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December 10, 2012

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Pete Wagner

On the topic of stereotypes in cartoons...
I got into trouble in the early 1980s when I was teaching a cartooning class at the University of Minnesota and pointed out that stereotypes were often used in political cartooning and suggested that they are not always negative or harmful, and that while we may want to promote progress by breaking the stereotypes, when we try to do that we end up losing our audience because the cartoon fails to convey its intended meaning. For example, I said, when I want to do a cartoon with a police officer (remember this was 30 years ago!), almost all of them are men, physically large, etc. Back then also white. If I drew a woman or African-American police officer at that time, it would probably confuse the reader. They would wonder if I was making some statement about women police officers or Black police officers rather than police officers in general, because these groups were very under-represented within the universe of police officers. One woman who had just taken a feminist course in which it was drilled into her that ALL stereotypes are EVIL had a fit and stormed out of the class.
I decided to change my characterization of that element of cartooning from "stereotyping" to "typecasting." Where you draw the line between the two is the first question, rather than whether "types" should ever be used in cartoons.
Another, more important, question is whether the cartoon can use a stereotype AGAINST itself. There was a short period in history where popular culture was beginning to achieve this. Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" was the ultimate example. The various TV shows created by Norman Lear were also pretty good, but not as "cartoonish." Satire ONLY works when the audience TRUSTS the artist creating the satire, and KNOWS that the artist is "on their side." So when we use the terms and language and symbols that the racist or sexist or homophobe uses in order to SHOW exactly how racist or sexist or homophobic the subject of the cartoon IS, the audience delights in and is bolstered by the cartoon, rather than attacking the cartoonist for using those images or language. Unfortunately, if my lifetime is any gauge of how often the audience becomes savvy and hip to satire, it must happen very rarely and for only very short periods of time! Because even the most obvious attempts to use those negative symbols and memes against themselves are regularly reacted to in a completely satirically illiterate way!

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