Opinion

Charlie Hebdo’s Meghan race bait isn’t ‘satire’ – it’s a cheap garner for relevancy, and it’s boring.

Following the news of Prince Phillip’s death on Friday, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo swiftly mounted their one-trick-pony, and by the very same evening had posted a topical cartoon to their Twitter, depicting ‘l’hommage d’Harry & Meghan au Prince Phillip’ – showing a caricatured, Nazi Harry and topless, banana-wearing Meghan ‘paying tribute’ above what is presumably Phillip’s lowered casket. Yes, really.

I feel that I should clarify a few things before I get into this: the first being that I’m certainly not opposed to satirical media. Satire has long been a device used to push the boundaries of social criticism and political opposition, and I’m all for that. In fact, it feels even necessary that a progressive society should have such non-conformist publications in circulation.

Furthermore, being far from a monarchist, I have no qualms with criticising the royals, or the wider political establishment in general. Charlie Hebdo, well-known to push the boundaries of French media, aren’t strangers to depicting the British monarchy in their comics. Just last month, at the height of the Oprah interview hysteria, they ‘sparked outrage’ by parodying George Floyd’s death to depict “Why Meghan left Buckingham.” A caricatured Meghan, Duchess of Sussex is shown lying on the ground, saying: “Because I couldn’t breathe anymore”’, while a pretty evil-looking Queen Elizabeth is shown kneeling on her neck.

Pictured: Charlie Hebdo edition in March depicts Queen Elizabeth and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, in a parody of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, on sale in Paris, France. (Getty Images)

Personally, I think that well-executed satire can be incredibly entertaining – no, this crude style of cartoon isn’t to my taste but regardless, I respect the right to free speech and an unrestricted press: after all, it’s what allows me to publish this critical article right now. Even if it’s not your type of humour, you have to have a level of appreciation that public figures and current events are able to be dissected and utilised for artistic purposes of all forms. This being said, I don’t think publications should be able publish inane bigotry, stick a “Satire” label on it and call it a day.

Aforementioned inane bigotry (Image: Charlie Hebdo)

Cartoon Harry’s outfit choice and accompanying salute is a fairly obvious double reference to his late grandfather’s familial Nazi connection (Phillip fought as a Royal Navy officer in the Second World War; his siblings were also Nazis), as well as Harry’s own questionably ‘poor choice of costume’ to a ‘colonial-themed’ birthday party as a 20 year old . This is pretty funny. It’s a tongue in cheek reference to controversy, typical of a satirical cartoon. The Meghan caricature, however, has far more loaded implications.

A reference most probably lost on an international audience is that Meghan is depicted as French-American entertainer, Josephine Baker (it took me a Google). A black woman most celebrated for her Cabernet performances in Paris during the Roaring Twenties, in which she wore “little more than strings of pearls, wrist cuffs, and a skirt made of 16 rubber bananas”, Baker’s reclamation of racial and sexually-charged imagery came at a time that European entertainment was utterly consumed with Black culture, from jazz to dance. Vogue credits her influence on popular culture, stating “she clowned and seduced and subverted stereotypes” in a way that is still influential almost a century later (see inspired outfits from Beyoncé, Diana Ross and Rhianna to name a few).

Josephine Baker, entertainer turned civil rights activist (Getty Images)

That being said, what exactly is Meghan’s relation to the late Ms Baker? They are both considered entertainers turned activists – but come on. I’m not going to patronise the reader by spelling out the obvious race bait here, because there are realistically no tangible connections between Josephine Baker and Meghan Markle beside skin colour. I’m sure the illustrator could quite eloquently explain the nuances of Harry’s depiction as a Nazi, because it is a legitimate reference to his controversial past. With the cultural reference in Meghan’s case being vague at best, it’s safe to say that the cartoonist knew exactly what they were doing with this imagery – using a racist trope under the guise of ‘freedom of speech!’ in what is a pretty intolerance display of so-called ‘edgy’ humour.

After several targeted terror attacks, presumed to be as a result of their controversial depictions of the prophet Muhammad, Charlie Hebdo almost became this cultural paragon for free speech in recent years, and I really don’t think this is a deserved or warranted pedestal. Satirical cartoons have always relied on shock factor, of course, and when it comes to parodying current events, the more controversial the better it seems – so this cartoon was certainly not outside the realms of expectation. However, for me, it simply isn’t very funny. This type of material just feels like controversy for controversy’s sake, designed to offend and not a lot more. Maybe it’d be more bearable if there was some deeper irony or a legitimate point to be made with the cartoon, but there isn’t. Common defence almost always sounds something like “it’s satire, you just don’t get it” – but I do get it. Go back and read again, I understand the references just fine. It’s doesn’t hold the wit and subtle irony that a good satire should; it’s a transparent attempt at relevancy and attention through controversy that would fit in quite nicely in the deep crevices of 4chan.

I initially wasn’t sure if I was the person to tackle this particular issue in an opinion article; I almost felt that I have no right to feel anger on behalf of women of colour who have been historically subjected to caricatured depictions and stereotypes within media. However, upon speaking to LSM member Paige Furlonge-Walker (Sociology, final year), she reasons that “sometimes the argument doesn’t get enough attention… if it’s just black and brown people saying it” so it’s important that non-POC also choose to speak out too. On the Meghan caricature itself, Paige shares that she “doesn’t know where to begin” but “coming across images like that, it doesn’t necessarily hurt” because the perpetuation of these kind of racial stereotypes is so commonplace, you become “almost desensitised”. She goes on to suggest that the label of satire given to such media can “give racists the benefit of the doubt”, a sentiment echoed by Munya Mwaijumba (Journalism with Creative Writing, first year) who feels the image “diminishes Meghan to just a WOC”.

My usual approach would be to simply give no time or attention to this type of media, but I think that if Charlie Hebdo in particular prides itself on its anti-establishment, leftist stance, rather than capitalise on a cheap race bait depiction of Meghan Markle to garner clicks and relevancy, they could consider opposing the British monarchy in far more purposeful way, perhaps by diving into the cesspit of satirical opportunity that is the literal alleged sex offender, Prince Andrew.


Ella Johnson is a final year English student with a passion for politics, pop culture and the digital world. She acts as Lifestyle Chief Editor and 21/22 President. You can find her on Instagram here

You can read Paige’s brilliant article, ‘Being black and British: the identity crisis I did not ask for’ here

Feature image sourced from Twitter.com