working mum cartoonist, I have been paying particular interest to the twin controversies over this past fortnight of Glen Le Lievre’s cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald and Bill Leak’s cartoon for the Australian; both on the conflict in Gaza.
The Le Lievre cartoon is the one that interests me most (and not just because of the resulting rolling outrage which eventually led to Mike Carlton’s meltdown and resignation over the supporting article) because it hinges on what I generally tend to think of as “visual shorthand”.
What I mean by “visual shorthand” is tropes (or even memes, but not in the way we tend to think of them online) that are recurring devices that we use to convey meaning in the quickest way possible for the reader.
Think of things like using an old-fashioned phone for someone making a call (better yet, the red phone if it’s the President), a wired earpiece on someone in a black suit to convey Secret Service, the White House or Parliament House in the background, someone holding the scale of justice (or that whole subset of judgemental cartoons of people on the scales of justice)… all of these things are there to do the hard work for both the reader and the cartoonist in terms of meaning.
They work (generally – it’s always a shame when they don’t) because we understand them implicitly thanks to our cultural baggage – and a good cartoon uses them as building blocks.
It doesn’t matter that most phone calls haven’t happened on rotary phones (or even home phones) for years – it tells the story in the quickest way possible for the reader (even if it may – in the case of drawing Parliament House in the background of a cartoon – be more work for the cartoonist). This is the same logic – on an even more lizard-brain level – used by icon designers for smartphones and those boffins who give us logos.
We see it perhaps more readily in the visual shorthand that builds up around politicians and other public figures as they appear more and more frequently in our newspapers. I’d be surprised if anyone’s got a snap of Tony Abbott in his red speedos since 2012, but I’ll be damned if cartoonists (myself included) don’t love drawing him in them, accompanied with his famous appendages (the ears).
Similarly, Joe Hockey made the unfortunate mistake of confirming the suggestion he was a Shrek lookalike on Kerri-Anne Kennerley’s morning show in 2007, and some seven years on, this is still one of the defining characteristics cartoonists like David Pope, Mark Knight and Broehlman use to draw him.
Where all of this becomes problematic, and often too reductive, is when we get to issues of foreign affairs and particularly race.
One old chestnut is China; great big ol’ fat panda China.
(Getting saucy in that last one there)
While the final cartoon there at least puts a face on the Chinese government, to my mind this kind of visual shorthand is problematic. It’s generally doesn’t bother to delineate between who is in power, it portrays the country as an unstoppable but bumbling and confused mass. And it takes away any responsibility from the ruling government by putting the blame on the concept of China rather than the decisions of real people.
Ironically I think it is potential allegations of racism in drawing leaders like Li Keqiang that scares cartoonists into using these tropes.
Worse still is Russia, which as been a bear for over three separate centuries and three systems of government (not to mention decidedly different regimes within each of those periods). Here’s a Punch cartoon from 1911:
And one from 1978 by Purlitzer Prize winning cartoonist Edmund Valtman:
And just this year:
Which brings me back to Le Lievre’s cartoon. It’s understandable that Le Lievre considered the Star of David as legitimate shorthand for Israel. I think that the Sydney Morning Herald apology gets this bit wrong in suggesting:
in using the Star of David and the kippah in the cartoon, the newspaper invoked an inappropriate element of religion, rather than nationhood, and made a serious error of judgment.
The flag of Israel bears the Star of David. While it is a holy symbol that was used, yes, to tag and shame the Jewish people under Nazism, it is also the fundamental element of the “brand” of Israel.
A cartoon on Israel will likely use the Star of David as shorthand in some form. I think that’s inevitable, and I think that categorically ruling out that idea is needlessly defensive. Further, Jeff Sparrow’s piece this week for Crikey points out there’s also a problem in suggesting that conflation of judaism and the nation of Israel is unfair when the country offers right of return and Netanyahu often claims to speak for the Jewish people in addressing Israel’s national concerns.
What is more problematic is the stereotypical old Jewish man on the couch. The large nose, the coke-bottle glasses, and, yes, the kippah. Using a stereotype to represent a nation or a people is hard to defend as anything but racist.
There is no bear or panda for Israel, just a century of horribly stereotypical representations of Jewish people that have more often than not been used to disenfranchise, discredit and ridicule. I don’t doubt Le Lievre’s suggestion that he made the connection between a photo of old Jewish men on the hill watching the bombing and someone watching TV and ran with it, but the visual shorthand he used for “jewish person”, beyond the Star of David and kippah were the same ones that a cartoon like this (telling Germans not to buy from Jewish shopkeepers) used in 1929:
So how do you make that same criticism of Israel Le Lievre was seeking without falling into those tropes?
The person that should have been on the top of that hill in the cartoon, leisurely changing the channel on Gaza, is a cartoon Netanyahu.
When in doubt, put a real face on the target of your criticism.