(Note: A rational, thoughtful take on the Charlie Hebdo shootings, from the perspective of a 15 year old artist who sometimes likes to be a bit edgy. It brings you up short, doesn't it…? JG)
On January 7, 2015, two masked men attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine famous for its cartoons, killing 11 people and injuring 11 more. This news shocked the world, as many were surprised that a magazine intended to make people laugh could lead to so much bloodshed. Certainly, the news surprised me. Seeing as I am a cartoonist myself, it definitely made me both worried and fascinated by how simple drawings on paper could lead to something like this.
For those who don’t know, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are generally designed to provoke. Many of their cartoons depict taboo subjects, such as the sex slaves taken by Boco Haram militants; a threeway between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and several covers depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad (“100 lashes if you are not dying of laughter!” he says on one of them).
Of course, there have been many cartoonists in the past whose cartoons have been designed to provoke strong emotions. As far back as 1831, Honore Daumier drew a portrait of the French King Louis-Philippe entitled “Gargantua,” which showed the king as a Goliath-like beast swallowing sacks of money fed to him by his subjects. The cartoon was prevented from being printed, and both Daumier and his editor Charles Philipon were sentenced to jail time and had to pay a fine. But by then, word had already gotten around about the drawing, and its notoriety led to Daumier and Philipon finding work again
Another notable cartoonist to rebel against the system was Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi was an animator for the animation studio Terrytoons in the 1960s before moving on to make independent feature films. His first, Fritz the Cat, based on the underground comic by R. Crumb, became the first animated feature to earn an X rating. Bakshi’s films tended to be about New York City and the goings-on of its seedier denizens. One of his most notable films was Coonskin, a modern-day take on Song of the South that depicted three black main characters leaving the South and coming to Harlem, only to be confronted by oppression and discrimination. The film was wildly controversial upon its release, with the Congress of Racial Equality protesting its release and the film’s original distributor pulling out, despite the fact that the film was meant to satirize ethnic stereotypes, not reinforce them.
So, why do I bring up Daumier and Bakshi? Because their cartoons may have provoked many people, but they still had an overall point. Daumier was making a point about how the king was getting wealthy off of his citizens’ hard-earned money, and Bakshi was showing the life of the lower-class and the injustice of racism. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons to the untrained eye, seem to do little but provoke for the sake of provoking, and maybe a laugh now and then. Is there any underlying message in this cartoons? Or are they just there to provoke?
Luz, a cartoonist who survived the attacks, stated that “Since the ‘60s, [it] has always sought to break taboos and shatter symbols and every possible type of fanaticism.”[i] In that sense, there’s nothing wrong with what the Hebdo cartoonists do. Certainly, fanaticism of any type could be taken down a peg, and cartoons have forever been a way to take the high and mighty and bring them down to the level of the common man (although it is ironic that a magazine intended to attack fanatics was then attacked by fanatics). It puts a face behind the cartoons, and, to some, it stops the cartoons from being completely mean-spirited attacks on religious and social beliefs.
Frankly, I think everyone has a right to speak their mind about certain subjects. That’s what freedom of speech is all about, right? So, in that sense, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have every right to continue making their cartoons. But the question is, should they? You see, a cartoon depicting Mohammed isn’t just offensive to the Islamic radicals who burst into the offices. They’re offensive to anyone in the Muslim faith, as their law strictly dictates that none can create depictions of their prophet (not to mention anyone who has respect for other peoples’ customs). By not just drawing the Prophet, but also drawing him in very degrading positions, they don’t seem to be doing much more than pointing and laughing, like schoolyard bullies. They have a right to do it under free speech, but it still feels pretty insensitive toward an entire religion.
Does this mean that the shooters were justified? Absolutely not. Whether or not the cartoons were offensive, violence is never the answer, and killing people just for their art is an example of stifling freedom of speech. Though the cartoons can be considered offensive, they still had the right to make them. But, like I said before, it does get you to thinking when simple strokes of pencil or pen on paper can lead to reactions like these.