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In defence of 'court jester' Mark Knight

  • 19 September 2018


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.

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.