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The protagonist problem in cartoons

By Tjeerd Royaards

3299-240308 Gender equality (Ahmadi)_small
A recent cartoon about gender equality by Monireh Ahmadi


We have written before about the lack of women cartoonists. Our first editorial on this, by US cartoonist Jen Sorensen, was published 13 years ago in 2011. Sadly, the profession is still very much skewed towards men. Gender inequality also shows in the types of cartoons that are being made, and in the main characters and what role they play in the cartoon.

Earlier this year, we updated a booklet we made for the UN some years ago about human rights to make it more inclusive, and I was having a hard time finding cartoons that didn't feature (white) men as the leading character. The same point was brought to my attention by a (female) jury member in a recent cartoon competition we organized about media freedom. 'Why', she asked, 'are all the journalists in the cartoons men?' The few women journalists that did feature in the cartoons were portrayed as victims.

This got me thinking. Browsing Cartoon Movement's database of nearly 90,000 cartoons soon confirmed my suspicions. Sure, there are lots of cartoons featuring women: cartoons for International Women's Day, gender inequality, the wage gap, domestic abuse. But even in cartoons about these topics, the woman is more often drawn in the role of the victim than as someone who fights back. With some notable exceptions, such as the 2022 women's protests in Iran, it was surprising to see how often women are powerless victims in cartoons. The main reason, I suspect, is that while cartoons often address inequalities, they also tend to reflect, emphasize and often exaggerate the existing stereotypical views. And it probably doesn't help that most cartoons are drawn by men.

And the problem of misrepresentation doesn't end there. A simple search for terms such as scientist, lawyer, doctor, (for women, search for nurse) hero or business reveals how cartoonists will almost always draw men as the protagonist of their cartoon. When drawing specifically about women, they will draw women, but the go-to character will be male. I could have illustrated this point (and this editorial) with some examples, but I do not want it to seem like I'm calling out specific cartoonists. This is a broader problem, so simply click on the links to get an idea of what I am talking about.

With our international scope and comprehensive database of cartoons spanning almost 15 years, I'm guessing the cartoons found on Cartoon Movement are representative for the wider world of cartooning.

If we view political cartoons as a tool to question the status quo, this needs to be addressed. Stereotypes and cliches are part of the cartoonist's toolbox, but, in my opinion, cartoonists should never willingly help to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and prejudices in their work.

And there is an easy fix, more easy than getting more women to become political cartoonists (which is something we also need to keep addressing). The next time you start a cartoon featuring a surgeon, mechanic, scientist or any other character, consider if it needs to be a man, or could just as well be a woman. And when drawing about gender inequality or abuse, consider not drawing the the woman character as a powerless victim, but giving her control over her situation. While you're at it, why not include some more minorities, such a migrants, refugees, persons with disabilities in your cartoons (and not just when you're drawing about migrants of disabilities)?

European Cartoon Award 2024

ECA logo

The European Press Prize and Studio Europa Maastricht announce the opening of the European Cartoon Award 2024, the prize for excellence in editorial cartoons.

From April 29 to June 2, 2024, editorial cartoonists will be able to submit their work for the fifth edition of the European Cartoon Award. Submitted cartoons must have had their first publication date between June 2, 2023, and June 2, 2024, with a media outlet from a country within the Council of Europe, plus Belarus, and Russia.

Founded in 2019, by the European Press Prize and Studio Europa Maastricht, the European Cartoon Award has one of the highest monetary prizes for cartoonists, granting its winner a prize of 10,000 euros.

For more information and to submit your work, go here: