The European Journal of Humour Research

Vol 2, No 4 (2014)

When the quip hits the fan: What cartoon complaints reveal about changes in societal attitudes to race and ethnicity

Susan E. Foster


A study of editorial cartoons published over the last 40 years, that have been the subject of complaint to the New Zealand Press Council or the Race Relations Conciliator, Human Rights Commission, offers insight into changes in taste and societal attitudes. Offence can be taken not only over the message of the cartoon but at the way it is visually expressed. The focus of this paper is on a selection of complaints of racism and racial stereotyping which together track an increase in sensitivity to racism in society as well as the changes in the race or ethnicity of the alleged subjects of discrimination. Although the Press Council sets a high bar to protect freedom of expression, allowing scope to cartoonists to express very strong, even unpopular viewpoints, the growing diversity of society, with many new immigrants to New Zealand from countries where there is not the same tradition of provocative graphic satire, is raising new questions as to where the boundaries of acceptability lie. Further pressure on editors is being placed by the immediacy of condemnation via social media of cartoons considered offensive short-circuiting the slower, standard complaint procedures which afford time for thoughtful deliberation. Cartoons are considered to be “Opinion” and, although this visual comment must have some factual basis, their key value is being able to say what in other forms is unsayable. If this means reflecting racist attitudes within society, surely, it is better that such attitudes are expressed in order that they can be addressed.


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