Serena Williams Cartoon ‘Not About Race,’ Artist Says. Experts Strongly Disagree.
September 11, 2018
“Thomas Nast, Winsor McCay, Will Eisner, R. Crumb all used blackface imagery; Dr. Seuss did viciously racist anti-Japanese cartoons during World War II, and on and on,” Mr. Berlatsky said. “Using exaggerated racist imagery for comic effect is one of the most characteristic moves of the comic medium.”
It is hard to believe, he said, that Mr. Knight did not know this history. A spokeswoman for The Herald Sun said Mr. Knight was too busy to be interviewed. But cartoonists who have tried to defend similar work in the past have argued that this history inoculates them — that it’s just how cartooning works.
No way, Mr. Berlatsky said.
“The problem is that picking up racist iconography from 100 years ago in order to attack a black woman still makes you racist, even if you think you’re participating in the tradition of comics rather than in the tradition of racism,” Mr. Berlatsky said. “The tradition of comics very often has been the same as the tradition of racism, and you can choose to push back against that, or you can be racist. Knight has chosen the second option.”
But is it fair to hold an Australian to an American standard?
Not being American, some cartoonists argue, is no excuse.
“While Australia has its own unique colonial history separate from the United States, the Western world, including Australia, share an aesthetic history,” said Ronald Wimberley, an artist and designer known for his commentary on race and comics.
He offered a detailed critique of Mr. Knight’s image, which he described as a failure on many levels:
“Is this cartoon racist? First, what is this cartoon doing? What’s the object? The text is a pretty clear, if flaccid, punch line regarding Serena Williams’s poor sportsmanship. It alludes to Serena being childish and angry (I’d argue that the text relies on racist, sexist tropes, too).
But cartoons are a drawing medium. Now, I don’t want to blindly attribute intent, but setting aside the possibility that the cartoonist is just that poor a draughtsman, the drawings seem to ridicule Serena’s appearance. These aren’t very good likenesses. Mark isn’t using the medium to support his joke by, say, depicting Serena as a baby, in which case the pacifier should have been more prominently featured.
Cartooning uses the shorthand of symbols to depict things. This is our craft. Using symbols. The pacifier is a symbol of immaturity, it alludes to a baby throwing a tantrum. But Mark is also drawing from a different history of symbols here. Racist and sexist symbols. Mark critiques the appearance and performance of Serena’s body in relation to race and sex, not her sportsmanship.”
Mr. Wimberley said there was only one conclusion that anyone who knows anything about cartooning or race could come to: “Whether or not Mark intended to draw on the racist history of the symbols, he has. His intent is irrelevant. Either he is a deliberately racist cartoonist — or an incompetent and careless cartoonist.”
Mr. Kindred, the cartoonist in Virginia, said that it ultimately comes down to quality, not just sensitivity.
“We want people to make better commentary,” he said. “Racism is a lazy joke to lean on.”
Want more Australia insight in your inbox? Sign up for the Australia Letter, a weekly dispatch from our bureau chief, Damien Cave.