European Cartoon Award 2024
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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)?


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David Milkes

"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." If a woman is suffering abuse, how is she not a "powerless victim"? Otherwise, she wouldn't be abused, right? Is your argument that she has power even if she doesn't know it?

This insistence on inclusivity is a kind of self-censorship. More likely it's an attempt to force an artist to constantly take editorial notes from a committee they didn't elect or even know, whose rules change every year or possibly more frequently.

I recently finished copyediting a web programming book. One of the other editors made a point that one of the photographs was promoting white savior volunteerism. See for details. This is the same issue: making content creators responsible for equal and non-condescending representation when there are too many permutations to make that feasible.

What do you really think will be accomplished with this self-policing?


I totally agree with Tjeerd’s point. It is a painful realization, that us cartoonists, relying on metaphors and stereotypical imagine that we know will be swiftly understood by the audience, end up perpetrating outdated ideas.

I try to pay attention to this in my drawings, but it’s complicated, because sometimes I wonder “what will the reader think this character is a woman, or a person from a minority? Will that hinder the readability of a cartoon,m?” In my mind the neutral character, the one that needs to represent a whole group, is often an anonymous-looking man. I know it’s biased, but it’s a conscious choice I make, so that people don’t spend time wondering why the protagonist looks like this, or like that.

But certainly I wouldn’t consider paying more attention to representation of various groups as self-censorship. We are part of a sociopolitical environment that changes constantly, and if we want to represent it well we need to keep changing our approach. No one needs outdated ideas in outdated cartoons.

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