Australian cartoon puts fuel on Serena fire

Here’s Mark Knight’s Herald Sun cartoon which initiated a social media and general media storm around the globe:

My wife drew my attention to it in an article ‘Racist’ Australian cartoon of Serena Williams prompts global controversy in The New Daily.

Strangely, the cartoon is no longer there, and to save you trouble, none of those links lead to it.

It’s missing in a lot of articles now. Many articles such as That racist caricature of Serena Williams makes me so angry, an article by Jacqueline L. Scott, PhD student at the University of Toronto link to a Twitter re-posting, but many link to Mark Knight’s Twitter posting, which he has now closed.

This article explains that to Americans a caricature of Williams takes us inevitably back to the Jim Crow-era, when cartoons like this were common:

Mark Knight says:

    he had “absolutely no knowledge” of the Jim Crow-era cartoons of African-Americans and said social media had fuelled the outrage.

    “I find on social media that stuff gets shared around, and it’s like a sort of rolling thunder. It’s like a hurricane. It develops intensity way beyond its initial meaning,” he said.

    “I think racial tensions in America are, of course, more heightened than here in Australia. And Americans may look at it in a different light.

    “No racial historical significance should be read into it.”

Clare Corbould, Associate professor at Deakin University has a calm, learned piece The Herald Sun’s Serena Williams cartoon draws on a long and damaging history of racist caricature which details “at least 200 years of racist and sexist caricaturing of African and African-descended women.”

The article and the title say he “draws on” this tradition of caricature. Plainly he didn’t if he had no knowledge of it. However, I think she demonstrates why the American culture is now such that a cartoon like Knight’s would be impossible there.

Knight was clearly working for an Australian context where in a Courier Mail online poll 96% of people saw Serena Williams as simply engaging in an inappropriate tantrum. I can’t remember the exact wording, but such numbers are rare on any subject.

The Herald Sun in an editorial Mark Knight’s cartoon rightly mocks Serena Williams’ US Open finals dummy-spit defended Mark Knight:

    THE world has officially gone mad when a celebrated cartoonist is condemned by the social media hordes for depicting a famous sports star throwing an unedifying tantrum.

And:

    In her straight sets loss to Naomi Osaka, Williams was simply outplayed and lost her temper in a gigantic and ill-disciplined blow-up.

    Mark Knight’s cartoon depicting Williams destroying her racquet and jumping up and down, with a dummy spat nearby, mocked the star player for her behaviour.

Plus:

    A tidal wave of ill-informed critics, from author J.K Rowling to rapper Nicki Minaj and a barrage of twitter users, have accused Knight’s drawing of being racist, with a number pointing to stature and colour distinctions between Williams and Osaka, who is of mixed Japanese and Haitian descent.

    She was drawn with a blonde ponytail because she has a blonde ponytail.

    To argue the Williams drawing is racist is an attempt to defeat cartooning — and satire — with a politically-correct barrage.

    There is a valid and urgent need to continue the march toward true and real racial and sexual equality in all walks of life.

I don’t think the pony tail was ever white:

during day four of the 2018 French Open at Roland Garros on May 30, 2018 in Paris, France.

However, some critics complained that Ramos and Osaka were depicted as white, whereas the claim was that both were coloured. I think the Potugese Ramos might be surprised to hear he is coloured. In fact the editorial links to a gallery of Knight cartoons, where you can see an enlarged version of the Serena cartoon.

I’ve cropped and enlarged the segment framing Ramos and Osaka to show that their faces are coloured, and guess what, the pony tail is yellow:

White people are never white on TV or the net, usually a muddy orange. I’ll come back to that, but it is clear that people are not seeing what is in front of them.

The gallery does not show Knight’s earlier cartoon of Nick Kyrgios, which I found in the article Cartoonist Mark Knight Comes Under Fire for Serena Williams Cartoon:

This is the front page of the Herald Sun:

Here’s an audio of Mark Knight explaining himself, and here’s a cartoon he did illustrating his problem with the critics:

I think a must-read view comes from Robert Phiddian, Professor of English at Flinders University in an article Mark Knight is our best tabloid cartoonist. Is his Serena Williams drawing racist?

At last a critic who has a clue about the craft of cartooning:

    Cartoonists have to compress their images, so they often use stereotypes. This objectifies the subject and is thus, inevitably, an othering process. That is how representation works in general and how satirical representation works in particular.

    You just cannot draw Serena Williams without drawing her female and black. So should she never be drawn? Even when she has plainly made herself a topic of interest in a very public way? Is silence better than risk of offence?

He asks if there is any way of drawing an angry and powerful African-American woman and quarantining the image from old racist stereotypes. The answer is clearly, no.

Not too long ago Knight could have assumed that his audience would be limited to Australia, but with social media the image travels around the world in an instant, sheared of context and the cartoonists intent. Unfortunately others will judge, and judge us as a society as well.

Phiddian also says:

    the Hippocratic Oath of “first do no harm” cannot reign supreme without undermining the free circulation of ideas, images, and opinions.

Finally:

    Mark Knight should not be muzzled but he has to cop it sweet from those who dislike the cartoon. He does not work in a safe environment, where all he will hear is the gentle murmuring of affirmation. Neither do public figures like Serena Williams.

    So, my last opinion: given the current configuration of digital media, there’s no way this safe environment is about to arrive, and I hope it never does.

Now a few observations of my own.

Mark Knight says he worked from photos he saw of Serena Williams during the tournament. He may well have seen this one:

And/or this one:

Sorry, Serena is solidly built, muscular, has a big mouth and was using it. That was the point.

Cartoonist are brutal in the distortion they use. Take David Rowe on Tony Abbott:

Here’s the Abbott detail expanded a bit:

I think Knight has been quite modest in the distortion used on Serena. It’s also clear that he has been careful to take colour out of the whole image, using black and white, and mainly the primary colours of red, a lot of blue and a bit of yellow. The lips stand out, but they are meant to. Also Serena stands out. She is meant to.

The predominance of blue fading upwards to white, and taking the tone out of Williams’ skin colour gives a flat appearance which heightens the emotion shown in the tantrum.

It’s all about her, and it’s all about winning. That’s what the comment “Can’t you just let her win?” from Ramos tells us. Some complained that Ramos and Osaka were not shown as tall as Williams. The cartoon tells us they were marginalised.

Phiddian says:


    race is not “not there”, but neither is it, in my view, “the point”.

I think Knight’s message is that exactly – it’s not about race.

Still Knight can’t prevent people seeing the image through the prism of race, and therein lies the problem.

The whole issue is not helped by reducing the image to the size of Knight’s Twitter, (before he turned it off) which I think is how many overseas media sourced the image. It was only about 545 pixels wide, too small to pick up the detail such as the skin colour of Ramos and Osaka. Here we can only do 600 pixels, the image in Knight’s gallery was 1919 pixels, but I think it was designed to be seen about 50% bigger than actually happened in most cases.

However, the artistry in the cartoon was always going to be missed by the anger of those who brought the baggage of centuries of history and oppression in another land to ours.

There is an alternative view, put by lawyer Duncan Fine at the SMH.

To him the problem is us:


    Why could this cartoon emerge in Australia and not elsewhere? While Australians like to imagine we are a more progressive, more enlightened country than America, the Knight cartoon would never have been published there. Perhaps that’s because we have never had an unflinching public debate about race and our treatment of Indigenous Australians. Nor have we had a great civil rights movement such as the one that has transformed the US since the 1950s.

    Until we do, let me be blunt: if you can see nothing wrong with this cartoon then you are casually dismissing centuries of history and oppression. We should be better than that.

Let me be frank. We have here another critic who does not understand cartooning when he says:


    The trouble is that Knight has gone out of his way to depict her not as a champion athlete but as wild and barbaric; full-lipped, ugly and ape-like.

I think Knight has depicted Williams as more Serena-like than ape-like. It’s a cheap shot which is unkind to apes, who are after all family in the biological sense. In fact, Knight has gone out of his way to show that this was not about race and was essentially about a tantrum or ‘dummy spit’ (see Update below).

Our past is not pretty and we have plenty of need for truth-telling, as the Uluru Statement from the Heart with it’s call for a First Nations Voice and a Makarrata Commission identifies. That plus a treaty and action that addresses reconciliation and restitution. Only then can we all feel at home in this land and truly feel part of our 65,000 year history. Australia’s situation is different from America, and it’s a bit rude for others to see us through the prism of their own history and culture.

So as Phiddian said:

    You just cannot draw Serena Williams without drawing her female and black. So should she never be drawn? Even when she has plainly made herself a topic of interest in a very public way? Is silence better than risk of offence?

I would hope not. She should not be exempt from a cartoonist’s attention.

Whatever we think about the cartoon, I still think tennis needs to clean up its rules as per previous post Serena meltdown a missed opportunity.

Update: I should have mentioned that Knight nails his interpretation of the Serena outburst by drawing a dummy on the ground. Unfortunately the term ‘dummy spit’ is readily understood by Australians, but not so much elsewhere. Free Dictionary explains:

    To have a childish overreaction or angry outburst to a negative situation or outcome; to act in a bad-tempered manner, likened to a temper tantrum of a child. “Dummy” here refers to a plastic teat used to soothe teething infants (also called a “pacifier” in the U.S. or a “soother” elsewhere), which they may spit when in the middle of a tantrum.

My Oxford Australian Dictionary says the phrase means to “be very angry” or to give up when contesting, participating etc.

Thanks to Ambigulous for raising the dummy spit on the other thread.

6 thoughts on “Australian cartoon puts fuel on Serena fire”

  1. When an academic spits the dummy, it’s often both a dummy spit and a dumb spit.

    Some academics can be as funny as a fight. Worth the price of admission. In a hole and still digging.

    Danke schoen.

  2. Serena could have gained respect, particularly in Aus, by smiling, admitting she deserved that cartoon and asking for a signed copy.
    Sitting back and letting the PC brigade defend the undefendable on race and gender grounds doesn’t help her case or the case of others who may actually have cause for bias complaints..

  3. Good line JD (locker room).

    To me the cartoon is a comment on narcissism in high profile individuals, as is the Abbott cartoon. I really don’t think the whole thing is worthy of that much comment, though great admiration to Brian for his awesome research skills.

  4. BilB, I just kept finding stuff. It all took me about three times as many hours as I had epected.

    I’ve done an update:

    Update: I should have mentioned that Knight nails his interpretation of the Serena outburst by drawing a dummy on the ground. Unfortunately the term ‘dummy spit’ is readily understood by Australians, but not so much elsewhere. Free Dictionary explains:

      To have a childish overreaction or angry outburst to a negative situation or outcome; to act in a bad-tempered manner, likened to a temper tantrum of a child. “Dummy” here refers to a plastic teat used to soothe teething infants (also called a “pacifier” in the U.S. or a “soother” elsewhere), which they may spit when in the middle of a tantrum.

    My Oxford Australian Dictionary says the phrase means to “be very angry” or to give up when contesting, participating etc.

    Thanks to Ambigulous for raising the dummy spit on the other thread.

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