Serena cartoon judged not racist

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.

There was reporting by Amanda Meade at The Guardian and American radio broadcaster NPR.

I had my say in posts Australian cartoon puts fuel on Serena’s fire and more particularly in Serena meltdown a missed opportunity.

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.

Earlier posts:

7 thoughts on “Serena cartoon judged not racist”

  1. My original intention was to do an item on the Serena cartoon issue in about two lines as an item in this week’s Weekly salon. However, I got sucked in and then embellished it to a separate post.

    I’ve had very little screen time in the last few days, so I’ll see how I go tonight.

  2. The key is the dummy on the ground. The cartoonist was drawing for an Australian audience. Her distorted face is typical of a three year old child in the throes of uncontrollable rage: a tantrum.

    Sorry, Brian, but I can’t accept that the reactions of overseas persons, who of “dummy spit” know nothing, can be of relevance.

    Suppose I saw a Brazilian cartoon, published there and online; and I was unaware of the local significances of three visual elements in the cartoon. My opinion of the cartoon would be of no value or interest.


    The satirical writings of Karl Kraus are widely admired, but it’s often said that many of his puns and jokes are untranslatable from his Viennese German. I’m happy to take at their word, the views of linguists who say so.

    Not all humour is universal.

  3. Not all humour is universal.

    That’s the truth and always will be.

    I think it is a matter of regret, but the world has shrunk with the phenomenon of the interwebs. people elsewhere are not one bit interested in our strange use of language, and are always at the ready to be outraged.

    It depends whether we give a fig about what they think of us, but I think the tendency will be for us to be less brave. If so we lose something.

    In this case Knight says he did not know about the Jim Crow tradition. Neither did I. You can’t know everything. It’s not possible to know how he would have acted if he did know.

  4. A superb sports woman – oops, sportsperson – lost the plot during a tennis match. OK, an important tennis match, but still a tennis match. Arguably more important than curling or synchronised swimming. But not like tilting at Middle East peace or something pivotal to the future of the world. Remember also that Ms Williams fortune is around $US180 million so the prize money at stake is maybe not the main theme of her complaint.

    A talented cartoonist, seeing the ridiculous in Ms Williams outburst, rendered his graphical depiction of the incident.
    In doing, so he captured the unseemly childish bratty behaviour of one of the worlds the greatest tennis players. He brought her behaviour to a world audience in a delightful satirical manner.

    Calls that the cartoon was racist ignored the beautifully captured child-like tantrum displayed by Ms Williams. She cracked a very public wobbly and got called for it. Race is not a part of it, the essence of the cartoon is immature behaviour of Ms Williams, whatever her race.

  5. A good summation, GH. Most complaining of racism showed complete, indeed boorish ignorance of the cartoonist’s skill.

  6. I’m fed up with Yanks trying to ram their bigotry, their ignorance and their confected outrage down our throats.

    This cartoon was about a high-level sports practitioner (female) throwing a very public tantrum during a game. It had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with her race, her ethnicity, her nationality, her religion, her marital status, her car-ownership status or whether she is vegetarian or meat-eater.

    If any of her actual or presumed physical attributes was highlighted or exaggerated in the drawing in question, then – guess what? – that’s the difference between cartooning and portraiture. If this difference is readily understood by children in Australia then why is it beyond the understanding of over-educated, very noisy Americans.

    Alright, I’ve had my “dummy spit” ….

  7. Graham, Gary Younge is a Brit, and they went just as bananas as the Brits did.

    I’m betting that Serena is off limits from now on, but I’m also betting that she’ll behave herself, so it won’t be put to the test.

    Meanwhile Alexander Zverev smashes his racquet in playing, and eventually losing to Nick Kyrgios.

    Actually Kyrgios did well, beating Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and John Isner to reach the final.

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