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A Cartoonist's Wonderland: Christianna Stavroudis on Political Cartoon Trends of the 2016 Election Campaign

A Cartoonist's Wonderland: Christianna Stavroudis on Political Cartoon Trends of the 2016 Election Campaign

by Joannis Kaliampos -
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As bizarre as the recent turns of the presidential campaign may be (let's just name the key words here: Wikileaks, lewd hot-mic conversations and alleged sexual assault, literally all TV debates so far), I can't help but thinking that one group of professionals must be weirdly excited about the mudslinging and breaches of political protocol that we have witnessed over the last few weeks: comedians and satirists.

(Photo caption: Christianna Stavroudis is native of Baltimore and a lecturer and researcher in English linguistics at the University of Bonn. She is our expert on political cartoons. Photo credit: Christianna Stavroudis.)

While discussing the second TV debate between the two nominees with a colleague of mine, she said that, "truly, this must be the golden age of political comedy". And I believe there is some truth to this. Recently, the Washington Post ran an article by the title "Late-night TV hosts have a field day with the Donald Trump-Billy Bush video". Here is a short summary of how late-night hosts addressed the turbulent news of the 'Trump tape' the weekend before the second TV debate:

Late-night TV hosts roasted Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's defense of the leaked video that recorded him making lewd comments about women in 2005. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

But apart from late-night TV comedy, how are political cartoonists reacting to the 2016 campaign? What are some of the current trends in political cartoons? Luckily, we had a chance to ask our expert on this topic, Christianna Stavroudis, a native of Baltimore and lecturer in English linguistics at the University of Bonn. She's been a avid supporter of Teach About US from the beginning and has instructed a number of seminars to teachers on using political cartoons in the classroom.

I asked Christianna what she thinks are some interesting trends in political cartooning that have emerged in 2016. Or if there are any general trends that she sees being confirmed in this current election cycle. And what should we look for in particular this fall?

This is what she had to say:

Since presidential elections only occur every four years, political cartoonists follow a pretty standardized drill:


They retreat to their respective camps (either Democrat or Republican), develop their signature caricature of the two candidates, and attack the Achilles' heels of the opposing side. Trump, however, has provided more 'quote' fodder for cartoons than we have seen in previous elections and this is manifesting in interesting imagery.


Since the leak of Trump's "hot mic lockerroom" comments about women, we are seeing the use of Lady Liberty as a representation of American women (cartoon 1). She is not used nearly as much as Uncle Sam (who, interestingly, represents the entire nation whereas Lady Liberty is used to represent women alone, see cartoon 2).


In response to Donald Trump's lewd remarks on women in a video recorded in 2005, Lady Liberty is used as a motive to represent American women. (Photo credit: Nate Beeler/The Columbus Dispatch, 10/11/2016. All rights reserved.)


Uncle Sam, however, is being used more frequently than Lady Liberty. He represents the entire nation whereas Lady Liberty is mainly used to refer to American women or the value of liberty. Photo credit: Kevin 'Kal' Kallaugher, The Economist/The Baltimore Sun. All rights reserved.)


Steve Sack's transformation of the entire nation into a metaphorical locker room in Trump's campaign is an interesting new metaphor that has emerged since last week (and the "wet towel snapping" hazing an interesting example of invoking folk knowledge):


(Photo credit: Steve Sack/Star Tribune, 10/11/2016. All rights reserved.)


Because Trump's words are the focus of so many cartoons, playing with words is also a strategy that is employed:


(Photo credit: Adam Zyglis/The Buffalo News, 10/11/2016. All rights reserved.)


Trump's outrageous statements are, however, also used by Republican cartoonists to reveal perceived hypocracy from Hillary Clinton. In the cartoon below, Trump's 'Miss Piggy' comments about former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, are being referenced:


(Photo credit: Steve Breen/San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/10/2016. All rights reserved.)


The idea that a lot of voters feel that they have to vote for the "lesser of two evils" has perhaps never been more palpable than in this election as both major party nominiees have historically low approval ratings among the American electorate. Of course, cartoonists pick on this motive as well:


(Photo credit: Walt Handelsman/The New Orleans Advocate, 04/03/2016. All rights reserved.)


Quite striking is that fact that the cartoons featured on Cagle Post under the topic heading "Democratic National Convention" depict "Bernie or Bust" and Russian hacking more than the historic nomination of a first female Democratic candidate for the presidency. Cartoons like this one are the exception:


(Photo credit: Steve Sack/Star Tribune, 07/28/2016. All rights reserved.)


The contrast between the reaction to Hillary Clinton's historic nomination (potential first female president) and Barack Obama's historic election (first African American president) in terms of imagery is particularly stark, manifesting in cartoons representing the sentiment that Clinton is "playing the female card":


(Photo credit: A. F. Branco, 2015. All rights reserved.)


Comparisons between Trump and Hitler are abundant in this campaign

and incorporations of new pop cultural references and trends into campaign commentary are also evident:


(Photo credit: Adam Zyglis/The Buffalo News, 07/26/2016. All rights reserved.)


One more tip: Students should pay attention to cartoons published the week of Halloween which will use this holiday's imagery and create what we call in linguistics 'cognitive blends', that is, two concepts or mental spaces that were originally perceived as unrelated or separate are now depicted in combination ("blended") because of current circumstances. This blending of holidays and political processes also shows how the understanding of cartoons can be very culture-specific: Although Halloween is now celebrated in different parts of the world, it is an American holiday and so readers from other cultures might not understand these cultural references as easily as American audiences.

Thank you, Christianna! We will feature Christianna Stavroudis soon in another post on the role of satire and laughter in political discourse, so stay tuned.

For more on the use of political cartoons in the English-as-a-Foreign-Language classroom, read Christianna's article in the American Studies Journal from 2014, titled "Political Cartoons in the EFL and American Studies Classroom".

Joannis Kaliampos is the educational project manager for the U.S. Embassy's Teach About US platform. He is a research assistant at the Institute of English Studies at Leuphana University, Lüneburg and holds a Staatsexamen degree in teaching English and History at the Gymnasium from Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen. Joannis has developed teaching materials and has been leading teacher workshops for the U.S. Embassy's school projects since 2012.
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