2019: A Year in (Offensive) Pictures

Around this time last year I posted a look back at 2018 through the lens of controversies over offensive images. It was interesting to write, so to ring out the end of the 2010s, I’ve decided to do the same for this year.

Here are twelve images that people found offensive during the course of 2019. Agree? Disagree? Read and decide…


January: Essex County Council Transgender Clipart

Near the start of the year Essex County Council issued a Future Library Services Strategy Questionnaire with a tick-box section for gender. It had three options: man, woman, and transgender. Any attempt at inclusivity was perhaps a little undercut by the choice of images: while male and female were signified by stock photos of cheery people giving thumbs up, the transgender box was illustrated with a drawing of a glum-looking, masculine-framed individual pulling off a wig. Not everyone found this appropriate.



February: Frosty the Snow Schlong

Seal once sang the immortal words “but did you know, that when it snows, my eyes become large?” Well, it turns out that Seal’s eyes aren’t the only body parts that become large when it snows, as one woman found out when she reportedly received notice of complaints (and even the threat of a fine) from her local homeowners’ association — because their car left a phallic shape in the wintery whiteness.

“Your car, specifically the Honda, left this offensive image on the ground after you left”, ran the notice. “I believe you will see why we have had complaints about it. One of our residents took the photo and reported it to us out of concern for our younger residents.”

Well, I’ve heard of the moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, but this… okay, I’ll stop now.



March: Mariner Misogyny?

March was the month in which watchmaker Mariner got in trouble for three adverts that were deemed misogynistic by detractors. One showed a woman with a man’s hand around her throat and an expression indicating that she wasn’t particularly enjoying it; another depicted a woman apparently being force-fed whisky; and the third showed a dude on a sofa (presumably the man whose hands can be seen in the other images) flanked by the two female models, one embracing him, the other slumped unconscious on the floor. Mariner responded to complaints with an apology.



April: The New York Times‘ Trump-Netanyahu Cartoon

In April the New York Times ran a cartoon by António Moreira Antunes satirising Trump’s relationship to Netanyahu by portraying the former as blind and the latter as a guide dog. The cartoonist’s decision to draw a kippah on Trump’s head, along with a Star of David on Netanyahu’s collar, led to accusations of antisemitism. The paper not only apologised, it ceased running political cartoons altogether.



May: Rainbow Madonna

May was the month in which Polish activist Elzbieta Podlesna was arrested for distributing posters that showed Madonna and Child with rainbow halos, intended to protest religious intolerance. Apparently hell-bent on proving her point, authorities raided her home and seized her computers and phone in response to her perceived blasphemy.



June: Mix it Up with a Cybertranny

A trailer for the still-upcoming game Cyberpunk 2077 was released in June, and revealed that the game’s fictional world includes a soft drink advert showing a sexy, androgynous figure (feminine face, bulging crotch) and the slogan “mix it up”. The advert’s presence prompted accusations that the game was fetishising transgender people; Kasia Redesiuk, the artist who designed the image, stated that the in-game advert was intended to satirise corporate abuse of sexuality.



July: Picaninny Freeze

The Edmonton branch of sweet shop Rocket Fizz opened in July, with images from vintage candy wrappers decorating its interior. Sounds cute enough, right? Well, that’s until we consider that one of the designs they used was a blatantly racist wrapper for “Picaninny Freeze” melon-flavoured ice lollies. Yikes.



August: George Washington High School Mural

San Francisco’s George Washington High School is home to a mural painted by Victor Arnautoff in 1936, depicting scenes from the life of the eponymous president. Given that the heroic imagery includes Washington’s slaves and a dead Native American, the mural does not entirely mesh with modern sensibilities. In August it was decided to cover the mural with panels, a school board having reversed an earlier decision to paint over the art.


2019-12-11 18.33.10

September: Kotaku in Harry Potter Porn Shocker

In September, Kotaku ran an article entitled “Animated Video Game Porn Could Be A Lot Sexier And Less Gross” which originally contained a selection of illustrations from the unofficial porn clips in question. While most were — as far as Rule 34 creations go — fairly inexplicit, the fact that some depicted child characters from Pokémon and Harry Potter led to criticism and the eventual removal of the pictures. “Readers are understandably uncomfortable about these kinds of depictions of characters who are often depicted as or thought of as teenagers”, ran an editorial comment on the revised article. “I am, too and apologize. We can do better, and we will.”

The original version of the article is still available in archived form, if you really want to dig it up. With most of the images in this post I’ve put up the full, uncensored versions so that readers can make up their own minds; but since this is the sort of area where a person might conceivably get into legal trouble, I’ve decided to tastefully crop the above image of Hermione reading a book with no trousers on (or maybe her trousers are invisible — anything’s possible in Hogwarts!)



October: “Lady Liberty”

October saw athletic clothes company Dhvani unveil a controversial billboard entitled Lady Liberty. The image shows model and marine vet Michal Mesa holding Trump’s screaming head below her foot as she hog-ties the president in glowing cords of red, white and blue. Well, strictly speaking, the man in the image is actually a Trump look-alike, as Dhvani’s agency Lamar Advertising barred them from using a photograph of the president himself. “The billboard is an expression of our First Amendment right,” said Dhvani CEO Avi Brown. “Its art is a symbol. We would never condone violence.” So, don’t go getting the idea that it’s okay for butch models to tie up random men who happen to look like Donald Trump.



November: Batman vs Hong Kong Phooey

The above promotional image was posted by DC’s social media in November. The bone of contention? Well, certain observers in China took the image of Batman lobbing a molotov cocktail to be an endorsement of the protests in Hong Kong. “The black clothes represent Hong Kong, the mask represents Hong Kong, the Molotov cocktail represents Hong Kong, what else here doesn’t represent Hong Kong???” asked one Weibo poster. DC responded by removing the image from social media, prompting further criticism for giving in to political pressure.

Honourable mention: Akihabara’s boob billboard.



December: Making a Monkey out of Racism?

As the year neared its end, the organisers of Italian football competition Serie A faced criticism for using images of chimpanzees on posters for an anti-racism campaign. Simone Fugazzotto, the artist responsible, said that the designs were intended as a response to the racism directed at black footballer Kalidou Koulibaly, who was labelled a “monkey” by racist fans last year. Fugazzotto’s intended message was that all humans are monkeys:

I’ve always been painting monkeys for five to six years, so I thought I’d make this work to teach that we’re all apes, I made the western monkey with blue and white eyes, the Asian monkey with almond-shaped eyes and the black monkey positioned in the centre, where everything comes from. The monkey becomes the spark to teach everyone that there is no difference, there is no man or monkey, we are all alike. If anything we are all monkeys.

However, it seems safe to say that Fugazzotto and Serie A did not do the best job of conveying their message to the public. “In a country in which the authorities fail to deal with racism week after week, Serie A have launched a campaign that looks like a sick joke” said Fare, an anti-discrimination body.

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