Hopelessly awkward – Poland 2021

Poland's Women Strike in an artistic lens

Themes: Gender Humor controversy Sex Social movements Violence

Humour form/genre: Cartoon

Humour mechanisms: Irony Opposition Parody Transgression

Country: Poland

Author: Agata Hołobut

Affiliation: Jagiellonian University

“Indicate women who ask for rape (colour them in)”. Published by kind permission of the Author.

What do we see?

The cartoon designed by a celebrated Polish visual artist, animator and activist Janek Koza, combines a seemingly naïve black-and-white representation of nine women of all ages, dress-styles and modes of behaviour with a hand-drawn, scrawled caption, reading “Indicate women who ask for rape (colour them in)”. It elicits consternation, amusement and reflection, creating a number of perceptual and conceptual incongruities.


What public issue is being addressed here?

The cartoon was first published in Poland’s biggest-selling weekly, the centre-left magazine Polityka (38/2017) and subsequently posted on its official Facebook fan page to acknowledge women’s Black Tuesday protests organized by All-Poland Women’s Strike in October 2017. It was reposted again two years later in January and August, inciting heated debates about sexual abuse and the use of irony to denounce it.


What does humour do?

The verbal element uses direct address, inviting readers’ immediate involvement. At the same time, it makes implicit assumptions that are ethically and logically unacceptable. From an ethical standpoint, the rape-mythical, victim-blaming presupposition violates the system of values held by the intended audience. From a logical standpoint, “rape” cannot be “asked for”, otherwise it stops being such. This makes the readers’ task impossible and helps them realize the instruction is either pathological or provocative.

The illustration adds to the experience of incongruity. First, it lacks central perspective and appears visually illogical (the character to the right seems overclose to the observer). Second, it both encourages and discourages the completion of the exercise. On the one hand, the figures are duly decontextualized and seem to offer potential choices by boasting different dress-styles and postures (implying fatigue, irritation, embarrassment or self-confidence). On the other, the representations are hopelessly awkward, thus undermining the authority of the task-giver.

As a parody of a children’s colouring exercise, the cartoon unmasks the pathology and immaturity of a value system perpetuating rape-myths; it thus combines humour with social criticism. However, in order to be understood as both socially critical and humorous, it requires viewers’ intellectual engagement and the ability to recognise irony in the subversive instruction (identifying the conflict between the artist’s stated and intended message, as well as the contextual inappropriateness of the former).

Koza’s cartoon sparked considerable controversy on Polityka’s FB fan page. Several readers engaged in a serious discussion about sexual abuse. Many reacted with symmetrical irony (“So much colouring”; “What address do I send the crayons to?”), some explained the conundrum to others (“This is good irony – I think I got it”; “Only potential rapists can indicate”). A few responded with sexist and racist slurs, intentionally sabotaging the irony. What is most significant, some commentators simply failed to recognize the irony, blaming the author for rape promotion (“Shame on you”, “Disgusting”). Corrected by others, they advocated taboo themes that were considered unfit for satirical purposes because of their poignancy ( “The are matters on which no sarcastic images can be made, but you won’t get it”) or questioned the use of irony as an appropriate tool (“Consider how a simple man may react to this image: as an encouragement or permission”). These exchanges show an important role of liberally oriented visual humour in the Polish public sphere: it encourages public debate on both social issues and the artist’s freedom of expression.

Janek Koza

The author, Janek Koza, is best known for his heart-rending and brain-teasing artbooks (such as Złe sny, 2021) and astute socio-political cartoons in opinion-making magazines and social media. Koza’s visual style is characterized by an ostensible graphic ineptitude (scrawl-like simple line, two-dimensionality, sparse use of colour), which lends psychological depth to the characters and authenticates the dire reality around them (thanks to schematic but masterly grasp of facial expressions and body language, as well as expressive panel composition derived from animation). Koza exploits the materiality of the graphic medium, emphasizing the contingency of his images: they seem to be drawn on scraps of reused paper, which he sometimes tears, pierces or burns. At the same time his insightful treatment of current social and political themes renders his works surprisingly timeless and universal, encouraging publishers to anthologize them in collective volumes, such as Polaków uczestnictwo w kulturze, Wszystko źle or Złota kolekcja. Although inimitable, Koza’s self-defeating, deeply ironic style matches wider trends in Polish liberal humour (self-effacement, distance, irony) shared by other prominent cartoonists, such as Marek Raczkowski (Przekrój) or  Andrzej Milewski (Gazeta Wyborcza).