Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Newspaper cartoons: are we too hard to draw?

Now it's Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times in the news, for publishing a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe that shows the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall with the blood and living bodies of Palistinians, complete with the caption 'Israeli elections. Will cementing peace continue?' Here it is:

It's apparently a robust political comment on Israeli/Jewish attitudes to a resident underclass, and the type of policy that will win an election.

I have to say that for me it conjures up images of Jews and other people put to work in Nazi death camps from 1933 to 1945. The Nazi regime cared nothing for the welfare of its internees, and people who were not immediately done to death were forced to work on starvation rations till they dropped, Jews and Russians most of all. The Nazi war building programmes (such as the ever-expanding detention camps; military bunkers, towers and underground installations; and massive bombproof harbour works) all needed a huge amount of expendable labour, and there are tales of abused and possibly suicidal prisoners falling into the concrete as it was poured, never rescued, and left to be entombed forever. This cartoon might well stir up memories of that. And it was put out on Holocaust Day, of all days. Was that deliberate, or just crass carelessness? Gerald Scarfe says he didn't know his cartoon would be published on such an anniversary.

I am not Jewish and the cartoon doesn't offend me personally, but I don't like it. There's something wrong and uncomfortable about it, it touches a nerve, and I can perfectly understand why anyone who was Jewish would take it as an attack on the Jewish people of Israel, and indeed all Jews worldwide who support Israel.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews is appalled and has lodged a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission (see http://www.bod.org.uk/live/content.php?Item_ID=130&Blog_ID=709). Once again, the editorial lapse (or endemic laxity) that allowed the cartoon to go out is glossed over, and the usual bland words of 'major apology' offered up front as a sop to outraged sensibilities, and to give the PCC grounds to dismiss the complaint. All right till the next time then. Meanwhile I wouldn't think that the circulation of the Sunday Times will be in any way affected. Mr Scarfe might tone his cartoons down, but he probably won't.

I don't think that the UK media in general is anti-Jewish, but this is evidence that it still hasn't got a grip. Big errors and misjudgements are still possible. Why should this be? Don't they understand how people might react? Don't they care? It appears not.

This incident made me speculate on whether trans people have ever been made the subject of cartoons lampooning or attacking them in UK national newspapers. A half-hour search on Google didn't take me to any reported examples.

Apparently it hasn't been done. Perhaps there's a practical difficulty.

A cartoon needs to seize on some easily-recognisable feature that its victims must possess. In the case of Jews, that has for centuries been a massive hooked nose and other grotesque exaggerations. That's the convention. But the only Jewess I ever knew (around 1979) had a very pretty face and no hooked nose. It wasn't even large. She was clever and quick-witted, engaging, confident, a good talker, not at all religious (although I think she said her mother was), and very slightly olive-skinned. Those were the only things you might notice about her that made her a bit more exotic - and more interesting - than the average South London girl of the time. She was looking for a stepfather for her son, and faded from my life when she got her man. Anyway, so far as appearance and attitude went, she was not standard Jewish cartoon material. But it seems that enough Jews do resemble the historic standard image well enough to keep it going.  

Trans people however have no universal distinguishing features. We come in all shapes and sizes, and we are not a particular race. And we haven't centuries of traditional caricature behind us.

This makes it difficult for a cartoonist who wants to put a 'stock tranny' into a cartoon. There is nothing he can use like the traditional image of Father Christmas, or the British Bobby, or the British Civil Servant as a man in a bowler hat, dark jacket and shoes, pinstripe trousers, and carrying briefcase and rolled-up brolly. Yes, there is the panto dame, and the joke transvestite who is a hulking male figure in an old-fashioned dress, with wobbly high heels, wig and handbag, and a five o'clock shadow like Fred Flintstone. But then what about the young, switched-on and feisty trans people seen on TV in the last couple of years? Or the Ladyboys of Bangkok? Or any stunning Brazilian model come to that? Do you remember the quickly-withdrawn Paddy Power betting advert last year? I'm sure that anyone who saw it must have concluded that it's almost impossible to distinguish a trans woman who is well turned out from an ordinary woman who is equally well turned out. And what about the FTMs? They are quite numerous nowadays and getting more so all the time. And then what about all the people in between the extremes who have gender issues, but wouldn't say they were full-blown MTF or FTM?

The public has a confused array of different and incompatable trans images in its mind. None of them is automatic, unmistakable shorthand for 'transsexual'. We are too various. And I think that makes 'a typical transsexual person' very hard to draw. As hard as it would be to depict the 'typical person in the street'. And so, for now, we are spared a starring role in a newpaper cartoon.

Two final points.

First, there are of course other sorts of cartoon that show trans people. Search the web and you will discover for instance an entire genre of manga-type cartoons that show pre-op MTFs in sexual situations. I'm not talking about that kind of thing. I'm talking about the type of cartoon, probably political, that might appear in a national newspaper.

Second, I wonder whether we should mind too much about the publication of stock images - photographs mainly, not cartoons - that are miles away from our own personal appearance? If we don't look like that, then the image makes us invisible and anonymous when out in the street, because the public will be looking out for someone very different.


  1. From a North American perspective, where Israel is seen as a close ally the British mainstream media seems very anti-semetic. I was disgusted but sadly not surprised by the cartoon.

    Reading a recent anti-trans article in the Canadian press the images used to mock transsexuals were photos of drag queens pulled from the net. No need for unflattering cartoons to falsely portray us.

  2. "Jewess"? You might want to think about trying "Jewish woman".

    And the last sentence of that paragraph: "But it seems that enough Jews do resemble the historic standard image well enough to keep it going." That is... How do I say this? Offensive. It's a long standing, incredibly insulting caricature that has absolutely no basis in reality. I don't think you intended to be quite so offensive.

  3. I don't think Lucy was being intentionally offensive at all Carolyn Ann but it does demonstrate how easy it is to do so. Personally speaking I think it is best that people don't speak about their fellow human beings in any way but positive. If we cannot say good things about others it is better not to say anything and it is the same if we do it pictorially. Unfortunately being as we are that's going to be difficult to achieve isn't it?

    Shirley Anne x

  4. I certainly didn't intend disrespect, and look back at that lady with a solidarity and affection - and possibly understanding - that transcends anything I felt at the time.

    As for my remark about some Jews showing the distinctive appearance of their race, I think they should be proud of it. Why not? Other peoples have such pride. But don't confuse my celebration of Jewish distinctiveness with Israeli internal policy towards Palistinians.


    1. The Jewish race?!? "Distinctive appearance"?

      I'm not confusing anything, Lucy. I really am not confusing a thing.

      I'm simply aghast at your, quite frankly, obnoxious characterization. Yes - obnoxious.

      I'm sure you think my wife should be proud of her "race"? Her distinctive appearance? You know - those things that make her so easily identifiable as a member of the Jewish race? Despite the fact that she's never possessed a hooked nose or any other racial, ethnic or eugenic characteristics?

      I'm not sure you even realize just how insulting, obnoxious and offensive your comments are!

      In your next comment you say that you're not attacking the Jewish people. How about this: you're blundering about and using concepts that you shouldn't need to be informed are offensive and insulting. You might not know any Jews - but I do. And your gross characterization of the many Jewish individuals I know is both insulting and offensive.

      Words can express what I think of your line of reasoning, but it's your blog. You want a comparative discussion, and you do it by alleging the existence of a Jewish race? By characterizing a group you readily admit to not knowing any members of, and by asserting that "enough" Jews have a typical appearance, one that happens to be a standard anti-Semitic trope that the trope must be true? Which bit of all that did you not think would offend?

      Whatever. Your blog.

  5. Besides, my intention was nothing more than this: to discuss why in Britain it is possible to mock transsexual people on TV or in press articles, but apparently not in cartoons intended for national newspapers. I have suggested an answer. It's not an attack on Jewish people.



This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford