Thursday, March 22, 2018

Can You Judge a Nuclear Confrontation by Its Cover?

I want to write in more detail about the article I talked about in yesterday's post -- When Writing About North Korea Is a "Downer" -- but I realized that first I should say something about the cover of the issue of The New Yorker in which it appeared.

I wrote two days ago about how important images are -- North Korea: Who Am I To Look At You?. The article from the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars that I referenced there directed our attention to how caricatures may cross the line from commentary on an individual to ethnic stereotype. Consider this example:


"Let's see -- my old man said the top button is to launch and the
bottom button is to cancel -- or is it the other way around?"
Kim Jong Il caricatured by Don Wright, Palm Beach Post
c. 1994


Commenting on the cartoon, scholar Robert Perkinson says, "[T]he cartoon not only ridicules North Korea's likely new president Kim Jong Il by exaggerating both his lack of expertise and his perceived menace to the West, but also employs anti-Asian racial stereotypes." (Introduction to "Notes from the Field: The Korean Nuclear Crisis.)

Having been alerted by Perkinson, I notice several things about this cartoon:

* Kim's feet don't reach the ground. (They barely reach beyond the edge of his chair.) This suggests:

- the physical fact that Kim Jung Il was relatively short (5' 3")
- short stature as a metaphor for youth, in turn a metaphor for inexperience and/or lack of expertise
- infantilization of Asians as a racial stereotype

* Kim has big glasses and barely visible eyes, i.e. the representation is in no way realistic. Does this reflect:

- reliance upon a long-standing and innocent cartooning convention?
- reliance upon a long-standing and anti-Asian racist cartooning convention?

* Kim can't keep straight the simplest instructions concerning this mechanism. Is this:

- a dig at his inexperience and/or lack of expertise?
- an anti-Asian racist stereotype, suggesting Asians are too simple to understand machines?

I know, it's hard work; we've been looking at images like this for so long without thinking about these questions.

The New Yorker cover for September 18, 2017 is interesting.


The New Yorker, September 18, 2017


It is by Eric Drooker and is entitled "Warhead."

What I noticed about this image is that it puts Kim Jong Un on a par with Donald Trump. After months of graphics that made use of what had become a true cultural meme -- Trump's orange mop of hair -- we were now seeing an image saying to us, in effect, "There's another leader that you know just by looking at his hair!" (and, possibly, "Compare to Trump - similar? different? . . . . ")

Using the up/down/level scoring approach that I talked about in yesterday's post, I would give this a "level." If all it were suggesting was "Kim is scary" (i.e. the message implied by the image's title, "Warhead"), then I would rate it "down." But in my opinion the image makes people think.

I'm confirmed in my judgement by comparing it with an earlier New Yorker cover depicting Kim:


The New Yorker, January 18, 2016


It is by Anita Kunz and is entitled "New Toys."

Here the questions raised by the Don Wright cartoon come to mind. It seems perfectly legitimate to provide commentary that suggests that a leader lacks the maturity to handle his or her country's military and weapons responsibly. However, I believe it also involves an anti-Asian racial stereotype when an Asian leader is shown as a baby playing with his toys. (Why isn't he shown side-by-side with his US counterpart, also depicted as a child?)

So: between January, 2016, and September, 2017, the story the public has gotten from The New Yorker has progressed from "down" to "level."

At least, if you can judge a nuclear confrontation by its cover . . . .


More:

The US and North Korea: Suspense, Discomfort, Regret

"Denuclearization" - A Graphic to Focus the Mind


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