Comedy gone too far? The growing challenges for newspaper cartoonists in an age of cancel culture
Arts & Lit Editor Lucy Aylmer examines the position of political cartoonists in today’s political and social climate.
The late Peter Preston described political cartoonists as an ‘endangered species’ that risked being lost to more efficient forms of communication such as photography and videos. Unfortunately, these are not the only challenges that political cartoonists face. The rise of cancel culture and frequent media backlash have caused the cartoon profession to shrink into a state of timidity.
Ken Pyne, from Private Eye stated that some papers are “terrified of losing a reader…that they are hyper-sensitive to anything that might offend”. He mentioned that social media has propagated this sensitivity due to people’s opinions transferring from the private to the public through platforms like Twitter. This, he says has implications for a newspaper’s reputation. It seems that social media has caused newspapers to become acutely aware of feedback and complaints that are generated from social media storms. According to a report by Sage Journals, newspapers are under increasing corporate pressure to make decisions that align with a newspaper’s revenue model. This can force press corporations to make strategic choices that avoid offending their readership and maintain a healthy revenue balance.
One stark example of cultural sensitivity is the brutal Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015. The attack was a response to the controversial cartoon drawing of the Prophet Mohammed which Al-Qaeda deemed a mockery to Islam. Typically, political cartoonists make a mockery of politicians, tease cultural traditions and derive humour from serious and often sombre news topics. In a multi-cultural society it is becoming increasingly difficult for cartoonists to determine what is fair-game in political satire.
Similarly, the rise of cancel culture has caused political cartoonists to adapt their cartoons to suit the times. Many believe that the rising culture of offence and intolerance for those with differing viewpoints is reshaping our attitude towards free speech and freedom of expression. The University of Cambridge is set to review their free speech policy which, depending on the outcome, could require ‘academics, students and visiting speakers to treat others and their opinions with respect’. This has proved controversial with leading public figures such as Stephen Fry who believe that the policy could alter the right to freedom of speech in a bid to avoid upsetting people’s beliefs. The implications of this policy not only affects academia but could also influence wider policy debate concerning the freedom of the press that allow journalists and cartoonists to freely express express themselves within media.
It seems that humour is reliant on exposing unattractive qualities to highlight vulnerabilities and flaws regarding the subject matter.
Freedom to express human emotion and humour are vital for cartoonists. The ability to reduce human form to a few basic characteristics is essential for providing a comedic platform that makes the serious, jovial. For Pyne, whose favourite person to draw is Prince Charles due to his “long face, long nose and great big ears”, it is clear that distinguishable features serve to produce comical cartoons. Cartoonists have a perceptive ability to understand the human condition and convey this through expressive imagery that draws out the humour from serious subjects. It seems that humour is reliant on exposing unattractive qualities to highlight vulnerabilities and flaws regarding the subject matter.
Through lampooning public figures, many believe that cartoons are an ill-judged critique of individual’s agendas and accomplishments. In light of the 2016 presidential elections, many were unsettled by the sexist depictions of Hillary Clinton in cartoon art. The Huffington Post described the Sacramento Bee’s cartoon depiction of Clinton as sexist and ‘gender stereotyping in its purest form’. The cartoon presented Clinton as a headless pair of crossed legs attached with a campaign button. Some argued that the cartoon implied women’s only purpose in society was to bear children and therefore reinforced patriarchal gender stereotypes through belittling women in senior positions of power.
Pyne is adamant that ‘you would never attack someone for their race or sexuality, just their politics’ and in this sense public figures are ‘fair game in politics’. Nevertheless, with digital and cultural changes evolving rapidly within society there is no doubt that cartoon art faces seismic challenges. Perhaps we should ask ourselves – has the joke gone too far, or are we too afraid to take a joke?