Thursday, July 16, 2009

in which i employ my ample literary criticism skills in the worthy endeavor of close reading crappy political cartoons

Check out the above cartoon by Bill Bramhall (of the New York Daily News) aimed at Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for going over her allotted time at the Sotomayor hearings. Is that, or is that not, a disturbingly misogynistic cartoon?

New York NOW President Marcia Pappas notes (that link sucks, but it's the best I could find in the thirty seconds I had to spend) that "Bramhall’s phallic symbols send a clear message that women are good for only one thing." I rather think the message is that women aren't "good for" anything at all. But it's certainly no accident that the phrases being referenced here are "put a cork in it" and "put a sock in it" (and just look at that sock, seriously). Even the hook appears to be pointed at Gillibrand's mouth rather than poised to be used the traditional cartoony way, to yank her offstage. The gag is the least phallic of the objects, but it is certainly a violent one. It's also difficult to miss the screaming symbolism of that enormously gaping and yet oddly toothless mouth, at which all of those phallic symbols -- the cork, the sock, the hook, and the gag -- are pointed by male hands. (There are even boxes of corks, socks, and gags sitting around too, as if to suggest that one of each might not suffice to fill that maw.)

Now take a look at Gillibrand's facial expression. She could be looking at the microphone, but she also could be looking apprehensively at the hook, which is very near her face and in her eyeline. Either way, she does not look self-satisfied or smug, as you'd expect from a politician who likes the sound of her own voice a bit too much. In fact, she looks like she can't even control that cavernous mouth, which is opened wide enough to swallow all of those phallic objects pointed at it. Gillibrand's apparent lack of control over her own anatomy suggests that the point of the cartoon is not so much that, as a politician, Gillibrand enjoys the sound of her own voice excessively -- but rather that, as a woman, she simply can't control her runaway mouth (a nasty stereotype about women which has been thoroughly debunked, by the way). As a matter of fact, she looks scared by the objects being thrust at her, and yet unable to close her mouth to keep them from entering it. This suggestion is reinforced by the fact that there doesn't appear to be any reason for her mouth to be open, since she doesn't even get a speech balloon as her male colleague does -- despite the fact that the entire conceit of the cartoon is that she talks too much.

The bottom line is that this image is extremely suggestive of sexual violence. But at the Daily Cartoonist, many commenters don't agree, insisting that cartoonists make fun of all kinds of politicians for talking too much and this is just more of the same. Two of them link to examples of other cartoons about loud-mouthed politicians, one of Joe Biden and one of Mark Sanford. So let's do a close reading, shall we?

Like the Gillibrand cartoon, the cartoon of Biden (by a different cartoonist) shows a number of objects pointed at him which are designed to shut him up, including a hook; but there the similarities end. His mouth is not gaping, as Gillibrand's is. On the contrary, he is grinning toothily. Just compare his manic toothiness and relatively small mouth opening to Gillibrand's toothless, gaping maw. Most importantly, although there is violence implied by most of the objects coming at Biden, it is not sexualized violence. None of those objects are meant to go into his mouth to shut him up, they're simply meant to drag him offstage. And of course Biden also gets a speech balloon to, you know, demonstrate the actual point of the cartoon.

The Sanford cartoon is more relevant to the discussion than the Biden cartoon, as it's also drawn by Bramhall. It features the same gaping and toothless mouth as the Gillibrand cartoon, and there are also phallic objects pointed in the direction of Sanford's mouth; but those objects are microphones -- objects meant to receive the words coming out of his mouth, not violently cut them off. Nothing here is meant to go into his mouth or to shut him up. Nor are the microphones as close to his mouth as some of the objects in the Gillibrand cartoon, nor does Sanford look frightened or out of control of his mouth as Gillibrand does. Sanford is also making an active speech. He even gets an active pose, pointing his own phallic symbol (his finger) at a woman whom, he says, he "got to first base with." Despite the gaping mouth, despite the phalluses pointed at his face, and despite the superficially similar subject (mockery of a politician's verbal diarrhea), this cartoon could not be more different from the Gillibrand cartoon.

The Gillibrand cartoon is close enough to the way other wordy politicians are portrayed for plausible deniability, and the Washington Post's readers are clearly buying the cover story -- a poll there currently has 61% agreeing that "this is clearly a case of fair comment" and only 38% saying that "satire or no, the cartoon crosses the line." (Incidentally, this cartoon has sweet fuck-all to do with "satire" under any reading. Dictionaries, people.) Online polls at the Washington Post are the dumbest of all the possible dumb things for me to spend my time being upset about, so I'm going to try and let this one go now that I've spent an hour writing a blog post about it. But I maintain that the only time you'd see a cartoon of a male politician in which male hands were thrusting phallic and/or violent objects at/into his gaping mouth with the explicit intention of violently shutting him up is if the politician was gay. (Which, if I need to say it, would also be completely unacceptable.)

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