Today I want to break down the steps that I take to understand a political cartoon. Analyzing any primary source is a tough task to tackle, but political cartoons are a unique challenge because they are a visual medium. Because of that, they can be harder to contextualize in history.
For this example, I’ll be looking at the following cartoon:
I think of cartoons — like onions — in layers, starting from the most superficial level to the deepest level of analysis. Even though this often feels tedious, it helps me organize my thoughts, understand the connections between cartoons, and make sure I don’t miss anything.
My first big step is always working towards being able to describe the meme on a superficial level. This means that I have to do three things: 1) identify the people, 2) read the text (including text that is embedded in the image or at the bottom of the cartoon), and 3) acknowledge artistic choices like shading or perspective.
After doing these three substeps, I can write a short paragraph describing the cartoon. For instance, in this cartoon, we see a giant Theodore Roosevelt holding a small Barack Obama. Roosevelt is saying “Speak softly and carry a big stick-in-the-mud.”
During this step, I pay special attention to how the characters are portrayed. They’re often identifiable because of certain caricatured features. For instance, Obama is often portrayed with a long head shape and large ears. Theodore Roosevelt is often portrayed in a cowboy hat and an exploration get-up.
The next big step is to understand what that basic description means. Oftentimes, this is where we bring in the historical context. For instance, in this cartoon I remembered Big Stick Diplomacy of President Roosevelt, which was “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” This is obviously a play on that famous phrase.
During this step, I also like to understand other cultural references that might be portrayed in this. This cartoon is sparse, but even that might be important to keep in mind for later.
So what does this all mean? Why does Roosevelt’s famous phrase matter?
This is the third and most important step — asking these questions and understanding the deeper meaning of the cartoon. This is where we explore the author’s argument.
In this cartoon, the author is using manipulation of Roosevelt’s phrase and of the perspective to argue that Roosevelt was a strong leader, while Obama is a weak leader, and even “a stick-in-the-mud.” He’s not fun, and he’s not as important or influential as the giant Roosevelt, even though Roosevelt was President over a century before this cartoon was made.
After understanding the key point, I then go back over the cartoon to look at anything I may have missed. I try to mentally catalog things that I don’t understand and keep them in mind while looking at other cartoons or memes. In some cases, I realize that there is a pattern to the way someone or something is portrayed that I hadn’t noticed before.
And that’s that. Those are the four steps that I use to analyze a historical cartoon. Of course, if I’m doing a more in-depth analysis about a certain subject or artist, I will add some steps. One of the great things about political cartoons is that there’s always something to learn or notice about a cartoon. Like other forms of satire, cartoons are full of information and ideas.
Feature image by Margulies at http://www.jimmymargulies.com.