Does This 'Abused Spouse' Cartoon Cross the Line?

Daryl Cagle / Cagle CartoonsI'm not someone who believes that there are topics that should be off-limits to comedians. Everything needs to be on the table, though there is a caveat -- the joke needs to be funny, it should avoid cheap attacks on the powerless and it should not inadvertently offend those not targeted by the joke.

This brings me to the editorial cartoon issued by Daryl Cagle.

Cagle's cartoon crosses a line in equating the relationship between the American press and President Obama with that of an abused spouse. There is no doubt that the Washington press and the punditocracy and Obama have a dysfunctional relationship, though it is no different than the skewed relationships between any powerful leader and the press corps that covers him (or her). We can debate this point.

Equating it to an abusive relationship, however, makes light of the physical and emotional danger that women (and it is mostly women) face when they find themselves mired in a relationship with a spouse or boyfriend who uses his physical, monetary or other power for intimidation and control. We are talking about physical violence -- which sometimes ends in murder -- and emotional brutality that cripples the victim.

Cagle's cartoon depicts this -- the press character is in bandages and obvious pain -- along with the excuses abuse victims often give. I would accuse Cagle of being clueless to these critiques, except he acknowledges that a similar (I would argue nearly identical) cartoon elicited harsh criticisms that mirror mine. He even apologizes in a post on his blog for giving offense in one of those apologies that deflects responsibility:

The abused spouse gas cartoon generated some angry mail from actual abused spouses who were upset with me for not taking them seriously, in some strong and emotional language. I actually apologized for this one, since people were so upset. For any readers I offend with my new cartoon, you again have my apology – it is not my intent to criticize abused spouses – the cartoon is only about Obama and the press!

Cagle was sorry because people were upset and not because he ultimately made light of spousal abuse by using the spousal-abuse trope to get a laugh and make a rhetorical point. The cartoon, he argues, is not about spousal abuse, but Obama and the press, though its central image is one of spousal abuse making it, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, about spousal abuse. If it wasn't intentional -- and I have no reason to think it was -- it certainly was sloppy.

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