Colourful image has numerous grey areas

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Mark Knight's US Open Cartoon. Image: Herald Sun

Mark Knight should not be condemned for his cartoon of Serena Williams, but neither should those who take offence to it.

Sparking controversy with his work is a big part of Knight’s job as a cartoonist but that comes with a risk of negative feedback, and sometimes that backlash is warranted.

Knight’s take on the Women’s US Open final, which was published in the Herald Sun, has caused much debate in news outlets and social media channels.

Whilst the initial feedback was largely negative, citing the cartoon as racist and/or sexist, there has been further responses to the public outcry, in defence of Knight’s work.

Fellow news cartoonist Paul Zanetti claimed that the cartoon was “brilliant, honest and plain funny” and that a cartoonist’s job is “to cut oversized egos to size”, which was part of Knight’s intention.

Paul Zanetti’s response cartoon. Image: News.com.au

However, with so many people taking offence to the cartoon, the initial intention of the artist becomes less important to those affected.

Knight discussed how his intention was to display a tennis champion having a tantrum and that Williams’ race had nothing to do with it.

“I saw the world number one tennis player have a huge hissy fit and spit the dummy. That’s what the cartoon was about, her poor behaviour on the court,” Knight said.

“I drew her as an African-American woman. She’s powerfully built. She wears these outrageous costumes when she plays tennis.”

Those seemingly harmless intentions were intertwined with Knight’s claim that people who looked at it from a racist perspective, were wrong because their reasons did not match his intent.

“So, this whole business that I’m some sort of racist, calling on racial cartoons from the past, it’s just made up. It’s not there,” he said.

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

One issue with the cartoon that has sparked outrage and calls of racism, is the way in which Williams is depicted, not dissimilar to the way African-Americans were depicted during the Jim Crow era of cartoons. 

Knight claimed he had “absolutely no knowledge” of these historically racist cartoons but many people in the African-American community were understandably hurt, further highlighting the stark difference between the cartoon’s intentions and offensive nature.

Knight has not differed from his usual illustration style, one that is synonymous with newspaper cartoons, to exaggerate the lines and features of the character in question.

Therefore, Knight was correct in saying that he was not going out of his way to draw Williams in an overly offensive manner but he is not within his rights to say if people can or can’t be offended.

By doubling down and stating that the image has no racial significance did not help his cause in the subsequent social media reactions.

Whilst Knight and those who have supported him may not see the image this way, it is not up to them to determine if the image is racist.

The intention of the image may have been to amuse the reader but newspaper cartoons are often there to convey deeper meaning.

Whilst humour may come naturally when looking at an animated, obscure drawing of popular figures and events, the intention of political cartoons is to persuade rather than amuse.

Cartoons are in the paper to add to a story or convey a meaning without using words, and doing so in a seemingly ‘light-hearted’ way can take away from the fact that the cartoonist is attempting to send a message.

It is there to make the reader think about the topical issue, but also to think about it in a certain way, very different to how an unbiased report of a story may affect a reader.

The meaning that can be drawn from the Williams cartoon, whilst somewhat ambiguous, is clearly one that displays the tennis star in a negative light.

Knight set out to portray Serena Williams as a tennis star in a moment of weakness, racism did not fuel his illustration.

Knight is not racist, but people can’t be judged for saying that his cartoon is.

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