Posted on May 20, 2019

Political Cartoonists Are out of Touch – It’s Time to Make Way for Memes

Jennifer Grygiel, The Conversation, May 17, 2019


As a scholar who studies social media and memetics, I wonder if political cartoons are the best way to connect with today’s diverse readership. Many crave searing, cutting political commentary – and they’re finding it in internet memes.

What if internet memes were elevated – not only as a serious art form but also as an important form of editorializing that’s worthy of appearing alongside the traditional cartoon?

Behind the times

Newspapers and magazine editors still rely on political cartoons to capture readers’ attention and to deliver some lighter material alongside heavier news stories. The need for this content isn’t going away, nor is the need for forms of communication that challenge governments and open up important public discussions – a role the political cartoonist has long held.


A 2015 Washington Post report also underscored the lack of diversity among political cartoonists in newsrooms, noting how not a single black individual was employed as one.

Then there’s journalism’s top prize, the Pulitzer.

An extensive 2016 study by the Columbia Journalism Review unveiled how the ranks of editorial cartoon Pulitzer winners have been largely dominated by white men. Since 1922, only two women have received a Pulitzer in this category, and it wasn’t awarded to an African American until this year, when syndicated cartoonist Darrin Bell became the first to receive the award.

One roadblock to diversifying the ranks of political cartoonists is that the potential pool of candidates is limited. Few have the technical skill to draw pen-and-ink drollery, the common style for political cartooning.


A more democratic form

Given the important function of the political cartoon, simply discontinuing their use serves no one, including publishers.


The political cartoon is technically a meme, which is simply any piece of culture that can be copied or replicated.

A different sort of political cartoon, the internet meme, dominates on social media. Often crudely constructed, they’re far easier to create than, say, your typical New Yorker political cartoon. Many simply appear as a photo with text overlay, something that can be made within a few minutes via an online meme generator or mobile app. But the lack of technical skill needed means that they’re democratic in nature – and those that resonate the best will get shared the most and rise to the top.

A new common meme format simply entails brief, humorous, text-based commentary. Words are memes, after all, and they can be used to communicate ideas very quickly and clearly, which avoids some of the issues with visual rhetoric such as misinterpretation or misrepresentation – the exact sort of thing that happened with The New York Times cartoon.