The best way to characterize Stephanie Eisner’s controversial editorial cartoon about the killing of Trayvon Martin is to borrow a phrase from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” a song that has been in my head all week anyway because I’m teaching Do The Right Thing in my film class – which just so happens to famously end with the killing of an unarmed young black man. That phrase, by the way, is Chuck D’s succinct biography of Elvis Presley, and it works equally well for Ms. Eisner’s cartoon: straight-up racist. It is hard not to see the cloying, ironic intonation of Trayvon as a “colored boy” as either outright derogatory or, at our most generous, as the work of a young woman in America who is horrifyingly oblivious to her own go-to vocabulary for thinking about black people.
The cartoon was originally published in the March 27, 2012 edition of The Daily Texan, a student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin, but it was quickly pulled from paper’s website after receiving almost instantaneous negative attention. But it was put back up later in the day, and the editors expressed a willingness to publish the views of individuals even if those views are controversial. But it was pulled off again two days later, when Eisner was also fired from the paper, and the editors finally backed down after backing her two days earlier when the cartoon had first went back up. (This is their public apology, although I personally believe that they should have just left it up and let the cartoonist accept responsibility for her work, which I would be happy to debate in the comments section below.) At some previous point in all of this, Eisner herself had publically defended her cartoon, which took some serious explanation – which is precisely what a good cartoon should be able to circumvent – and then she later also apologized and assured everyone that she was not a racist. This all happened very quickly and has already been extensively documented (for example, please read in order this, this, and then this), and so the fallout itself is not something that really needs retelling.
Nor am I willing to suggest that Ms. Eisner is in fact a racist, which she is probably not. The problem, however, is that in her misguided attempt to critique what she imagined to be a media bias when it came to the depictions of Trayvon Martin and his killer, George Zimmerman, the resulting cartoon betrayed both an misunderstanding of the meaning of “yellow journalism” and an almost complete ignorance of the actual issue itself. (Plus it doesn’t seem to care that a real person, you know, died.) If, like many editorial cartoons, the content is meant to be read ironically, then how else are we to interpret the its picture of “the media” telling the story of a “handsome, sweet, innocent colored boy” as anything other than Eisner’s perceived lack of bias against Trayvon? By creating such a disparity between “white man” and “colored boy,” Eisner is not only mining an archaic, emasculating American idiom, but also reminding her readers that it is still important to discriminate against black people, even when the white person (Zimmerman) seems to kind of clearly deserve a closer look based on his actions. The cartoon can therefore be read not as an appeal for neutrality in the media, but for some kind of messed up balance of bias – one that will put Trayvon in his place because he is not “innocent” of being black. In other words, according to the logic of this cartoon, Zimmerman is not “big, bad” to the same degree that Trayvon is not “handsome, sweet, innocent.”
I’m reminded of a joke that Slavoj Žižek told on a recent episode of the public radio show Smiley and West, a joke which the philosopher used to illustrate we he sees as the true spirit of capitalism:
“Like we in Slovenia, in my country, we have a beautiful disgusting saying that if you ask a Slovenian farmer, God appears to a Slovenian farmer and tells him I will give you a cow but I will give to your neighbor two cows. A Slovenian farmer answers no. Rather kill one of my cows but kill two cows of my neighbor.”
In this case, if Zimmerman is currently under the scrutiny in the media, Ms. Eisner would rather have us “kill two cows” and make sure that Trayvon is not only scrutinized but smeared. Why else would she call him a “colored boy” if not to recall an era in which this demeaning phrase was what white folks treated as neutrality in their regard of African-American youth and not as an actual racial slur? Like Geraldo Rivera’s absurd claim that Trayvon’s hoodie was as responsible for his death as George Zimmerman’s gun, Eisner’s cartoon presents the argument that if the media has vilified Zimmerman as a “big, bad white man” on the basis of ethnicity, then it has not fulfilled its responsibility to duly defame and blame the victim on the basis of his.
Again, I am not trying to suggest that Ms. Eisner is anything other than a college student who still has a lot to learn about the history of her country, its language, and the difference between media bias and yellow journalism. But in all honesty, she also has a hell of a lot to learn about cartooning. Many have already commented on the ovoid features of the young child as resembling that of an inflatable sex doll. (Either that, or in my opinion, what the childhood drawings of notorious porn-face-tracer/comic-book-artist Greg Land might have looked like.) Also, it is unclear if the child is supposed to be shocked by what she (?) is hearing, or if there is some other emotion or reaction involved. Also, the child’s right arm seems to suggest a short-sleeved shirt, but the left arm is either long-sleeved or, honestly, pretty much non-existent; her left hand just kind of shoots out from her hip. And really, the lettering in the speech balloon is just, like, totally all over the place. The arrows pointing to “white” and “colored” make sure that we don’t forget that these are important words, and that this cartoon – by extension – is making an important point about an important issue that we might have missed without a triad of arrows pointing to each racial signifier like it was the neon sign outside of a strip club. Also, we can see that the “o” in “innocent” is replaced by a (black) heart, which is kind of awkwardly followed up by another heart right after the word itself, which is probably just supposed to be decorative – that is, just a heart and not to be read as “innocento.” Which is just bad lettering, although I doubt that the paper will receive any angry letters about that. Finally, it is also worth pointing out that the cartoon misspells Trayvon’s name as “Treyvon” on the book cover, which is either just sheer sloppiness or further signifies a complete disregard for the victim and all that his name has come to stand for over the last few weeks.
His name is the easiest thing that Eisner could have gotten right.