THAT Serena Williams cartoon: satire or racism?

Almost everyone’s seen this Serena Williams cartoon; featured in the Australian newspaper Herald Sun, the cartoon, drawn by Mark Knight, depicts Williams’ supposed ‘meltdown’ at the US Open last week. And almost everyone’s got an opinion on it.

In one camp: those who see the cartoon as satire at its best – pushing the boundaries a bit; a caricature; a witty, pithy take on what happened. It’s a bit out there, granted, but that’s what makes it a good cartoon.

In the other camp: those who aren’t so amused. Those who view the cartoon as racist and sexist, with Serena disrespectfully portrayed and Naomi Osaka and Carlos Ramos whitewashed for good measure. Taking to Twitter to side with the tennis star, J.K. Rowling is firmly in this camp, calling out the cartoonist’s brushing aside of Naomi Osaka in particular.

It can seem like a black and white issue if you’re staunchly in one camp or the other, but in truth, it is a very complicated and delicate matter.

Anyone who’s seen newspaper cartoons before will know they’re meant to be provocative and a gross oversimplification of what happened – they aren’t meant to depict real life or even be close to what happened. I don’t think Knight is seriously saying that Ramos said to Osaka, ‘Can you just let [Serena] win?’. Arguably to read the cartoon and accept it at face value without trying to understand the satire behind it is a misunderstanding of what cartoons are meant to achieve.

And yet the fact remains that Knight’s depiction of Williams was distasteful, to say the least.

Everyone loves the sound of ‘freedom of speech’: it’s very easy to defend Knight by using ‘freedom of speech’ to back up your argument. ‘If you censor this you could censor anything’ type of thing. But the thing is – no one is censoring Knight. At the end of the day, the cartoon was published. Freedom of speech does prevail.

But Knight now has to deal with the consequences of choosing to put an image like that out into the world. It’s tiring to see those supporting Knight spew ‘freedom of speech’ arguments like it’s a get out of jail free card. You cannot expect to get away with abusing freedom of speech.

There are those arguing that there is nothing racist about the portrayal of Williams – and this is where things get tricky because there is no way of proving Knight’s thought process. Williams, as a black woman, obviously has a facial structure that reflects her blackness – so has Knight merely exaggerated her features, which incidentally exaggerates her blackness? Or has he knowingly, consciously drawn a figure which resounds with ape stereotypes and depicts Williams as the ‘angry black woman trope’?

It’s something everyone needs to make their own mind up on – personally, I think it’s the latter case. Though satirical and a clearly a caricature, Knight has evidently portrayed Williams in a manner which harbours racist undertones – even if it isn’t overtly racist. The huge mouth, unflattering pose, and almost inhuman expression are all uncomfortable suggestions that Knight has moved away from portraying Williams as the credible human being that she is and instead has chosen to reduce her to a stock character, a trope, a stereotype: just another angry black woman.

Image: Herald Sun; Mark Knight

Serena Smith

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