Dogs, brides and monsters: how to slap the politician on page one

by Giuseppe Menditto

At the end of the 1950s Ernst Kantorowicz published what would soon become a classic of historiography: The King’s Two Bodies. The book tells of the dual nature of medieval kings: a natural body subject to all the weaknesses of humanity – including death – and a sacred political body that guides the government but cannot be seen and touched – devoid of past and future.

The body in politics is a lot, or maybe everything. Even without disturbing the evocative image of politics as a human body composed of parts that must work together in order to function, the bodies of politicians have always aroused a certain interest.

From the recent tremors of Frau Merkel to the athleticism of Putin one could cite many examples.

If you think about it, besides the duality that today has become a short-circuit between the public and private bodies, in verbal and nonverbal language, the discourse is much more complex: if the body is everything, or is everywhere, why not ask yourself not only what effects it produces on public opinion but also, vice versa, what images of politicians are produced by our imagination.

At the annual Metaphor Festival just concluded at the University of Amsterdam and organized by the Metaphor Lab – a laboratory that studies the uses and effects of metaphors in different contexts, from dementia to gender literature – a much appreciated presentation was given by Charles Forceville, associate professor in Amsterdam and expert in Media Studies.

Charles Forceville and Nataša van de Laar are co-authors of a study dedicated to the metaphors in the satirical cartoons on Geert Wilders, a Dutch right-wing politician in vogue until recently, famous for his oxygenated hair à la Trump and for his nativist, anti-Islamic, and philo-Semite positions.

Analysing a relatively limited sample of some 400 cartoons composed between 2006 – the year in which the PVV was founded – and 2017, the two academics have noticed some interesting points: Wilders, the most controversial and exuberant Dutch politician, is the one who appears more frequently in satirical caricatures than the more “moderate” colleagues and he is also represented far more often in metaphorical form than other politicians.

The founder and leader of the Party for Freedom is from time to time drawn as a bride, a dog, a child, a monster, a crusader or a bomb

In several cases, Wilders – who vomits, defecates or uses vulgar language – serves to “represent something negative that emanates from his own person” – Forceville shows – and to “emphasize his strangeness in comparison to what is normally expected in political activity”.

One of the problems for those who study these phenomena is that the source domain from which they draw to build metaphorical relationships is often not unique for Wilders: the source domain of the “dog,” for instance, is also used to characterize other Dutch politicians, but only Wilders is portrayed as a snarling dog howling at the (middle) Islamic moon or as a poodle following his boss Marie Le Pen. The “dog” domain is very rich, and can be used for many different purposes: being loyal, threatening or obedient are not the same.

What Forceville and van de Laar have found is the fact that the images are Chinese boxes which are so structurally connected to a specific culture: if, for example, reference is made to the government through the metaphor of the Ship of State to be guided or that of the Ship of Fools drifting in the middle of the sea, the cartoonists never portray Wilders as a sailor or a simple passenger: using different registers, he is seen at very same time as a bride swearing against her “grooms” Prime Minister Rutte and Vice Prime Minister Verhagen depicted as rowers in a stormy sea at the time of the first Rutte cabinet.

“2012: The year of the truth.” Berend Vonk,
Trouw 19-9-2011.

The work to be done is still enormous: Forceville confesses to us that its pioneering research, historically linked to the period under consideration, could be updated in various ways. What metaphors are used to depict other populist politicians? In the Netherlands, an interesting case could be that of Thierry Baudet, heir in some way to Wilders’ legacy. A hybrid figure between Wilders’ “aversism” and a more “traditional” politician, Baudet is often portrayed in a more domesticated way, as a handsome man attempting to speak latin.

Another ground for comparison would be that between political figures comparable in their ideas but belonging to different countries. Wilders aside, the fact of thinking of a political union as a loyal marriage rather than a fiery relationship between lovers – a homosexual relationship even more scandalous for the Italian public opinion as drawn in the Roman graffito Amor vincit Omnia by TvBoy – is not only symptomatic of the relative conceptions and taboos of every culture.

Bringing into comparison Geert Wilders and Matteo Salvini – the Federal Secretary of the Northern League and Italian Minister of the Interior – it would seem that while some metaphorical sources of inspiration would tend to repeat themselves (for example those of the baby child, the puppeter, the Nazi or the primitive man), others would be context related: in this case, however, it should be noted that some caricature choices would seem forced to inaugurate new models of reference because of the unorthodox behaviour of the politicians they portray. Or the unique model might be explained because of the complexity of situations that cartoonists can only understand through a metaphorical assumption (for example, an economic crisis seen as a natural disaster).

What interests Forceville and the group of scholars working on the “capital” role played by the images, it is their immediacy. Often, although there may be more than a thousand opinion articles on the visions of a particular politician, it is precisely the images – satirical or not – that make up for a conceptual lack or face up to tactics for the construction and management of one’s own public “image”.

A lot remains to be analyzed, not least the effects that these images also produce on the imagination (and vote) of the electorate, and not only in the short term.

After all, if memory is short and indignation lasts less than an orgasm, being aware of the role played by images, satire and metaphors is an ability that should not be underestimated.


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