Serena Williams Mark Knight

Do we need to say why Mark Knight’s Serena Williams cartoon is racist? Apparently, we do.

OK, well Williams is drawn much heavier than she actually is, and the pose is animal, not human; she has the appearance of a female gorilla on the rampage. The face is drawn mask-like – more Polynesian in style, than African, but y’know, all the same – the mouth is larger, and the lips are thicker. It’s not a caricature of any particular feature that Williams possesses, but of the purported general characteristics of African-Americans. Williams’ opponent, Naomi Osaka, a Japanese-Haitian woman, is drawn as white. Also the actual joke within the cartoon is just bad, which puts it in service to the physical caricature of Williams, which is the focus of the drawing.

Serena Williams Mark Knight

There is no racist caricature that does not use particular features to make a general argument. Certain ethnic groups of Jews do have larger noses than majority non-Jewish European populations; but the point of the Die Sturmer-style “Jewish nose” when repeated endlessly is to suggest sharpness, interest, parasitism, “sticking the beak in”. Mark Knight’s Williams caricature is a lubra picture; the bodily form suggests animalism, but the mouth suggests perpetual sexual availability. The big upper lips are lower lips, engorged; that’s how these drawings have worked for 300 years. (For an exhaustive account of this in Australia, see Skin Deep by Liz Conor, a book I can thoroughly recommend.)

The “Serena Williams” of the caricature is an animal force terrifying in its wildness – and robbing a wholly fictional white girl of her due – but also exciting in its promise of sexual abandon, and the possibility of use. Knight’s joke references an older white fear in global imperial relations: that blacks somehow have a life force that whites both disdain and envy. But it also references more recent white resentments: “let her win” is a way of dealing with the shifting racial and cultural power in society. The role of tennis in our cultural life is deliberately archaic. The culture is happy to cede, indeed subcontract, sports like basketball and boxing to non-whites; tennis is meant to be alpha boyz and skinny white girls banging it out. Williams’ curves were already challenging to some; Knight couldn’t even give her that, turning her into ape-woman.

[This grinning racism doesn’t reflect ‘Australia’]

Mark Knight’s cartoons are racist. Several of his recent cartoons reference every styling in the long, inglorious history of cartoon racism, from Australian lubra pictures, to Jim Crow graphics, to apartheid-era South African yuk-fests about Soweto. Blacks as spook shadows, blacks as animals, blacks as gangsters… it’s all there. People who have worked with him defend him as a nice guy, in over his head, but at this point, so what? Either he knows nothing of the history of racist caricature – in which case he’s willfully stupid and incurious – or he does, but doesn’t care.

Quite possibly Knight does believe his guff about it just being a funny “toon”. The paradox of cartooning is that left-wing cartoonists tend to be social analysts and critics who use drawing to express ideas, while right-wing cartoonists are realist graphic artists who move into cartooning, and are often less intelligent and more literal-minded than those around them. Pickering, Leak, Spooner, and Knight are/were all rigid thinkers, the first two going from a larrikin energy of youth to an unreflective curmudgeonliness, without an intervening period of mature reflection. Knight is the least talented, artistically and comically, of all of these, a mediocre draftsman – compare the brilliance of left-realists like Pope or Le Lievre to Knight’s tired Picture Post graphics to see the difference; compare also the treatment of Le Lievre for a poor graphic choice, once, to see it also – whose jokes start as obvious, and are then dumbed down by a Herald Sun editoriat profoundly cynical about its own readership.

Knight seems to think he’ll busk his way through what has now become a global storm. He may be right. News Corp execs seem to want to turn it into a culture war battle, which they think they’ll win. They may be right. But the doubling-down on it shows the dilemmas that News Corp Australia faces. It’s a redneck outlier in the News Corp empire, which is seeking to shift to a centre-right position elsewhere.

How it’s playing inside the Herald Sun – which had been trying to transition back to being a city paper of wider appeal, not a freakshow like the Tele – remains to be seen. But it’s worth noting this. News Corp Australia has failed to deliver the conservative right-wing triumph that their culture war was expected to gain. Now, their racist Australian content is leaking into their global brand. Watching how this contradiction is played out will be interesting – and a distraction from the deep shame and embarrassment that we are the sort of place where this filth can land on the editorial page of a major newspaper.