June 29, 2013

Bert and Ernie Gay (and Illustrators DOA) in Cutest Fail of Historic Week

Here are our takes on how this was couched:

• What makes this a viral cover is the novel juxtaposition of two brands. It’s a thoroughly creative combination like this which makes fireworks go off in the brain. In this case though, the winner is primarily the illustrator for hitting it out of the park for cleverness and cuteness, not the magazine for framing the movement or the Supreme’s decision in any particularly significant or poignant light. Instead, the novelty comes at the price of infantilizing (or, at least, failing to creatively tackle) the ongoing battle being fought by gay couples for full (not cartoon, not puppet) equality.

• Bag contributor Karrin Anderson sees the popularity of the illustration for how it either panders to the far left or, at least, takes advantage of a huge progressive victory:

To me, it looks like a mini victory lap after the (momentary) defeat of political forces who have also looked to defund PBS in their misguided attempts to police the nation’s morality. Much of the euphoria after the SC ruling can be attributed as much to people’s enthusiasm for the fact that liberal policy can become the law of the land (even with a broken Congress and an intrusive executive branch) as it can be to general support for gay rights.

• My thought when I saw this is that the editors fell for the cuddly before they thought through the sexual politics. (I’m in agreement with what June Thomas said at Slate, that there’s a difference between same-sex friends and gay lovers.  “Outing” two Muppets reinforces the lizard-brain stereotype that males who are more emotionally expressive must be homosexuals.) The editorial seduction made even more sense after I read the etiology of the May 2012 illustration (via the Hollywood Reporter. More tidbits at Gawker):

The image has circulated online since last year, when artist Jack Hunter submitted it to a tumblr for a contest. The original image had President Barack Obama on the TV set, not the Supreme Court, and it was created around the time Obama came out in favor of gay marriage.

It’s tricky applying something you had saved up in your pocket to a monumental event that generates its own currents and nuances in the immediate moment.

• Also little noticed in the buzz is the fact the illustration was produced by an amateur. If there’s something substantive to take away from this cover, it’s the fact that a publication as esteemed as the New Yorker chose citizen art to grace the national newsstand’s most coveted graphic real estate to commemorate, and recognize for posterity  this historic civil rights milestone.

If photographers have been worried about citizen journalists driving them out of business or simply lowerIng the value of their work product in the marketplace, illustrators – as diminished as the market for political illustration has become over the last decade – now have even more to worry about. If anyone was infantilized here, it was the community of professional illustrators — trained as they are, by the way, to package a lot more messaging and depth with the cotton candy.

Update: I was thinking further about Karrin’s take and the Scarabus comment below and can understand the idea how the combo of the ruling, the Court and the Sesame Street pair could drive many on the right into seeing events this week as a  great liberal conspiracy. I still see Bert and Ernie as trivializing the argument however. I’m prepared to be proven wrong though. One thing that would do so is a Tumblr meme inviting different pairings photoshopped onto the couch watching the Supremes. What would really mess with some heads (and would have made the original illustration really worth all the buzz, as well the interpretation of the ” liberal scare”) would be Glenn Greenwald nuzzling with Edward Snowden.

(illustration: Jack Hunter)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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