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Cartoons that offend through stereotype

THE CARTOON ATOP last Monday's editorial page was intended as a satirical comment on the violence in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." But many Globe readers saw it as something else: assault-by-stereotype on nuns.


Scores of readers quickly phoned or e-mailed their dismay and their disgust. They were as hurt as they were angry, and a couple were in tears. They spoke personally about nuns who dedicated their lives to teaching in poor neighborhoods for little pay. Such women didn't deserve to be cast as evil, they said, and the Globe must apologize. Some canceled the paper.

For those who missed the cartoon, this summary: It was drawn by syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant and featured a nun, ruler in hand, towering over a bloodied schoolboy with an idea lightbulb over his head. The caption read: "In his early school days little Mel Gibson gets beaten to a bloody pulp by Sister Dolorosa Excruciata of the Little Sisters of the Holy Agony, and an idea is born."

The Globe buys cartoons by the Pulitzer-prize winning Oliphant and by other cartoonists through various news syndicates. Globe editors review the submissions and pick some to run on days when there's no staff-drawn cartoon slated. The editors who chose the Oliphant cartoon for March 1 knew it was edgy but did not see it as offensive.

"We are concerned that a fair number of readers were disturbed or offended by the cartoon," said Renee Loth, editorial page editor. "We never intended to insult Catholics or nuns or even Mel Gibson by running what we saw as a comic take on a cultural subject prominently in the news," she said. "We underestimated people's sensitivities to what appeared to us a broadly satiric commentary. I regret that."

Stinging commentary and sharp satire are essential to any editorial page. Some of that material is bound to offend and spark complaints. That's OK. And the Globe certainly should not shy away from critiquing or covering the church just because someone will call the paper anti-Catholic. With that standard, there would have been no coverage of the sexual abuse scandal.

But any time lampooning involves religion (or a handful of other particularly tender topics), the commentary's message should be crystal clear and worthy. In this cartoon, it wasn't.

At first glance (and, for many, second and third and fourth glance), the dominant image in the cartoon is the looming, violent nun, not tiny Mel. Add to that the element of stereotype -- nuns are cruel -- and the cartoon offends before it can enlighten or amuse. One must ask: Is the intended message, even if eventually understood, worth the price?

In this case, I'd say not. The point of this particular cartoon didn't equal the cost.

Could I have predicted the reaction? Maybe not, even though I know something about cartooning, being married to the Globe editorial cartoonist. But having talked to many of the 100-plus readers who called or wrote, I understand their concerns.

"I work in a nursing home for nuns, and there are a lot of hurt feelings here," said caller Kathryn Spruill. The women "have dedicated their whole lives to teaching . . . and this was very hurtful."

The cartoon, said Mary Cunningham, perpetuates "a cruel, humorless, unfounded stereotype of nuns. . . . Clearly, if the cartoonist has issues with the violent aspects of Mel Gibson's film, then make them by critiquing the movie and the director, not by maligning religious women who have served faithfully. . . . Would you take such odious liberties on your cartoon page with other religious or ethnic groups? I think not."

"Whatever possessed you to run this cartoon in the Globe at this time with all that's going in the Catholic Church?" said Sandra Perry, who has taught in parochial schools for 18 years. "Everyone in my school is incensed about this. . . . I know a lot of nuns who were brought to tears by this."

Milton lawyer Laura Kessler said a nun's obituary that ran the same day as the cartoon made it look even more ridiculous. She wrote: "Sister Neal's obituary stated, in pertinent part, `she never retaliated when attacks came her way, because she had something more important to do . . .' I don't have anything more important to do today. Please cancel my subscription."

Thinking maybe the reaction in Boston was unique to a city where Catholics are feeling particularly beleaguered, I looked for other papers that ran the cartoon. There's no easy way to track cartoons, but I found a couple. One was the Louisville Courier-Journal, where about 10 readers filed unusually heartfelt complaints. Another was the Hartford Courant, where five complaints were logged. The cartoon also appeared in US News & World Report, where a spokesman said it generated a "significant, but not extreme" number of complaints.

Defenders of the cartoon might argue that some readers are always going to read a cartoon literally and that cartoonists and newspapers shouldn't limit their scope because of that. True enough. But when the literal interpretation is both too easy and offensive, it should serve as a red alert.

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is

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