There were no Australians involved in Saturday’s controversial U.S. Open women’s final, but an Australian cartoonist has managed to insert himself into the international debate over sexism, racism, and double standards at the match—and he’s taken the cake for all three. Mark Knight, the editorial cartoonist for the Murdoch-owned, Melbourne-based Herald Sun, has attracted the ire of everyone from J.K. Rowling to Jamil Smith for his bigoted caricature of Serena Williams “spitting the dummy” as Australians like to say.
Knight’s degrading cartoon depicts Williams with an exaggeratedly large face and body, her face screwed up in rage and her coiled black hair flying as she stomps on her smashed racket. Many have pointed out that it draws on anti-black, Jim Crow-era tropes, reminiscent of coon or mammy caricatures generally and 1910s Jack Johnson cartoons specifically. While the debate rages on as to the appropriateness of Williams’ behavior and umpire Carlos Ramos’ penalties, Knight exaggerates her on-court behavior, making her sharp aggression seems animalistic. Meanwhile, mixed-race champion Naomi Osaka, who most can agree is the one innocent party here, is whitewashed into a faceless blonde being asked to let Williams win.
The pacifier nearby seems to be saying Williams is acting like a baby—Aussies refer to pacifiers as dummies and to temper tantrums, from child and adult alike, as “spitting the dummy.” But it’s also possible to interpret the pacifier as an attack on Williams as a new mother and a role model. Knight responded to early criticism by tweeting, “Don’t bring gender into it when it’s all about behavior.” Another recent tennis cartoon of his hardly supports his case. (He has not yet commented on the racist tropes.)
Most of the discussion over the women’s final thus far has been related to sexism, though of course all debates about Serena Williams, as a black woman in traditionally white sport, are shaded by racial overtones. But trust Australia to take a debate around racialized gender dynamics and ratchet up the racism tenfold. The latest cartoon is very Mark Knight—and sadly representative of Australian cartooning and Australian racism in general.
Knight, one of Australia’s most infamous cartoonists, has previously been called out for his racism and sexism. Just last month he was lambasted over his dehumanizing depiction of African teenagers in Melbourne trashing a train station, which stoked an ongoing racist dog whistle driven by erstwhile almost–prime minister Peter Dutton (and faithfully carried out by the Herald Sun). In 2012, he used the annual Australia Day debate to joke about the genocide of Indigenous Australians, with a cartoon of then–Prime Minister Julia Gillard fleeing an Indigenous protest while saying, “Geez, if the Aboriginals had’ve put up a fight like this in 1788, we might not be bloody well here celebrating Australia Day…!”
Knight is no stranger to sexist portrayals of powerful women, with a 1999 cartoon portraying the female leader of the centrist Australian Democrats in bed with conservative Prime Minister John Howard. Beds are continued to be a favorite Knight trope for depicting the deal-making of women in politics—he portrayed Gillard, Australia’s first and only female PM, in bed with male leaders on multiple occasions throughout her 2010–13 reign. Her partner, Tim, was predictably emasculated by Knight, while her conversations with then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were “girl talk.” (Also, handbags!) The exaggerated Gillard profile—long nose, large ass—is distinctly Knightian, and although it was perpetuated and reinforced by other political cartoonists and at disgusting opposition party fundraisers, it’s fair to argue Knight is most responsible for its ubiquity.
His cartooning style is far from unique: Australia’s white, middle-age, male cartoonists have long been called out for their bigotry. Cartoonist Larry Pickering—former cartoonist for the Australian and Australia’s self-described “most notorious cartoonist”—was known in the ’70s mainly for drawing politicians with huge dicks. He retired from cartooning only to return to the field for Gillard’s prime ministership, during which he regularly self-published cartoons on his website portraying the first female PM naked and wearing a strap-on dildo. (He would also email these to Gillard.)
The late Bill Leak regularly inspired backlash with his racist drawings, from depicting an Indigenous man as a drunk who’s unable to remember his son’s name to depicting an Indonesian as a dog mounting a West Papuan. (Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull denied Leak was a racist, calling him a “controversialist.”) Leak also compared the LGBTQ community to Nazis and continually fought what he saw as the gay agenda.
Even Australia’s most whimsical cartoonist, the quirky Michael Leunig of the more left-leaning Age newspaper, has become known for his problematic takes. Leunig has been criticized for his anti-vaxxer sympathy, comparing enforced vaccinations to fascism, and last year he offered “a very unique perspective” on Australia’s marriage equality debate and the loneliness of not being part of the bullying LGBTQ majority.
In his 2008 book Comic Commentators: Contemporary Political Cartooning in Australia (published pre–Prime Minister Gillard), political scientist Hayden R. Manning spent an entire chapter looking at the depiction of women by Australian cartoonists and the complaints regularly levelled against cartoonists by female politicians—which, despite numerous examples of overt sexism, he perceived as oversensitive. (After all, sexist cartoons are just “a reflection of wider male views toward women,” right?)
Knight’s racist Williams cartoon is also embarrassingly illustrative of Australia’s backward attitudes toward race more generally, its “casual” racism. Though seen in many parts of the world as a progressive nation, Australia still has a serious problem—a “festering sore”—when it comes to race. Ostensibly proud of its “multiculturalism,” Australia’s racism is often of the dog-whistle variety, whether that’s the aforementioned fearmongering about Melbourne’s African youths, the reporting of a young black woman’s death, or the treatment of Indigenous Australians. (In fact, the term dog-whistle politics actually originated in Australia.) Emboldened by the rise of the alt-right across Europe and the U.S., the whistle has been more or less dropped in recent months, with one independent politician using his maiden parliamentary speech to allude to the “final solution” when it comes to Muslim immigration. The senator was elected on the previously defunct One Nation party, which first swept into Parliament in the ’90s on a wave of anti-Asian sentiment and rose from the ashes in 2016 on the back of anti-Muslim bigotry. But it’s not just the extremists. The conservative government spent many recent years trying to weaken protections against hate speech, by altering the section of the Racial Discrimination Act that makes it illegal to “offend, insult or humiliate” people based on their race—the section that was known to get good ol’ “controversialist” Bill Leak in trouble.
Many on this side of the Pacific have pointed out that Knight’s Sambo-style drawing looks like something out of a history book (not to mention something that will be looked back on by future generations with the same eye with which we regard Jim Crow–era stereotypes now). But this kind of “racism from another time” continues to pop up in Australia, which has a very small black population and yet has somehow picked up many of America’s most racist black stereotypes, from basketball stars donning blackface to KKK costumes. Australia just doesn’t seem to get it, something one University of Sydney professor calls “ignorance from a distance”—most Australians simply don’t know any black people.
Australians like myself are embarrassed by the international attention being leveled upon racist “Australian cartoonist” Mark Knight today. But if I’m being honest, it’s only because it reveals parts of Australia we should be embarrassed about all the time: an Australia that doesn’t fit with our self-image of a diverse, inclusive, cosmopolitan society. This one’s an international controversy, but the Australian culture wars regularly play out in cartoon editorials—and the Australian culture wars, like the cartoons themselves, are very, very ugly.