Controversial Serena Williams Cartoon Ruled 'Non-Racist' By Australia's Press Council The cartoon, published last September in Australia's Herald Sun, sparked a fierce backlash, with critics calling it a sexist and racist caricature of the tennis star.
NPR logo Controversial Serena Williams Cartoon Ruled 'Non-Racist' By Australia's Press Council

Controversial Serena Williams Cartoon Ruled 'Non-Racist' By Australia's Press Council

Serena Williams (left) and Naomi Osaka during the trophy ceremony after Osaka defeated Williams in the U.S. Open final on Sept. 8, 2018, that inspired a controversial cartoon mocking Williams. Greg Allen/Invision/AP hide caption

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Greg Allen/Invision/AP

Serena Williams (left) and Naomi Osaka during the trophy ceremony after Osaka defeated Williams in the U.S. Open final on Sept. 8, 2018, that inspired a controversial cartoon mocking Williams.

Greg Allen/Invision/AP

Nearly six months after a cartoon mocking Serena Williams unleashed immediate international rebuke, with critics calling it a racist Jim-Crow-era-like rendering of the sports star, the Australian Press Council weighed in on Monday, defending the image.

The cartoon, published last September in Australia's The Herald Sun following Serena Williams' stinging U.S. Open loss to Naomi Osaka of Japan, shows Williams in mid-tantrum and stamping on her tennis racket. The umpire is shown asking Osaka, "Can you just let her win?"

The Council said the cartoon "uses exaggeration and absurdity to make its point but accepts the publisher's claim that it does not depict Ms Williams as an ape, rather showing her as 'spitting the dummy', a non-racist caricature familiar to most Australian readers." (A "dummy" is an Australian term for a pacifier, which was drawn lying alongside Williams' racket on the ground.)

The Council, a watchdog group responsible for promoting good media practice standards in Australia, said it "accepts that the cartoon was illustrated in response to the events that occurred at the US Open final."

On Sept. 8, 2018, Williams was playing the Grand Slam final against an opponent 16 years her junior, when in the second set, the chair umpire determined Williams' coach was directing her from the sidelines and called a code violation.

Williams protested. "I don't cheat to win," she told the ump, Carlos Ramos. "I'd rather lose."

As the game continued and Williams grew more frustrated, she slammed her racket onto the court, bending it. It was her second violation, and Osaka automatically got a point.

Visibly upset, Williams went on to confront Ramos and demand an apology, calling him a "liar" and a "thief."

"You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live," she told him. Williams was given a third code violation.

Osaka ultimately won — becoming the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam title — but there was little joy evinced at a game that saw both players in tears at points and the crowd jeering the trophy ceremony. Williams was fined $17,000.

Williams, a winner of nearly two dozen Grand Slam titles, and her defenders have pointed to what they say is a double standard, whereby male players can get away with on-court outbursts for which female players are likelier to be called out. Williams' coach later said he was trying to guide her from the sidelines, but said it is a common practice that is rarely penalized.

London-based writer Tobi Oredein told NPR's Rachel Martin that what happened was not only about sexism but also racism.

"At the heart of 'misogynoir' — because it only affects black women — is a caricature of the angry, black woman," she said. "And it dehumanizes us, and it stops us showing emotion."

Mark Knight, who penned the cartoon, told the Herald Sun, he was inspired to draw the cartoon when he saw "the world's best tennis player have a tantrum and thought that was interesting."

The Herald Sun has stood by Knight, even as critics have said there is no getting around the stereotypical depictions in the drawing.

The National Association of Black Journalists called the cartoon "repugnant on many levels. The Sept. 10 cartoon not only exudes racist, sexist caricatures of both women, but Williams' depiction is unnecessarily sambo-like," a reference to the racist Jim Crow caricatures popularized in the 19th century.

Knight defended his rendering of Williams. "I drew her as an African American woman," he said in a video published on the Herald Sun's web site. "She's powerfully built. She wears these outrageous costumes when she plays tennis. She is interesting to draw."

"This whole business that I'm some sort of racist calling on racial cartoons from the past — it's just made up," Knight said. "The cartoon was about her behavior on the day."

Knight said he had to suspend his Twitter account because of the onslaught he faced after the cartoon was published.

He was also criticized for his rendering of Osaka. Oredein said he "whitewashed" the player, who is of Japanese and Haitian descent. Osaka "was seen as heroic and good and within her place," Oredein said. "And she had blonde hair, and it was straight."

In its ruling, the Australian Press Council said it had considered complaints about how the women were depicted and "that the cartoon should be considered in the context of the history of caricatures based on race and historical racist depictions of African Americans. "

Nevertheless, the Council said it found the publication did not fail "to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest," and so it did not breach the Council's standards of practice.

Oredein said the cartoon embodies a wider problem in the industry, "that black women and their talents, especially in sports, are treated with suspicion."