| Tæt på videnskaben

New research: Danish satirical cartoons challenge readers less than we think

Danish satirical cartoons are less provocative and challenge the readers less than we think they do. This is revealed by a new PhD thesis from Roskilde University.
Hannibal Munk
In his PhD thesis, Hannibal Munk has reviewed all Danish satirical cartoons in the past and present. Press photo by Jón Bjarni.

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.


Hans Bendix' illustration of Adolf Hitler
Hans Bendix from Social-Demokraten illustrated Adolf Hitler as Pontius Pilates with blood on his hands in the book Tegninger af Tiden (‘Drawings of an Era’) 1935. Afterwards, Danish satire cartoonists did not draw Hitler. We thank Hans Bendix’s heirs.
Drawings on a desk
Photo: Jón Bjarki.