Colours and Symbols: How Cartoons Are Not That Innocent

It would be lying to assert that political cartoons are just there to relieve the public from difficult topics or moments but when it reaches a transnational level, we are forced to admit that their power can be dangerous. Using humoristic drawings to send a xenophobic message is the tool that ethno-nationalists have utilize to gather more partisans for their political agendas. Cartoons are an easy way to transmit an underlined message and the “black sheep” example that started to circulate in Switzerland in 2007 is no stranger to this method of reaching a massive crowd nationally and transnationally.

Nicole Doerr wrote an interesting study on the use of the “black sheep” cartoon and how its distribution and adaptation in Germany and Italy illustrate the power of visual media. In the article, the author states that the dichotomy of colours is one part of the controversy and that the written text adds a stronger signification especially when it is translated in another language or for another country. Associating the visual and verbal messages, she demonstrates that the ambiguity of the colour choice helps carrying the ideas of former fascist discourses in Italy or Germany.

Would the cartoon have the same effect if the chosen colours or the animals would have been different ? The idea of the black sheep is not racial in its general context: the difference within a group is not always based on race. However, the deliberate choice by the SVD ( Swiss People’s Party) to use this analogy makes it racial.

Once copied in Germany and Italy, the message takes a meaning that reflects the preoccupations of the country’s political agenda . The semiotic translation has gained a higher level of controversy in the fact that it encompasses the anti-immigration, xenophobic rhetoric used by respective far-right parties. Based on a possible bond that exists between these three countries, the text contains words that appeal to a nationalistic and more radical discourse about immigration.

How far can cartoonists go in their representation of actual problems ? The Netherlands and France have dearly paid for representing images that should not have been drawn. Knowing the massive role that visual media carries out and the absence of censorship in the press in many countries, the representation of tragic situations in a cartoonish manner is benefitting transnational far-right parties who then can capture the attention of an emotional public in a more or less subtle way.

Work cited :

N. Doerr, “Bridging language barriers, bonding against immigrants: A visual case study of transnational network publics created by far-right activists in Europe” Discourse & Society 28(1) (2017): 3–23.

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