes a lot of wind out of the sails of those arguments.
But Fincke brought up one point in the process that’s worth tackling specifically.
And, to the point of stereotypical depictions, Ashley Miller has made the important point that the medium of political cartoon inherently plays in caricature. It plays on over-exaggerated imagery. It’s a stylistic element of the medium. Everyone usually looks awful or stereotyped in a political cartoon. That’s usually the point.
Yeah, no. It’s true, caricature is an art of exaggeration, whether it’s racist or not. The problem is when caricaturists rely on racist imagery, rather than their actual subjects, to make their caricatures. Take, for instance, most right-wing political cartoons featuring Barack Obama2. You’ll find a litany of bulbous noses and big lips, which (as this cartoon by Shmorky points out) are not features that Obama possesses. Rather than caricaturing a person, Barack Obama, who has a very caricaturable face, they fall back on caricature shorthand for black people that dates back to Al fucking Jolson.
The same is true for the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that have made the rounds lately. So many Muslim men with turbans, thobes, bushy beards, and big hook noses; so many Muslim women in burqas. Why is that? Muslim women wear a wide variety of different garb, depending on their particular denomination, from simple scarves and hijabs to the more restrictive niqabs and burqas. Muslim men have more clothing diversity, and both genders have far greater diversity than the cartoons would suggest. If Islam isn’t a race, why is every Muslim drawn as an Arab caricature3? Even if it weren’t racist, it’s lazy.
But then, lazy caricature often trades in racism, because racism is the laziest form of caricature. No need to consider anything about the people, what they look like, how they behave, just reduce them to a set of signifiers determined by their skin color.
Fincke links positively to Understanding Charlie Hebdo, a website that helpfully seeks to explain the cartoons for a non-French-speaking audience. That site compares Charlie Hebdo to Mad Magazine, which seems apt. Mad Magazine is also a humor publication that skewers current events with a left-leaning bias, and Mad also trades heavily in cartoonish caricatures of their targets. Mad also has a long history of bigoted cartoons that aren’t covered by the blanket immunity of “they’re liberal!” or “no, no, the bigots are the punchline!” because the bigots, very clearly, are not the punchline. And lest you think that cherry-picking the most easily-found images from the ’70s demonstrates that it’s no longer a problem, here’s one that drew some understandable heat in 2013.
Being liberal, making fun of bigots, and using caricature are all well and good. They are not, however, things that prevent your work from serving bigotry of one sort or another. That requires more thought, more consideration, and more awareness of context. Folks like Fincke want us to consider these French cartoons in the larger context of the magazine’s politics and French culture, but to ignore the larger context of a long, worldwide history of racist and homophobic imagery, and the splash damage caused by using that imagery, the way it undermines any intended message of anti-racism. Wouldn’t this cartoon be more effective at lampooning racists if it didn’t feature a black caricature who could have been traced from a 1940s Spirit comic? Wouldn’t this cartoon have been more effective if it didn’t think replicating racist imagery were the same thing as lampooning it?
In science and skepticism, we often talk about the Galileo Gambit, where cranks will compare themselves to Galileo because his ideas were rejected too. I’m starting to think we need an Onion Gambit: “It is not enough to wear the mantle of satire; you must also be good at it.”
1. Fincke acknowledges some of South Park’s issues with transphobia later in the post, but doesn’t seem to see the actual distinction. From Fincke’s perspective, apparently, all targets are fair game for whatever caricature the satirists decide to use. The problem is only when the content of the satire is actually false. I think the problem is when the satire feeds into or relies on stereotypes that have, traditionally, been used to demean and oppress the underprivileged. It’s especially egregious when the target of the satire is not the stereotype itself (South Park’s transphobia, the Asian caricature that led to #CancelColbert), but even material which tries to make bigots the butt of the joke often falls flat. Fred Clark wrote a piece awhile back that often comes to mind when this topic comes up. Making fun of bigots by exaggerating actual bigotry is a difficult tightrope walk for even very talented comedians and satirists, and we shouldn’t be surprised when they occasionally stumble. But saying that those stumbles aren’t problematic because the satirist usually has good intentions ignores the difference between intent and outcome, and robs us of a conversation that often needs to be had. Why is the joke/caricature/etc. problematic? Where does it come from? Why was it thought to be funny? Dissecting those issues often gets us to the messy world of how we all absorb and sometimes repeat bigoted stereotypes without thinking. These missteps should be opportunities for us to talk about how bigotry works, how to be more aware of splash damage, more compassionate. Getting defensive and saying “nuh-uh because liberal” only perpetuates the problem.
2. The special case is Ted Rall. Rall is a leftist cartoonist who drew fire in 2013 for cartoons that depicted Barack Obama in a decidedly apelike fashion. Those defending Rall pointed out that he depicted everyone in a decidedly apelike fashion. He and his defenders thought this equal treatment meant that the cartoons weren’t actually racist. I think it’s a prime example of the problem with “equal opportunity offense.” Things that aren’t really problematic when done to privileged groups aren’t so benign when they feed into or draw from a context of bigotry and oppression. It’s one thing to draw George W. Bush like a chimp. Dude looks like a chimp. But drawing Obama to look like a chimp, when he doesn’t, and when there’s a huge history of cartoons and propaganda and pseudoscience about how apelike black people are, when “monkey” is a slur, it means you may have to rethink your stock caricature.
It also shows what a lazy, shitty artist Ted Rall is.
3. To be entirely fair to Charlie Hebdo, many of these caricatures are of Muhammad, who was Arabian. The fact that Muhammad is basically indistinguishable from any other male Muslim in their cartoons, however, is a problem.