Updated: Nov 12, 2021
This week we learn that there is no room in the editorial pages of the paper whose motto is “Independent. Always.” for independent thought.
No matter what you think of Leunig’s cartoons, and after 40 plus years of published work no one is going to love everything he draws, but everyone can dive into his archive and find something that speaks to them.
What is clear is that his style and voice was truly unique and forced you to look at the world anew. But more than unique, he was an independent thinker that put the neurosis of the times on display. That is what should have earned him respect - and certainly why someone who finds plenty to disagree with in his cartoons (myself) will sing his praises.
Almost every year there seems to be a new controversy around one of his cartoons.
Back in 2019, the big controversy was a cartoon with this poem:
Mummy was busy on Instagram
When beautiful bubby fell out of the pram
And lay on the path unseen and alone
Wishing that he was loved like a phone.
If you thought this was an important commentary about how our phones have taken over our lives and relationships, even ones as important as the mother-child bond - you would be wrong, as was Leunig, who defended his cartoon in precisely these terms.
But in an age of 2D relationships through screens and reductive thinking, many mothers felt personally mocked by the cartoon and took to Twitter to call it out as misogyny.
An example of the hate it received came from the typically elegant (read that tongue-in-cheek) Clementine Ford, who tweeted “Hey Leunig, you f**king gronk,” and then went on to say that he never had to deal with screaming children whilst working so he had no right to judge mothers.
In May 2021 Leunig was surrounded by controversy again as another cartoon angered the Twitter feminists, this time by likening the government to an abusive partner. The limerick alongside the cartoon read:
Isn’t much fun
But isn’t this how
the country is run?
the carrot, the stick,
the jail, the fine;
Isn’t this how
we’re all kept in line?
And yet you are warned
that coercive control
Is a terrible crime
to the heart and the soul.
So do as they say
and not as they do
Or something coercive
will happen to you.
Admittedly, this was a sensitive topic to traverse when both Victoria and Queensland were holding enquiries into the criminalisation of coercive control (which refers to a pattern of controlling behaviours in an abusive relationship).
But again instead of seeing the big message of hypocrisy, his critics called him an old white man, a misogynist, and assumed the worst intentions, as this Tweet illustrates nicely (or rather meanly):
“Is he having a sly dig at abusive government? Or at people who believe coercive control is abuse?
It's Leunig, so my money's on the latter.
Which makes his "Isn't this how we're all kept in line" defense horrifying.
Gotta keep the missus in line, amirite boys?
So, Leunig was already in the bad books of many of those that peruse the Fairfax papers looking for outrage when he submitted a series of cartoons that were apparently beyond the pale.
The most recognisable is the illusion to Tiananmen Square which didn’t get published but was widely circulated on social media as it hit a chord for many that objected to the vaccine mandates.
All of this outrage follows a similar theme, of a lack of appreciation of illusion and the non-literal. Earlier this year the editorial cartoonist for the Australian, Johannes Leak, had a finding against him for a cartoon depicting Joe Biden’s pandering to identity politics as being racist rather than satirising racism, but in doing so they had to view this cartoon as entirely without the intended satire.
In many ways the fate of Leunig is the fate of all artists that play with illusion at a time and in a culture that no longer has the faculties to grasp or appreciate the non-literal.