Helping Students With Political Cartoons

Political Cartoons can be tricky. They assume much about their audience. 

For example, check out this modern example:

Entitlements Cartoon

What does the creator assume his audience will recognize or understand?

There's the man dressed as a baby. How do we know he's a man? Well, lots of hair, the stubble, his size, etc. How do we know he's dressed as a baby? We can kinda see diapers. And... the thing on his head - the baby bonnet. Something babies don't actually wear (modern responsible parents don't tie things around their baby's neck). But we're supposed to put that together and get that he's dressed like a baby.

He doesn't look great even for an adult, whatever his fetishes. He needs a shave, his shirt doesn't cover his ample belly, and he's generally kinda scraggly-looking. This suggests we're to view him unfavorably - otherwise the cartoonist would have made him look more impressive. 

We know he represents America, or some portion thereof, because of the flag on his shirt. His presumed parents in the background are in American colors as well; Dad looks a bit like Uncle Sam, but not the angry one who wants us in the military. 

Then there's the text. "Entitlements", which is a nice big word we can look up if we don't know. Problem is, we need more than the denotation - we need the connotation as well. Presumably it refers here to government services - welfare, health care, and the like. Calling those things "entitlements" casts them in a negative light; the term is generally used to suggest recipients believe they deserve handouts at the expense of the rest of us. It's a term of resentment. If you support those sorts of services, you don't call them "entitlements;" you call them social justice or something a bit more glowing. 

Then there's the comment by the woman in the background. It's sarcasm - rather abrasive sarcasm at that. If we don't read the tone correctly, we can't fully understand the cartoon's message.

Which is...?

Well, something along the lines of "Thanks to big government 'entitlement' programs, we've raised a generation of Americans who can't (or won't) grow up and take care of themselves. It's pathetic and disgusting. Get a job, ya' bum."

Political cartoons are quite accessible to a contemporaneous, politically informed audience. They can be brutal for a high school student in a history class a century later. The assume the audience will recognize people and events being referenced, understand any literary or historical allusions utilized, know common symbols, understand caricature, and above all properly process irony or sarcasm. Egads. 

In theory, it's easiest to introduce political cartoons using recent examples involving current events. This assumes, of course, that your students have a better idea of what's going on currently than they do of what happened a century ago. If not, you might find it helpful to spend a week or so beginning each class with CNN Student News. It's only about 10 minutes a day, hits headlines, usually includes something quirky in the 'human interest' category, and moves quickly - dumb jokes, thumpy music, etc. 

I use two approaches to political cartoons in class - one fairly straightforward and quite doable by any level of student, and the other...

Well, the other is a work in progress. Let's do the easier one first. 


It's best to practice analyzing cartoons using Two COATS. The first time through, students list objectively what they see - any text (we're stretching the term 'Captions' to cover all text), what objects are drawn on the page, what seems to be happening literally, and whatever  date is provided for the cartoon. No inference, no deep meaningful analysis - just paying attention to what's there.

This serves several purposes. For students not fluent in political cartoon, this lets them start slow and lay a good foundation for understanding. It requires paying attention to detail without the onus of sounding 'smart'.

For stronger students, it forces them to slow down and not jump right into trying to say the most profound thing they can think of whether it applies to the cartoon in front of them or not. Sometimes it's the kids with the highest grades who rush through things and miss the obvious.

Finally, it helps distinguish between the "can't" and the "won't". I realize we're not supposed to speak of such mundane realities as grading or student engagement, but even a student with no clue what's going on can do this first COAT almost perfectly every time. Silence, or a blank or woefully incomplete page in this case means they're simply not trying for whatever reason (in which case you at least know with what you're dealing).

The Populists' Trap (Harper's Weekly, June 1896)

Populists Trap

First ‘COAT’

C – “The Populists’ Trap” (caption), “Free Silver” (label), it MIGHT say “Populists” on one of the big tree leaves, “GOP” (label, elephant), “Democracy” (label, donkey)

O -  Elephant, one leg lifted w/ sticky stuff on it, near edge of bridge, the bridge (pointed sticks?), donkey in mud or water or quicksand, broken wood, forest area, big trees – palm or other jungle-ish trees, 3 men in trees w/ spears or other weapons, hiding, various grass/fauna, more wilderness in background, header of magazine.

A – The elephant appears to have just pulled back, like he might have fallen in as well. The donkey is presumably in some distress. Men in trees are hiding and watching.

T – June 1896

Second ‘COAT’

C – The Populists were the party of the ‘little people’, especially farmers in the late 19th century. The trap is presumably the mud/quicksand into which the donkey (labeled ‘Democracy’ but probably meaning the Democratic Party given the context) is ‘Free Silver’, referring to the Populists’ call for more money to be put into circulation – ‘bimetallism’ and all that. ‘GOP’ = ‘Grand Old Party’, a nickname for Republicans, as verified by the Elephant. The term ‘trap’ suggests the cartoonists is not impressed by Populist policy – it is instead misleading and dangerous

O – We’ve already mentioned elephant/donkey as R/D parties. Bridge seems to be the path to this economic policy. Pointed sticks would make it difficult to turn around… not sure what that’s about? Placing the Populists in the trees as savages shows disdain for their policies and suggests they’re both ignorant and dangerous. These faces might represent actual Populist leaders at the time, but I have no idea. 

A – The Democrats seem to have moved forward into the ‘Free Silver’ policy and are paying the price. Republicans stopped just in time. Populists are manipulative and dangerous. 

T – 1896 was an election year, the first of two in which the Populists ran William Jennings Bryan as their Presidential candidate. Both times the Democratic Party joined them; both times they lost to McKinley, the (R).

S – Expanding the money supply is tempting, but dangerous. This deceitful demand by the Populists will do great harm to the Democratic Party as they fall for it. Even the Republicans came closer than should have to considering it.

See? That's not so hard. There are downloadable 'handouts' versions of COATS on the Classroom Resources version of this page

It's when I try to accomodate the richer aspects of some political cartoons that it gets weird...

FDR New Deal Cartoon

I like the COATS acronym for helping students break down the basics of most political cartoons. For stronger students, however, I wanted something to help them think through cartoons with a bit more specificity - maybe in a bit more depth. 

Political Cartoons often...

Assume a familiarity with Current Events

Assume the reader recognizes Common Symbols

Use Exaggerations & Distortions

Use Caricatures & Stereotypes

Use Allusions to Literature or History

Use Labels / Captions / Text

Use Irony / Sarcasm

Have a Message or Point the Author is making by using these tools. It is not generally “fair”.

So... Current Events Common Symbols Exaggerations Distortions Caricatures Stereotypes Allusions Labels Irony Sarcasm. The CECSEDCSALIS method - brilliant!

I juggled the letters and rephrased the elements and finally came up with something... well, something horrible. Memorable, but awkward.

I've decided that's its strength, however - the twisted awkwardness MAKES it memorable, like Grandma's mole or that lesson you tried to do with puppets your first year in the classroom. 


You know - CATS & MICE, but facing one another. Like an Old West Gunfight, but without the guns. Because, you know, their adorable little paws and all... not practical. 

The good the bad and the ugly - The best theme tune ever

OK, it's a stretch - but it covers the Elements, and leaves the Message/Summary last, where it HAS to be. 

C - Current Events 

A - Allusions to Literature, History

T - Text/Labels/Captions

S - Symbols

E - Exaggeration/Distortion

C - Caricature/Stereotypes

I - Irony/Sarcasm 

M - Message/Point

Ready to try it?

Herb Lock Fire

"Fire!" (Herb Lock, 1949)

C: This cartoon was published in 1949. The Soviets had expanded their control to most of Eastern Europe and China looked likely to fall to Communism soon as well. The ‘Red Scare’ at home was infringing on individual liberties as well – HUAC, ‘The Hollywood Ten’, etc. McCarthyism was just around the corner. 

A: The arm & torch are from the Statue of Liberty (see Symbols). The famous poem on its base welcomes the exact sort of immigrants most under suspicion for Communist sympathies, so maybe there’s an additional layer of irony in that?

T: “Fire” (title and being shouted), “Hysteria” (label of yelling man). Fire is traditionally yelled as a warning of danger, not excitement or joy. The man is labeled so we'll understand he represents a movement or mindset rather than an individual. 

S: The arm and torch are clearly the Statue of Liberty. The flame traditionally represents both liberty (hence the name) and the Enlightenment – also use ironically.

E: It would take a pretty tall ladder to reach the top of the Statue of Liberty, and the real statue doesn’t have a live flame. This is not a realistic action – it would be impossible.

C: The guy doesn’t seem to represent an individual or a demographic so much as a mindset, so I don’t think there are Caricatures or Stereotypes used here.

I: Major irony here – ‘Hysteria’ is about to douse the Flame of Liberty/Enlightenment, presumably to ‘protect’ the country. The cry of ‘Fire!’ indicates fear of this flame and suggests it’s perceived as dangerous. This is, of course ridiculous and misguided. 

M: The current (in 1949) hysteria over Communism is not only misguided, but dangerous. Our fundamental values are being threatened by the ways we’re responding to perceived dangers. To use a different metaphor, the cure is far worse than the supposed disease. 

On a side note, aren't you glad we don't overreact like this today and ignore real issues in favor of trampling individual freedoms while claiming it's all to keep us "safer"?

Me, too!

There are dowloadable 'handouts' versions of CATS~MICE on the Classroom Resources version of this page


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