– a preparatory drawing – something to be filled in (with artistry, observation, interpretation)
– to charge or load, a loaded image
Charlie Hebdo shootings and a couple recent articles by Margaret Wente and Christie
Blatchford (a recent piece on the Rehteah Parsons story parsed below) got me thinking about
cartoon and caricature, image and text(ing), traditional and social media.
likes of Hogarth, Daumier and Grandville (who Walter Benjamin likened to Hegel),
the legacy of political cartoon still clings to its little box on the editorial
pages. There, it’s sometimes confused
with caricature, which increasingly invades neighbouring columns and cable news
channels. Young people don’t read
newspapers anyway, too busy with image and text on smart phones. When these worlds collide, from the Parsons
story, to shootings in Paris and Ottawa, we see a range of reactions – from caricature
to editorial cartoon.
sentence than noun, cartoon ‘draws’ things into a proposition, rather than collapsing
them into identity. Cartoon is complicated; the
viewer must consider and decipher. It’s a slower read, and people can agree on its effectiveness
while disagreeing on the issue. It brings us together in debate.
is more like a noun – adjectives added.
Exaggerated, simplified features, amusing when benign, are less funny as
hook-nosed Jew, monkey Black, or (insert adjective) Muslim. Caricature is more likely to enhance prior
stereotypes, reinforce what’s assumed. Less creative and intellectual, it marshals
emotion and identification: “I’m this,
you’re that”. Caricature was the
modality of Charlie Hebdo, and also perhaps why #jesuischarlie became the response.
Christie Blatchford’s recent
article on the Rehtaeh Parsons tragedy begins with an old comic
featuring two caricatured ‘Frenchmen’. The Nova Scotia boys who
had sex with a vomiting 15-year-old and circulated the photo online are cast as
courtly wags in what she describes as a:
“new version of the ancient American comic strip which
ran in some Sunday newspapers in the 1900s, but whose punchline gag endures
even now – the strip’s two awkward Frenchmen frozen in an excess of politesse. ‘After you, Alphonse…No, you first, my dear
Gaston.’…he and his friend did an Alphonse-and-Gaston as they bickered about
who would go next with the then-15-year-old”.
For those not around in 1903, an ‘Alphonse-and-Gaston’
(it became a noun) involved so much deferential bowing and scraping that the
characters never actually get around to doing what they planned – the lack of action was the gag. Instead, their
exaggerated niceties make them victims of some other mishap – a lion or
oncoming train. “Bickering”, a kind of oxymoron here, is defined
as “arguing over something trivial”. In
this case, that trivial something would be Rehtaeh Parsons. The boys’ supposed gentility is bestowed only on one
another – effectively erasing the girl, who in the end erased her own life. While perhaps just tone-deaf, Blatchford’s
introductory comic is also emblematic of what she proceeds to do.
describes the young offender (since neither can be
identified, we’ll call the one she writes about Alphonse; the other can be Gaston)
as “shy”, “slight”,
“brave” and “well-spoken” – all pretty nice adjectives
for someone convicted of distributing child pornography. More seriously, Blatchford omits relevant facts
about his other criminal charges.
Here’s what reports in papers other than The
National Post say: “The man sentenced Thursday also faces adult charges
of criminally harassing and threatening to kill Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning,
in August 2013. That trial is set for June in Dartmouth provincial court.”
(We don’t know if he politely offered Gaston the opportunity to kill him first).
In November 2013, ‘Alphonse’ had been arrested
again: “He spent the night in custody and
was arraigned in Dartmouth provincial court… on one count of mischief property
damage and two counts of breaching his Aug. 8 release conditions”.
And in February 2014, he pleaded guilty to breaching his bail conditions, and
appeared in a different Dartmouth courtroom on charges of assault and possession of a
weapon for a dangerous purpose arising from another Eastern Passage incident
Dartmouth courtrooms were kept pretty busy with Alphonse. That’s a lot of newsworthy stuff to leave out. (I asked, and Blatchford said he was innocent
until proven guilty – a proviso one doubts would apply in other cases).
It’s not just omissions. Blatchford adds
interesting detail: “Police later told the boy they
estimated he’d had 11 shots, Rehtaeh eight. He said at no time did he believe
she was so drunk she didn’t know what she was doing or that she wasn’t
That first sentence is odd. Would
police really have “told the boy they
estimated he’d had 11 shots”? Wouldn’t
they instead have asked him how much
he drank? If they did ‘tell him’, when
they finally interviewed him much later, an already widely criticized investigation
starts to look even more flawed. And if he
had 11 shots, why trust and repeat his version of events regarding Rehteah’s
supposed consent? She, after only 8, was
vomiting – her account dismissed as wobbly.
Yes, this tragedy raises issues about which
opinions may differ, but facts should not differ, and full disclosure of them
should take precedence over an anecdotal interview supporting the surviving
party in a ‘he said, she said’ with a dead girl. And apart from the lengthy rap sheet Blatchford withholds
(an uncharacteristic civility on her part), she does
little to explore his sober decision to post the photo. I understand that a profile
of a young man (who, like Jian Ghomeshi, Blatchford feels has been horribly
wronged by various ‘McCarthyites') was her intent; but still, she should include relevant facts, rather than simply offering the kind of ‘loaded image’ of
victimized masculinity for which she, like Margaret Wente, is well known.
Why does a “popular” 16-year-old pose for
and circulate, a drunken sex trophy photo?
Because for him there’s nothing shameful in it. Sure, girls shared it too, Blatchford says. Why? Maybe because, unlike Blatchford’s generation,
they live and breathe an environment of sexualized images, have deeply ambiguous
relationships with them, and want to be “popular” too.
We hear that boys’ brains are being re-wired
by exposure to online porn, and even if girls view it less, they swim
in images like the pornographic ads of American Apparel or the ever present, mostly
naked Miley Cyrus – mouth open, tongue hanging out, combining porn and cartoon,
bending over in front of millions of fans on primetime TV. Of course girls like Rehtaeh Parsons may not
know quite what their story is. Of
course they may have differing versions – whether because they were drunk and
can’t remember, or in response to what they think friends may say (and yes, agreed,
that makes prosecution difficult). Girls,
accustomed to seeing themselves through others’ eyes, need to ask – as Rehteah Parsons
did – if they’re sluts, because slut and pop idol look pretty much the same to
kids who grew up watching Miley Cyrus transform from Hannah Montana into the
porn/celebrity pole star by which they navigate their social lives.
The boy’s “thumbs up”, his “bragging”,
confirms he knew his image was “cool”. “She was into it”, he can text to friends or claim in The National Post. But girls wonder which caption will be
applied to them – and sadly, find that it’s usually ‘slut’, not ‘star’. That could be, as Blatchford writes, an
ordinary, genderless cruelty – the “same as it ever was”, or a particular one which
has evolved considerably from the racier Alphonse and Gaston spin offs or mild Playboy
mags – occasional glimpses of which were the norm when writers like Blatchford
and Wente were 15.
Margaret Wente, discussing
the “witch hunt” against some other Nova Scotia “Gentlemen”, believes it’s all the
same as when she was young: “If my daughter were one of the women in that
class… the first thing I’d ask her is: What are these guys like in person? …
Nine times out of 10, the guys will apologize, look shamefaced and cut it out.”
lies at least part of the problem: If Wente had a daughter (she doesn’t, neither does Blatchford), that
daughter would have a teenage daughter or son Rehteah
Parsons’ age. The parents of the boy in Blatchford's article are themselves baffled as to why their
son thought a threesome with a vomiting girl was something to broadcast on
‘social’ media. Wente
and Blatchford came of age in a decade perhaps midway between cartoons like Alphonse
and Gaston and now. In their day, teen
suicide rates were less than half what they are currently, and now rampant cutting
was virtually unheard of. Whatever the
possible relationships between these things and the stories these two aging dames
pronounce on, the landscape has changed, and proposing yourself as the model
for behavior is an unhelpful conceit.
If Wente did have kids that age, or was remotely
curious, she might wonder if the question “What are these guys like in person?” is moot. Young people live online. “In person” or “IRL”, is no longer the norm,
it’s the exception. Even when in groups,
heads are bowed to devices; what moves across the screen more exciting, more
that’s what happened last night”, says Alphonse – not just because of
alcohol, but because of the now ingrained need to see oneself in the scrolling,
updating reality which is their life,
their ‘media’, and their comic strip – like Alphonse and Gaston or the benign Archie
comics from Wente and Blatchford’s day.
Wente regularly brings us armchair
general dispatches from the “war on men” (here, brilliantly countered by Anne Kingston). She bemoaned the “utter destruction – of
reputation, educational investment and future livelihood” of the Dalhousie "Gentlemen” – similarly un-named dentistry students who refuse (unlike real
honourable men) to “man up” for their transgressions. Their “utter destruction” at the hands of the lynch mob? “They were indefinitely suspended
from clinical activities”. This, at least, is the corrected
version of Wente’s original claim, which had “said 13 dental students were indefinitely suspended”. Hmm… And what had Wente herself recommended
as appropriate punishment in the same article?
Why, “A stiff suspension”. To
recap then; she erred in writing they’d been completely suspended, but in any
case, her own recommendation was a stiff suspension, making her howls of “utter
destruction” utter BS.
But if you want real reputation
damage, consider Wente’s bizarre, gratuitous and false drive-by attack on one Dr. Livingstone, a breast-feeding expert (with views no more startling than Health Canada’s)
who Wente brought to national attention as a totalitarian bully in a column which was later
the subject of an abject apology. That was so baffling one wonders about the ‘malevolence’
(to borrow Amanda Lang’s word) Wente directs against certain women –
particularly those not in positions to respond.
Sadly, neither Wente nor Blatchford ask good questions, so busy are they drawing caricatures, mocking things like breast-feeding
and “rape culture” (I don’t like the term either, but on the other hand, new verbs
like “hatefuck” indicate something). Blatchford is at least a hard working journalist who gets out there and interviews
people. Wente doesn’t even bother to
come up with her own stereotypes – as the fake protester she collaged into an Occupy column showed.
And there wasn’t much “manning up” when it came to plagiarism.
Burr Opper, creator of Alphonse and Gaston, pioneered the use of speech balloons: “With his strips,
readers were just as dependent upon words as pictures” – a mixed blessing, perhaps. The best political
cartoons often have no words. Powerful examples followed the Paris shootings – different than the Charlie Hebdo caricatures, reflecting the gravity of the situation – smart, beautiful,
less sexual/scatological, complex yet austere, elegantly distilled.
Cruder caricature on the other hand – the
charged, loaded image – has been the fuse for tragic real world events. And while I believe those images should have
been published when they became newsworthy, other manifestations of image and
text, scrolling by on the devices of millions of young people – are perhaps part of
the story too. There, in even darker
corners of (social) media’s mirror, other young men, more disconnected
from real life, see themselves in distorted, “manly” extremist groups. But
these murky questions seem beyond the interests of self-contented columnists who prefer more easily drawn targets.
There are good cartoons. An example to conclude: another
Haligonian, Bruce McKinnon. Consider two
of his images, the Ottawa shooting, and one of Rehteah Parsons.
The small detail of Cpl. Cirillo's regimental footwear, for which we have to look hard, draws us close. The rendering
of the WWI soldiers is restrained, the main character seen from behind, so we move into his position. As frozen representations themselves, the moving statuary is powerful, bringing to life historical
questions about the war in which they fought, and its relationship to this event
– perhaps a war also not yet understood, as confusing and muddy as the trenches. They tend to him – an act
easily tainted with politics, but here, simply human.
The picture asks questions, questions everyone was asking. No pat answers. No caricature.
Rehtaeh Parsons: How to draw a
dead girl? We recognize quizzical eyebrows
from a photo. She looks at us, or
herself, wondering…in the same way we wonder about the story. The little patches of light on the forehead are rendered in a way that says ‘photograph’ – the
currency of girls’ lives and the agency of her death. The mask is ambiguous. Her concealed identity overturned, or any
number of other masks/identities. The arm pushing it away is not the sleeve of
a judge; bare, male, it seems possibly aggressive, but maybe not. It could be anyone. We wonder who’s responsible...
I suspect McKinnon looks at things – both visible and invisible. He looks at the world, not at his ‘contrarian’
reflection. We need more of this – less speech bubble and more looking and listening. Maybe that way, unlike
Alphonse and Gaston, we might notice the runaway train heading towards us. This is unlikely, though. Like those French comic figures, columnists like Margaret Wente and Christie Blatchford have themselves become
a kind of running gag for an aging, smug demographic. And sadly, when it comes to almost any
important topic, we already know exactly what will be in their respective
speech balloons – the only question is 'which one will go first'.