2021: A Year in (Offensive) Pictures

It’s an annual tradition at my blog to end each year with a month-by-month round-up of images that, for various reasons, prompted offense (see the posts for 2020, 2019 and 2018). You’re free to draw your own conclusions about these images: in all likelihood some of the objections will strike you as absurd, while others you will find entirely justifiable. Either way, the politics of offensiveness always provide ample food for discussion…

January: The George Floyd/Wardy Joubert III Meme

in January, British police sergeant Geraint Jones appeared in court having been charged with violating the law regarding grossly offensive communication. He had shared a meme that mocked the death of George Floyd by inserting an image of Wardy Joubert III to a photograph of the arrest in which Floyd was murdered. For obvious reasons, articles reporting the affair avoided reproducing the meme in question; although this report on a similar case that occurred in America last year has a cropped version of what is likely the same meme. Jones was acquitted in court and allowed to keep his job after receiving a written warning from  a police disciplinary panel.

Feburary: Sophie Labelle’s Diaperfur Art

In February, cartoonist Sophie Labelle was caught having drawn pictures of anthropomorphised puppy-dogs wearing nappies. Not in itself objectionable. It also emerged that on at least one occasion, she appears to have traced over a photograph of a real baby to produce this art. Again, not in itself particularly objectionable. But all of this came under a rather different light was an admission she made on Twitter: “I drew some diaperfur art. I have a kink I indulge responsibly and I refuse to be shamed for it.”

March: You Won’t be Seeing it on Mulberry Street

This month, six books by Dr. Seuss were allowed to go out of print because of perceived racist imagery; amongst them was To Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street, which has a depiction of a caricatured Chinese boy holding chopsticks in one illustration (the image had previously been modified to give the boy white rather than yellow skin and remove his pigtail). Some decried this as cancel culture run amock; others argued that it made sound business sense on the grounds that the books in question just weren’t selling very well. With this latter detail in mind, it was something of a win-win for the Seuss estate: the controversy led to better-known and very much still-in-print books like The Cat in the Hat receiving colossal sales boosts.

April: Not Dead but Sleeping

Billboard showing a photograph by Steven Shearer. Source: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/04/02/they-see-dead-people-billboard-works-removed-from-vancouver-photography-festival-after-locals-complain

Vancouver’s Capture Photography Festival was promoted with a series of billboards showing people sleeping in public, as photographed by Steven Shearer. Come April 1, these billboards were taken down on the grounds that locals interpreted the sleeping subjects as corpses.

May: Scandalous Teenage Shoulders

TeenageShoulders

“so this high school in florida digitally altered more than 80 girls’ yearbook pictures to make them ‘less revealing’ and i am literally losing my mind at how bad the photoshop is”, said Twitter commentator MattXIV this month. It’s hard to disagree.

June: To Serve and Protect

The fourth of June saw the unveiling of Nicole Macdonald’s mural “To Serve and Protect” in Detroit. Commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts back in 2018, the mural is located on the facade of a police department in Sterling Heights. The mural was criticised for depicting an over-rosy vision of US cops during a year in which police brutality was a major issue. “If this piece is interpreted by the people that I care about as being a sign of brutality, then it should be removed,” said artist Macdonald in the midst of the controversy.

July: Clowning with Nazarbayev

A wall in Almaty, Kazakhstan became the site of an artistic battle between activists and authorities over the legacy of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev. The affair had been carrying on since May, but it reaches perhaps its harshest point in July when, not long after the authoritarian ex-president’s birthday, the mural was altered so as to depict him as a clown.

August: Never mind Nevermind?

1991 saw the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the cover of which featured an iconic photograph of a swimming baby. In August 2021, the man who was that baby — Spencer Elden — filed a lawsuit against the band on the grounds that the photograph in question constitutes child pornography.

September: Immortal Bolsonaro

The primary creative team behind Marvel’s Immortal Hulk series, writer Al Ewing and artist Joe Bennett, had a falling out when it emerged that the Brazilian artist had previously drawn a political cartoon depicting Jair Bolsonaro as a valiant, sword-wielding warrior and his opponents as rodents, vampires and severed heads.

October: Marge be Not Proud

Portland, Oregon was once home to a “merge” roadsign depicting Marge Simpson, complete with a bushel of leaves to represent her hair, courtesy of an anonymous artist (the original sign was simply indicating a pedestrian crossing). Citing traffic safety concerns, authorities removed the sign in October.

November: Omicron Blackface

This was the month in which Spanish magazine La Tribuna de Albacete ran a cartoon that depicted the COVID-19 Omicron variant as a boatful of anthropomorphised viruses, sporting dark complexions and large lips as they sail to Europe in a vessel emblazoned with the South African flag. The racist implications of this image led to condemnation from (amongst others) WHO and an eventual apology from the paper in question.

December: No Kissing

This month, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority upheld complaints against an advertising campaign by clothing manufacturer Diesel that struck certain viewers as overtly sexual. One of the adverts in question was a slideshow of still images that showed couples kissing. According to an official statement from ASA, this move was taken after three people complained about the adverts.

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