In the aftermath of the massacre of 12 members of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, political cartoonists have had to defend their craft. But leading Canadian cartoonists were united on one front: It’s their job to be defiant.
But is there a line between acts of defiance and being just plain offensive? Cartoonists interviewed by The Ryersonian found three general principles that govern the creation of political cartoons.
Rule # 1: It has to be considered fair comment.
Numerous Canadians may be familiar with one recent cartoon that sparked a controversy during the Toronto mayoral race. Andy Donato, art director and part-time editorial cartoonist for the Toronto Sun for more than 50 years, was criticized for a cartoon he drew during Toronto’s last municipal election. The image, criticized by many as “racist and sexist,” showed mayoral candidate Olivia Chow standing on her deceased husband Jack Layton’s coat tail, depicted in communist clothing with exaggerated “asian” styled eyes.
Donato takes the criticism in stride. “I just ignore it really. If they phone me I will discuss it on the phone and argue,” he says. “I don’t deliberately try to be offensive. I’m just trying to make a point.”
The Sun defended the cartoon, arguing that it was, “intended as political comment and in no way intended to carry any racial or ethnic connotations.” Donato’s cartoons, the paper added, often exaggerate physical attributes of a person, despite their race or ethnicity.
“You don’t draw a cartoon that has nothing to do with the subject just to attack the person,” Donato says. Cartoonists can be as fierce as they want. “As long as it’s fair comment, that’s all they have to worry about,” he says.
Donato also says that political cartooning today is no more risqué than it was during the 1970s. “It’s pretty much stayed the same,” he says. “When I go back and look at what I did on Trudeau and Mulroney, it was pretty tough stuff.”
Although Donato shows no remorse and has made no effort, The Sun did later print an apology over offending others with this cartoon.
Other cartoonists argue that things have changed over the years.
Margaret Conrad, a historian at the University of New Brunswick who has researched major Canadian cartoonists, says young cartoonists need to be edgier because the times are edgier. Conrad says that today’s society has reached a new level of aggression and there is less courtesy or civility in numerous contexts, like political campaigns.
It’s not just cartoons that are getting more audacious.
“The shrinking market for editorial cartoons means pushing boundaries more and more,” says Wes Tyrell, President of The Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists (ACEC), and cartoonist for Yahoo.
“So few people procure this type of work right now,” Tyrell says. “You have to be able to stand out or you’re not even going to get your foot in the door.”
Tyrell admits to self-censoring and says there are limits to what he can and cannot draw.
“There are not many places in the world that would publish the way Hebdo did,” he says. “At every publication there is an editor who will say, ‘No this is not our audience, and we cannot work with this.’ And this was an enormous issue for people at publications in Canada.”
Rule # 2: Know your audience.
Audience was a determining factor in decision-making related to the Hebdo cartoons. Most major Canadian publications did not re-publish the images because they decided the Canadian audience and the Canadian context are different.
“Charlie Hebdo’s mission and values are foreign to us in every sense. Canada and Toronto are richly multicultural,” wrote John Cruickshank, Publisher of The Toronto Star, in an opinion piece on dealing with the newspaper’s decision not to reprint the images.
Tyrell agrees. “You must be bold, but the standards in Canada are completely different from standards in Europe or even in Quebec, where cartooning standards are more akin with France and Hebdo, taking more risks with an underground flavor,” he says.
Tyrell adds that the line between defiance and being too offensive also depends on the platform. Drawing for Yahoo, there are some subjects Tyrell won’t touch: nudity, harsh profanity or priests with pedophilia. While these topics would work on a satire platform, he believes they would be too much for Yahoo.
“Everybody has a little bell in their heads, and the bell will go off at some point,” Tyrell says. “You’re not drawing and thinking to yourself ‘this is not politically correct.’ It’s more that you’ve got a feel for the sensitivity of the editor, and you just know that it won’t work.”
Rule # 3: History and context matter
While Conrad’s research on the history of cartoonists has led her to conclude cartoonists are more provocative than ever, she agrees there are limits.
“If cartoonists started to produce a series of anti-Semitic cartoons at this point in history, they would risk running into problems with the current laws on hate literature,” (Conrad) says. “We do self-censor. The question is what do we self-censor now?”
Timing also matters. A cartoonist’s success, she says, can depend a lot on recognizing a major controversy and “inserting themselves at the right time.”
Conrad says that cartooning has always been a risky business and there’s always the risk their work will offend and drive away readers. “On the other hand, you do plant the message, even when people hate you,” Conrad says. “(Success) is all about being talked about, right?”
Lindsay Fitzgerald is a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson University and a research assistant for the ethics committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ). She is interested in politics, national security, minority issues and documentary filmmaking.