Last September in Australia’s The Herald Sun published a cartoon by Mark Knight following Serena Williams’ US Open loss to Naomi Osaka of Japan, with Williams in mid-tantrum and stamping on her tennis racket. The umpire is shown asking Osaka, “Can you just let her win?” There is a dummy on the ground nearby. Here’s the cartoon:
The Press Council has issued its adjudication, published in the Herald Sun:
- The Council considers that the cartoon uses exaggeration and absurdity to make its point but accepts the publisher’s claim that it does not depict Ms Williams as an ape, rather showing her as ‘spitting the dummy’, a non-racist caricature familiar to most Australian readers. Nonetheless, the Council acknowledges that some readers found the cartoon offensive.
However, the Council also accepts that there was a sufficient public interest in commenting on behaviour and sportsmanship during a significant dispute between a tennis player with a globally high profile and an umpire at the US Open final. As such, the Council does not consider that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest. Accordingly the Council concludes that its Standards of Practice were not breached.
My initial reaction was that the cartoon was not racist, but captured perfectly a major tantrum and ‘dummy spit’ by a major tennis star, who has a record of volatility.
Further analysis confirmed this impression, revealed considerable craft on the part of the cartoonist, but no racist intent. Indeed I think he took steps to tone down the issue of race.
Nevertheless people beyond our shores came to the cartoon with a different mindset, did not understand the import of the pacifier on the ground, “dummy” and “dummy spit” being Australian lingo unknown to the rest of the planet, and almost to a person thought it racist.
A good example of the overseas reaction was Gary Younge’s The Serena cartoon debate: calling out racism is not ‘censorship’.
- In the cartoon, Williams’ hair provides a bulbous, bloated, outsized frame for an enormous lolling tongue that’s bigger than her knee; nostril to nostril, her flat, expansive nose is roughly the size of her shoulder. It is not a caricature of Williams, whose lips, nose and tongue are not particularly pronounced and are rarely, if ever, remarked upon. It is a caricature of black people – and more specifically black women – that went straight through the editing process as though the 20th century had never happened.
But worse that the cartoon, he says, was the paper’s response. The Herald and Weekly Sun:
said that the cartoon was in response to Ms Williams’ “outburst” on the court which attracted global headlines following the US Open final on 9 September 2018. It said it was depicting the moment when, in a highly animated tantrum, Ms Williams smashed a racquet and loudly abused the chair umpire calling him a thief, a liar and threatening that he would never umpire her matches again. It said it wanted to capture the on-court tantrum of Ms Williams using satire, caricature, exaggeration, and humour, and the cartoon intended to depict her behaviour as childish by showing her spitting a pacifier out while she jumps up and down. It rejected suggestions that the cartoon positioned Ms Williams in an ape-like pose and noted Ms Williams did have a large ponytail hairstyle on the day.
If you want to consider whether Williams has a broad nose, a big mouth and lips, you might consider this photo:
Or this one:
Knight was intrigued by images such as these, and the situation. He blundered in where angels fear to tread.
However, Younge’s charge is not that the cartoon was illegal, rather that it played to tropes and evoked traditions that were vile and racist. Younge says:
both Knight and his editors at his Murdoch-owned paper seemed hellbent on illustrating that they “lack the racial literacy needed either to challenge racists or to discern racism, in cartoons or elsewhere”.
Much of Younge’s critique is silly and some of it wrong. Osaka was not coloured white, for example, but he has a point.
In the end, though, the author of an act of communication must take some responsibility if it is received in a manner otherwise than intended. Younge is right in that sense. Informed about the reception and reaction, I doubt that Mark Knight would draw the same kind of cartoon again. It’s even less likely that the paper would publish it.
The Press Council could no longer claim the innocence that lay behind the original publication. Yet:
In its ruling, the Australian Press Council said it had considered complaints about how the women were depicted and “that the cartoon should be considered in the context of the history of caricatures based on race and historical racist depictions of African Americans. ”
Nevertheless, the Council said it found the publication did not fail “to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest,” and so it did not breach the Council’s standards of practice.
Hard to see how.
Be that as it may, tennis is still plagued with unseemly displays of bad behaviour which the authorities still tolerate far too much.