In defence of 'court jester' Mark Knight

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Now that the discussion about Serena Williams' defeat by Naomi Osaka and Mark Knight's cartoon has faded, it may be worth reflecting more generally about cartoons and what we might expect from them. They belong to a long tradition of licensed comment on social and political behaviour.

Serena Williams argues with referee Brian Earley during her Women's Singles finals match against Naomi Osaka on day 13 of the 2018 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on 8 September 2018. (Jaime Lawson/Getty Images for USTA)The tradition of court jesters licensed to criticise the king exists in many cultures. It is part of a broader tolerance of satirical writing in which the foibles and sins of the great can be safely criticised. The Shakespearian fools are typical in representing the view of the common man as he speaks truth to power.

Printed cartoons, popular since the 18th century, stand in this tradition. They focus on current events, usually representing the perceived weak against the strong. Of course, who are the weak and who are the strong is often disputed: cartoonists' classifications often represent their own view or that of their paymasters. Cartoons are a form of social criticism expressed in a way that licenses and ritualises offensiveness, so softening it. The political targets of cartoons generally accept them uncomplainingly and are thought precious if they do complain.

When judging cartoons we need to keep in mind this transgressive tradition, and attend both to the message that they contain and to the way that they convey it. The point that Knight wanted to make is evident. His cartoon appeared after the focus of public conversation had moved from anger at the disrespect paid to Osaka by Williams' home crowd to anger at the umpire's treatment of Williams.

She had been penalised for expressions of anger and attributed the harshness of the penalties to her gender. The cartoon excoriated the change of focus by having the umpire ask the young winner, 'Can't you just let her win?' Whatever the merits of the message, it stands in the tradition of supporting the underdog against the more powerful.

Most critics of the cartoon, however, protested against the way Williams was represented. That also needs to be set within the cartoon tradition. Political cartoonists necessarily caricature their subjects freely. In a few brushstrokes they have to identify them, represent their emotions and fit them to the part that they play in the cartoon.

They usually identify them by exaggerating stereotypical traits: ethnic characteristics, age, hairstyle, pastimes, picaresque actions and dress, etc. They do not identify them by personal qualities but by their membership of groups which are also caricatured.

 

"The response to the cartoon suggests that we should all reflect on the stereotypes we use to describe people."

 

In typical cartoons, for example, Tony Abbott is represented in his speedos, marking him as belonging to middle aged blokes who are preoccupied with their bodies. Bronwyn Bishop was identified by her hair, and implicitly with North Shore matrons. Physical traits, too, are exaggerated — Abbott is represented with a duck like mouth, Peter Dutton by a potato face. Goodies and baddies are also identified, if not by black or white hats, by their expression and demeanour. When an immigration minister is represented with people on Manus Island, he will usually be standing aggressively in the foreground, and they will be shrinking helplessly in the background.

In Knight's cartoon, Williams is represented as large, black and enraged. Her features are exaggerated. In the background Osaka stands politely and straight before the umpire, dark skinned in comparison with him. No doubt is left about who are the goodies and baddies, the weak and the strong.

The question raised by Knight's cartoon concerns the propriety of ethnic and racial stereotypes. They have always been central to cartoons as a form of identification. Nineteenth century French cartoons of Jesuits depict them with the hooked noses used to depict Jews, with a biretta replacing the yarmulke. The stereotype was demeaning, although it has become a source of Jesuit pride to have been identified with a maligned people. Russians and Chinese are still often portrayed with the exaggerated Slavic and oriental features that belong to a long tradition.

The question raised by Knight's cartoon is whether such identification by racial stereotypes is ever acceptable. In the case of Knight's cartoon, that question is made more complex by another feature of cartoons. They draw not only from stereotypes but also from photographs.

The media published an extraordinary image of Williams in the heat of debate with the umpire. Head and shoulders thrust forward she is afire with rage. The facial image in Knight's cartoon catches, even while distorting, the energy of that rage. His representation of Osaka, too, was criticised for representing her with blonde hair. Photographs of her display blonde tips on her hair. The cartoon images are not pure stereotypes.

What to make of all this? The response to the cartoon suggests that we should all reflect on the stereotypes we use to describe people. Cartoonists would rightly hesitate now to use older stereotypes to describe Jewish people. The murderous results of the prejudice that such representations fed and respect for Jewish people today make them unacceptable. The stereotypes of black people, too, are associated with a history of racial discrimination and contempt. These stereotypes should also disappear.

This is not a matter of free speech. No one is stopping people from drawing, criticising and defending cartoons. They are a special case. In the tradition, cartoonists enjoy freedom by grace and not by right. They are by nature transgressive and that quality has been prized as of social benefit. Their excesses limit regal excesses. Cartoonists should be cut some slack. But there are some places they should not want to go.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

 

 

 

Main image: Serena Williams argues with referee Brian Earley during her Women's Singles finals match against Naomi Osaka on day 13 of the 2018 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on 8 September 2018. (Jaime Lawson/Getty Images for USTA)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Mark Knight, Serena Williams, cartoons

 

 

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Existing comments

Cartoons are caricatures. Living people are complex beings and just whether they relish being portrayed as a caricature can be disputed. Many of us can recall the mess that ensued after William Dobell's portrait of Joshua Smith was characterised as a caricature. The fallout impacted both painter and subject profoundly. I have been inclined to defend Serena Williams in this matter, acknowledging that her behaviour was outrageous but very human. As much as I admire Roger Federer's sublimity at tennis and in temperament, it is Serena who tugs at my heart for her vulnerability. Parody is the most penetrating of criticisms and we should ever be aware, in the public eye, of just what we lose in that gaze.
Pam | 19 September 2018


Thank you Andrew for your as always balanced assessment. I have no problem with Mark Knight’s cartoon. It smacks of reverse racism with those who thought the cartoons of say Tony Abbott were okay but he’s a white middle aged nan. But it’s not okay to caricature Serena Williams because she is @ Black woman. Mark Knight captured her awful behaviour, how she looked in the display, and to suggest otherwise says cartoonists can draw only those who the commentariat say we can. Serena looked ferocious, the cartoon presented that.
Rosemary Sheehan | 20 September 2018


Thanks for a bit of balanced comment. The cartoon was clearly giving the message that Serena was clearly throwing a tantrum and effectively trying to bully the umpire. This became a problem when the twitterati (a very non-representative slice of the population) classified the representation of a black woman as a black woman (complete with the cariacature of features which is part of cartooning) as racist. No depiction of a white or asian person as a white or asian person is classified as racist. This is the real problem. I appreciate the problem that Americans have with racism in general given their history. In Brisbane recently I was talking to an american of african heritage. I was talking person to person. At one point in the conversation he made a statement about "people with my colour face" (BTW I am caucasian). I was disappointed that he had dragged a reference to racism into a conversation that was a simple sharing of opinions and information. This sort of thing can become ridiculous when, for example, in class recently, someone was accused of being racist for expressing a preference between a blue pen and a black pen. We need to overcome all the prejudices of Identity politics.
David Crowley | 20 September 2018


Congratulations to Andrew Hamilton for his brilliant article on 18 September '18, "In defence of 'court jester' Mark Knight". Absolute gold !! Thank you for publishing Andrew's article which puts the outcry over Mark Knight's cartoon portrayal of Serena Williams's on-court outburst against the umpire (during recent match in the united States with Naomi Osaka) in true perspective.
Chris Begley | 20 September 2018


A good article. I feel the cartoonist was criticised too harshly. Cartoons are generally very unkind to someone, if not all in them. Serena is a well built, black woman who behaved badly and was depicted that way. I also believe it’s reverse racism to demand she be drawn differently, but then saying it’s OK for others to be depicted any way at all. I think I am fair and treat people sensitively and equally. Whether you like cartoons or not, they usually humiliate someone. Is that OK, well that’s another conversation altogether.
Kate | 20 September 2018


Has anyone gone back & had a look at the cartoons of Barak Obama over the years? Okay so he was a politician. But I don't remember him ever giving cartoonists or other media the opportunity of seeing him "spit the dummy". What Knight did was powerfully portray "The Mother of All Dummy Spits". The dummy is there on the ground for all those willing to look, to see. "Spitting the dummy" is the ultimate disgrace in Australian sport. We love our champions to win and win humbly, Rod Laver, for example. But when they lose, we want them to lose gallantly & gracefully. We will not tolerate the squealer; the "We was robbed" attitude. I speak generally. Where I think Knight went wrong was - he didn't draw the dummy big enough.
Uncle Pat | 20 September 2018


Perhaps one of the places cartoonists should not go is the place that overtly dehumanises the person - and Mark Knight's exaggeration of Williams' facial features did conjure up an image of our species' non-human ancestry. Given the history, this shouldn't be OK, though I agree Knight didn't intend such a degrading reference. He should have known, though - look at the furore when a young girl at a football match called an Aboriginal player a 'big ape'. The pain caused had nothing to do with the girl's intention, and everything to do with a perceived history that denied the humanity of indigenous people. It rather irks me, though, that much of the outrage against Mark Knight comes from people who did not question the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that sickeningly caricatured the Prophet Mohammed, at the expense of large numbers of poor and marginalised French Muslims. The work of the cartoonist is vital in challenging the powerful - not so much in sneering at the dispossessed.
Joan Seymour | 20 September 2018


Thanks for your measured and reasoned piece, Andrew, on an issue that has caused much angst in our community. Freedom of speech, even for cartoonists, doesn't come without responsibility. It's also necessary to appreciate the times where respect for women and appreciation of prejudice against minorities is at an all time low. For me personally, I don't want to hear from anyone who is not black, that the cartoon is not offensive. What would you know?
Carol | 20 September 2018


Excellent and balanced, Fr Andrew. Pity we have become such an unbalanced mob! The Irish were routinely depicted in Punch Magazine in the latter part of the 19th century and into the twentieth century as Simian featured. Barack Obama was also depicted, monkey like, on more than one occasion with the long upper lip of the Simian. When I was at school kids were often referred to as "big apes" in a number of different situations (on the sports field and in the class room) and we were all white except for the best rugby fullback we ever had who was an Aborigine - fantastic man that everyone loved and was always one of us. He was almost certainly called a "big ape" at one time or another and, as was his bent , he would have laughed it off and given back as good as he received. We live in a world of false offence, lack of humour and political correctness through which some believe they earn acceptance - we've lost balance. Serena behaved equally as appallingly as John McEnroe and many other sports persons who have copped some pretty severe penalties from the umpires and cartoonists. These "dummy spitters", like, it seems, many of their supporters, need to grow up and become responsible adults.
john frawley | 20 September 2018


Thanks to Andrew Hamilton for this interesting discussion. For what it’s worth, I think Serena Williams’ “blow up” was a spur of the moment outburst that actually worked against her during the game. It was not one of those McEnroe moments intended to put the opponent off their game. Nevertheless, Williams did leave herself open to portrayals like Mark Knight’s cartoon. The court jester could get away (most of the time) with ridiculing those in power but even the jester had a line he knew not to cross or the court would be looking for a new jester. Whether Knight was ignorant of the history of racial stereotyping or didn’t think it applied to his cartoon I don’t know. It will be interesting to see if he learnt anything from this experience. I also wonder, given that Williams was in her workplace in a visible and highly demanding position, how we would react if someone got angry at a perceived unfairness in their workplace and other people started laughing at them and drawing demeaning cartoons about them.
Brett | 20 September 2018


The “win at any cost “ mentality has diminished sport, and weakened its values. Jimmy Connors and his followers of various genders, complexions and nationalities have much to answer . So do spectatotors and commentators who welcome this behaviour. That is precisely why we so admire Roger Federrer. Its his game and his values !
jp | 21 September 2018


The most sensible comment I have seen on this furore
Juliet | 21 September 2018


A splendid essay on cartoons, with just one flaw to it. The cartoon of Williams makes her look like the equally celebrated American soprano, Jessye Norman, who, apart from her complexion, looks nothing like Williams. Therein lies its problem: not all African Americans look the same and, as such, should not be portrayed as if they did.
Michael Furtado | 23 September 2018


Tennis, anyone?
John | 24 September 2018


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