New research: Danish satirical cartoons challenge readers less than we think
The satirical cartoon, especially since the Mohammed crisis, has become synonymous with how Danes see themselves as a nation of uniquely free-spirited people where any kind of humour and satire take precedence over political correctness and any potential feelings of being offended among the “victims”. We Danes tend to feel free about speaking our minds to anyone - probably more so than in any other nation, some would say.
However, a critical examination of the traditions of Danish satirical cartoons presents a somewhat different, and perhaps less flattering, image, explains Hannibal Munk, who has just completed his PhD thesis at Roskilde University’s Department of Communication and Arts.
Danish cartoonists are, if we take a historical perspective, far less liberated and “dangerous” than both themselves and the public at large often think. This is revealed by Hannibal Munk’s study of Danish satirical cartoons from their humble beginnings in the era of Søren Kirkegaard and all the way up to the present – the largest study of its kind in a Danish context. The reason for this goes back to the era of the party press.
Even though we no longer have a party press, newspapers today operate on an implicit or explicit expectation that they communicate a certain basic worldview
“When satirical cartoons became part of the daily newspapers in the 1920s, the press was fully integrated into the political system and the cartoons reflected this in the sense that they were used to promote a partisan message - such as agitation directed towards political opponents,” Hannibal Munk explains, and continues with a more contemporary analysis:
“What the cartoons did, and to a great extent still do today, is that they visualize ‘the others’, and this vizualisation is repeated over a long period of time. For example, illustrating Anders Fogh as a cave man in Politiken or Pia Kjærsgaard as the unreasonable wife from the Brothers Grimm’s fable of “The fisherman and his wife”. And this symbolism spreads to the entire political party,” says Hannibal Munk.
“Even though we no longer have a party press, newspapers today operate on an implicit or explicit expectation that they communicate a certain basic worldview. In Social-Demokraten (the Social Democrat) newspaper, one would typically find cartoons of the lowest classes of society dying from starvation – at the same time, in Politiken readers could also feel the rough times as the kids suddenly needed to have pocket money,” Hannibal Munk explains.
Even if the Danish press today is much freer than it was before, Hannibal Munk’s point is that the ingrained basic worldviews in the press are still clear – and that they are particularly expressed via cartoons. The cartoons, so to speak, are preaching to the choir and are far more likely to reinforce the attitudes that the readers already have rather than provoking and serving as promoters of an unbiased and rough and tumble freedom of speech.
The Mohammed cartoons and criticism of the Nazi regime
Every rule has its exceptions, and in fact, there have been two events in Danish history where satire cartoonists have actually played a key role in our little country’s development. The first time was in the late 1930s when Hitler’s Nazi party gained control of Germany. Here, most of the Danish newspapers held the attitude that one should be very careful about criticising the German regime due to the Danish policy of collaboration. However, the Danish cartoonists were not so easily cowed, and therefore this period in particular witnessed some of the most direct criticism of the Nazi regime in the form of satirical cartoons.
This ‘devil-may-care’ criticism with which the cartoonists broke ranks with both the presumed attitudes of the editors and the readers and made wild and provocative cartoons is a great example of how Danish cartoonists think they are – but in fact rarely are.
The next great exception from this rule is what we saw with the Mohammed crisis which had its explosive origins on September 30th 2005 when Jyllands Posten wrote the article ‘Profetens Ansigt’ (‘The Face of the Prophet’). The aftermath of those cartoons is familiar to most, but according to Hannibal Munk, the interesting thing about them were that these cartoons were in fact also not really an expression of the newspapers’ and its cartoonists’ desire to interpret
freedom of speech to its limits. The style of the cartoons was not unusual for Jyllands Posten, and generally speaking, there was nothing new in the story that they told. For example, in the months leading up to the Mohammed cartoons, they had also published cartoons that were critical of militant Islam in the Middle East.
“How JP covered these events was not new at all, and the Mohammed crisis was mostly about how things were developing in the Middle East and how Islam was becoming more of a political factor in the Middle East. The Mohammed cartoons were a natural extension of this line of thinking, but they were not unusual per se.
Still, the Mohammed cartoons remain interesting because they demonstrate that the era of globalisation and digitalisation has created an environment where, unlike in the past, cartoonists no longer know your readers and how things are perceived - this is now more fluid, and the extent of in-depth symbolism with cultural references has been reduced because they are harder to use towards an unfamiliar audience. The cartoonists no longer know who their audience is,” Hannibal Munk explains.
In addition, Hannibal Munk describes another change that has taken place in the last few years:
“You can see that criticism in recent times has become more clear than what was seen previously - the style is more obviously critical. For example, more people are being compared to Nazis in Danish cartoons. The public debate has become tougher, and of course, the cartoons have kept pace with that.”
Published in Rubrik #15, 2019