February 20, 2009
Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz was in front of a classroom full of black and Latino kids, drawing presidents. He sketched Bush, then Clinton. Next came his favorite, the man he voted for: Obama.
“Hey, those lips are big,” Alcaraz heard a black girl say from the back of the room.
Alcaraz was disturbed. “I try to bend over backwards not to make him look like a cartoon stereotype,” and certainly not a racial stereotype, he said.
Editorial cartoonists are bending over backwards a lot these days, as they try to satirize the nation’s first black president. And when they don’t, the result is the kind of outcry that erupted this week after a New York Post cartoon featured a bloody chimpanzee—intentionally or unintentionally evoking racist images of the past.
The problem is, cartoonists make their living by making fun of people—especially presidents—and exaggerating their features and foibles.
The best political cartoons are “like an X-ray machine,” said Amelia Rauser, an art history professor at Franklin & Marshall College and author of “Caricature Unmasked,” which examines the art form’s historical role in political discourse.
“You have to deform someone facially in order to make a larger point about their character,” Rauser said. “But that deformity reveals their inner truth and makes them look more like themselves.”
The late Herblock often saddled Richard Nixon with an enormous cartoon nose. Liberals drew George W. Bush like a simpleton, or worse. There have been minor kerfluffles from the left about drawing Hillary Clinton as insufficiently feminine, and from the right about depicting Condoleeza Rice as servile to President Bush.
Drawings of President Barack Obama, however, must contend with America’s history of degrading racial imagery, from ape comparisons to enormous “Sambo” lips. (Caricatures of the president’s admittedly large ears have so far escaped scrutiny.)
Michael Cavna, who blogs about comics for The Washington Post, wrote that “an unnerving number of North America’s political cartoonists are bizarrely obsessed with President Obama’s lips.” He followed with a detailed analysis of several cartoons where Obama’s lips were large, some shade of blue, or both.
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