2020: A Year in (Offensive) Pictures

It’s become an annual tradition for me. I did it in 2018, I did it in 2019, and now I’m doing the same for 2020: a month-by-month review of the creative images which, for one reason or another, sparked outrage over the course of the year. Offensive? Inoffensive? I have my opinions, but once again, you’ll be free to judge for yourself (and as it should go without saying, some of these are NSFW)…


January: Flying the Flag for Wuhan

Near the start of this year the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten (of Mohammed-with-a-bomb-on-his-bonce fame) ran a cartoon by Niels Bo Bojeson in which the coronavirus replaced the yellow stars of the Chinese flag. The Chinese Embassy in Copenhagen called upon the paper to apologise on the grounds that the cartoon lacked “sympathy and empathy” for the 81 people in China who had lost their lives to the virus at that point. Some of the paper’s critics on social media posted parodies of the Danish flag lampooning, amongst other things, the country’s suicide rate and its surrender in World War II.


February: Greta Thunberg Porn Shocker

This month saw controversy over a car decal that depicted a nude drawing of teenage activist Greta Thunberg (helpfully identified by a lower back tattoo saying “Greta”) apparently being sexually assaulted by someone holding on to her hair-braids. Underneath the image is the logo of the Canadian oil company X-Site Energy Services, which denied any involvement in the decal’s manufacture. Some argued that the image constitutes child pornography, although Canadian authorities concluded otherwise. In another twist, it turned out that the art was plagiarised from a 2016 tattoo design with no connection to Thunberg.


March: Bully for Patel

In March, Boris Johnson announced during Prime Minister’s Questions that he was sticking by Home Secretary Priti Patel in the face of allegations that she had bullied staff members; Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell responded with a less-than-subtle visual pun depicting both Patel and Johnson as bulls. In an echo of Gary Larson’s notorious “Cow Tools”, the weakness of the joke allowed room for unintended interpretations, with some commentators reading the cartoon as a dig at Patel’s Hindu heritage. “This cartoon is offensive on every level. – It’s anti-Hindu. It portrays the Home Secretary, of Hindu origin as a cow. A sacred symbol for Hindus. – Its racist and – misogynist. It’s plainly unacceptable! It may constitute a hate crime” said the British Tamil Conservatives.


April: the Gloves are Off

This was the month of Coronacon, an online horror convention represented in publicity material by a cartoon virus mascot. Some people found this objectionable, prompting a response from Brian Keene, one of the authors involved with the convention: “I’m not much for sub-Tweeting, so for the folks saying #CoronaCon was offensive because of the cartoon icon or racist because that icon wore gloves, instead of passive aggressively going after Kelli, Mary, Bracken or Janz, how about you come here and say that shit directly to me?”

May: Drinking Bleach

Donald Trump’s poorly-worded reference to disinfectant when talking about an injection to cure coronavirus led to widespread ridicule, and cartoonist Nick Anderson got in on the action with a drawing of Trump handing out mugfuls of bleach to MAGA-hatted supporters. When Anderson sold copies of the cartoon via Redubble, Trump’s campaign organisation was not amused: claiming that the depiction of MAGA hats constituted a copyright violation, the group managed to get the cartoon pulled from Redbubble. Anderson, backed by the comic Book Legal Defense Fund, argued that this was no more than a flimsy excuse for the suppression of political criticism.

June: Liberty Brutalises Bigotry

Commenting on Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd, cartoonist Aaron Blaise felt that the best response to the atrocity was a cartoon of Lady Liberty killing a Klansman (with “racism” written on his hood, in case we don’t know what a Klansman represents) in the same manner. In response to critical backlash, he commented “Thank you for your input. Now you draw one.”

July: Senator Perdue Nose He Did Wrong?

On July 22, the campaign of Georgia senator David Perdue published a Facebook advert depicting his rival, Jon Ossoff. The photograph of Ossoff – who is Jewish – was distorted so that his nose was enlarged; Perdue’s campaign later pulled the advert, stating that the effect was unintentional. “This is the oldest, most obvious, least original anti-Semitic trope in history”, said Ossoff. “Senator, literally no one believes your excuses.”


August: Cuties Poster

The film Cuties prompted much controversy across the board, and this began with a single image: the still chosen by Netflix as the movie’s poster, depicting suggestively-posed child dancers. Even some who defended the film itself agreed that the poster was a misjudgement.


September: Removing the Hood

In September four museums issued a joint announcement that they were postponing a two-year touring exhibition of work by the artist Philip Guston (1913-1980). This was in response to “the racial justice movement that started in the US” as a number of Guston’s paintings depict the Ku Klux Klan. Mark Godfrey, one of the curators who would have been involved with the show, dismissed the move as “extremely patronising to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works.”


October: The Murder of Samuel Paty

On 16 October, French schoolteacher Samuel Paty was murdered by 18-year-old extremist Abdoullakh Abouyezidvitich Anzorov. This followed an outraged social media campaign against Paty in response to a class he conducted on free speech, during which he showed some of Charlie Hebdo’s 2012 cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed. Multiple people were charged with assisting the killer, some of them teenagers.


November: A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft

Maggi Hambling’s sculpture commemorating pioneering feminist Mary Wollestonecraft was unveiled in London’s Newington Green on 10 November, The sculpture sparked backlash over its inclusion of a nude female figure, which some commentators found to be sexist. Sculptor Hambling replied that the figure – which she identified as representing women and feminism in general, rather than being a portrayal of Wollstonecraft herself – continued an artistic tradition of male figures as nude, heroic ideals.


December: Santawang

Finally these Santa cookies on sale at Target prompted comments from customers because the biscuit depicting his boots looks vaguely like a knob. Although tongue-in-cheek news reports mentioned outrage and boycotts, Target denied receiving any feedback on the matter

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