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How Political Cartoons Can Mirror The Social and Political Issues: 'Z' Political Cartoons

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Table of contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Who is Z?
  3. The objectives of the study
  4. Literature Review
  5. Methodology
  6. Data Analysis of ‘Z’ political cartoons
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Reference


Recently, political cartoons earned great interest from researchers and became a powerful interdisciplinary research field across different research such as sociology, education, communication, and psychology. Political cartoons become a potent tool to transmit thousands of words and diverse messages through a single image. This research paper aims to investigate the political cartoons illustrated by the Tunisian anonymous cartoonist ‘Z’ and how he uses his cartoons to mirror the socio-political issues in Tunisia. The investigation will be directed toward the main themes and the visual elements of the selective political cartoons taking into consideration the style of the cartoonist. This study adopts a qualitative approach to analyze the samples. The methodology used in this paper focuses on the analysis of the context of political cartoons depending on semiotics and with a major focus on themes and visual representation.

Keywords: Political cartoons; Semiotic; Z; Themes; visual representation.

The old English saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true; due to the dominance aroused by visual communication in our world. Today, tons of words can be easily reduced into a single image. In this respect, Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen in their reviewed version of their book, “The Grammar of Visual Design “ state that “…what is expressed in language through the choice between different word classes and clause structures, may, in visual communication, be expressed through the choice between different uses of color or different compositional structures.”

Thus, the political cartoon has occupied niches in “media discourse” as a prevalent sub-genre beside magazines, newspapers, TV channels, posters, and prints. It has also invaded the social media platforms such as Facebook, Blogs, Websites, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter…etc. All over the world, cartoon becomes a mirror of the social and political life of countries. It has been known as a weapon of criticism and propaganda rather than an art form. The Political cartoon proved its capacity and effectiveness to trivialize the most complex issues and conflicts. Unlike texts, articles, or speeches, the political cartoon has the power to expound immediately the most sophisticated issues. In similar words, Neighbor states that Political cartoons “…can often have more veracity and insight than hundreds of words of text-based analysis.” Its ability to transmit messages to people with minimal reading abilities was the reason behind its wide popularity.

History has always been evidence of the power and danger which political cartoon has; especially in totalitarian countries. For instance, Charles Philippon; a French lithographer caricaturist, and journalist, was arrested for depicting the emperor Louis Philippe as “le poire” and got away with a fine and an apology. Also in Britain, during the reign of Queen Victoria, drawing members of the royal family in cartoons was regarded as an offense; indeed in nowadays, it becomes a fashion in the west. Unlike the west, where cartoonists enjoy their freedom of expression, the cartoonists in the Middle East still suffer from the repressed forces exercised by the dictatorial regimes.

In Tunisia, before the “Jasmine Revolution” and during the presidency of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, all kinds of freedom including “the freedom of expression, press, and art” were almost non-existent or under the censorship of the government. It is evident, therefore, that the power of the cartoon has threatened the authorities. In other words, political cartoons can articulate thoughts which may only be at the back of people’s minds. It can clarify nebulous and ill-formed attitudes and make them alive. Cartoons can be emotional, partial, extremely critical, taunting, and teasing all at the same time; where other printed modes of communication cannot tread. In Ben Ali’s reign, the art of drawing political cartoons was categorized as a crime. Furthermore, Tunisian cartoonists were prohibited from drawing anything related to the government and its politics or its politicians. The authority tries to blur the reality and prevented cartoonists from projecting the real Tunisia through the eyes of their cartoons. In the midst of this huge despotism, “Z” the Tunisian political cartoonist chooses to draw and criticize the Tunisian policies and government under anonymity to practice his freedom of expression and to avoid the suppression of the ruler.

Who is Z?

Z (often stylized as ‘Z’) is the nickname of the Tunisian political cartoonist and online activist. He launched his online blog “DébaTunisie” on August 28, 2007. His cartoons have targeted the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the administrations that followed the Tunisian revolution of 2011. He chooses to hide his real identity to avoid self-censorship. “I have no red line inside me. I am the only Arab cartoonist totally free in my art,’ he says sadly rather than proudly. Even after the revolution, he did not uncover his identity. He insisted to remain anonymous because he thinks that freedom of expression may be temporary. He has a very notable and precise style in drawing political cartoons. For instance, the pink flamingo became his trademark and blog’s mascot. The major themes in his cartoons are “the mauves”, the supporters of Ben Ali’s government, and “the bleus”, referring to the Islamists. He often uses the purple color in his cartoons. The reason behind his choice is that purple is the favorite color of Ben Ali.

The objectives of the study

In my research paper, I am going to investigate 9 cartoon drawings by the Tunisian cartoonist “Z” before and after the revolution. The study will aim to find how “Z” political cartoons can mirror the social and political issues and expose the Tunisian regime before and after the revolution.

  • What are the main themes of “Z” political cartoons from 2008 to 2017?
  • Can we see Tunisia through the eyes of political cartoons?

Political cartoons are able to project the most complex socio-political issues. So we can see Tunisia through the eyes of political cartoons.

Literature Review

Recently, the scientific research in applied linguistics has witnessed an increased interest in the study of political cartoons from various perspectives such as pragmatic, critical discourse analysis (CDA), semiotics, multimodal discourse analysis (MDA), and visual rhetoric. This has made political cartoons a powerful interdisciplinary research field crossing different research such as sociology, education, communication, and psychology.

Many previous studies on political cartoons centered on their functions and nature. For example, In his study, Streicher examined the function of political cartoons as communicative tools and explored its influence on public opinion. His finding proved that political cartoons have the ability to clearly inform people of an event or news and to comment on social and political issues. He claimed that visual messages facilitate effective communication. Malawate focused on the importance of political cartoons to newspapers. His study reveals the effectiveness of political cartoons over editorials.

Many previous researchers resort to use pragmatics as an analytical framework to examine political cartoons. For example, Nonyerem intended to expose the hiding message or information in the funny stories of cartoons through the pragmatic analysis of “leadership” cartoons in selected Nigerian dailies. He findings indicate that the pragmatic reading of cartoons is vital to interpreting the real meaning and projecting serious messages to the reader. Juprizal, Effendu & Mukhiayar conducted a pragmatic analysis of “online political cartoons” and their impact on EFL students, pragmatic competence (PC), authentic vocabulary knowledge (AVK), and language higher-order thinking skills (HOTS). In another study, Al keyed and kitishat investigated the violation of the Grice maxims in Jordanian newspapers’ cartoons. They found out that political cartoons flout the conversational maxims in order to send implied messages and meanings to the readers. Also, Oluremi and Ajepe conducted a pragmatic reading of Nigeria’s 2015 political cartoons published four months before the 2015 elections. His analysis reveals the interaction between the political cartoons and Mey’s 2001 theory of pragmatics.

In addition, critical discourse analysis (CDA) has been used as an approach to studying political cartoons. For instance, Mazid used the CDA semiotic-discursive aspects to examine the ideological representations in Bush and Bin Laden’s cartoons; to expose the implicit and explicit meanings, and to express the hiding information, strategies, and ideologies. Nagy examined media cartoons related to the Gaza conflict where she explored the role of political cartoons in controlling people’s minds and their contribution in the process of redirecting people’s ideologies in favor of Palestinians. She claimed that political cartoons have a crucial role in depicting Palestinians as victims while Israel as the devil. Also, Al Hamdi examined the use of political cartoons during popular protests. He focused on the 2011 Tunisia uprisings as a case study. He found out that political cartoons were used to reflect critically on the political, economical, and social conditions in Tunisia during the transitory phase.

Other studies focused on the visual power of political cartoons in highlighting social and political conflicts in society. For example, Tsakona used the multimodal theory of humor as an analytical framework to examine language and image interaction in cartoons. In her study, She claimed that political humor is a complex process and the viewer should look carefully at the visual and verbal details involved in each cartoon to reach the message delivered by it. Similarly, Sani investigated the role of political cartoons in setting social agenda through projecting social issues via mass media. He explained the importance of visual communication in illustrating issues and events. His findings proved that political cartoons serve as a vehicle of setting the social agenda. He claimed that cartoons represented an effective medium of communication. Also, Mateus focused on visual rhetoric in Portuguese cartoons. He found out that political cartoons serve as communicative weapons capable of improving political comprehension and re-conceptualization of events, through specific frames of understanding.


My research paper seeks to answer two main questions; first, what are the main themes of ‘Z’ political cartoons from 2008 to 2017? Second, can we see Tunisia through the eyes of political cartoons? To answer these questions, data has been collected from the online blog of the anonymous cartoonist Z www.Dé The study investigated 8 political cartoons to prove that political cartoons are able to mirror the socio-political issues in Tunisia and to communicate to the population easily through exploring the main themes and analyzing the visual elements.

The study uses a qualitative approach to analyze political cartoons. It focuses on analyzing the elements of cartoons such as the participants, captions, symbols, metaphors, facial expressions, and irony to illustrate the main themes. The methodology used for analysis is based on the theory of visual semiotics. More specifically, the study focuses on the content of political cartoons and on visual communication. Importantly, the corpus of the 8 cartoons analyzed in this paper includes captions in two languages; French and Arabic. So, I am going to translate what is in French and Arabic into English. The analysis pays attention to the context of the cartoon and its graphic elements.

The analysis of the selective cartoons is approached to the theory of visual semiotics delivered by Kress and Van Leeuwen in their reviewed book “the grammar of visual design”. The study is interested in the language and themes provided by visual and verbal cues in political cartoons. Since the research focuses on visual semiotics, the study will focus on the meanings of colors, shapes, and signs with taking into consideration the style of the cartoonist. The study is not focused only on the main themes provided by the cartoons but also on integrating the themes with visual representation taking into consideration the style of the cartoonist and his imprint in each cartoon.

Data Analysis of ‘Z’ political cartoons

The following political cartoon depicts the emirates project in Tunisia that was supposed to be founded in the southern lake in the capital. In August 2008 “Z” started drawing a series of cartoons against the government policies to raise awareness among the Tunisian population about the long-term hazard that would be caused by the project. He uses the flamingos to transmit serious messages to the population indirectly without referring directly to the government in Tunisia. He uses the cartoon as a communicative weapon to alarm the Tunisian population.

The 1st cartoon published in his blog in august, 2008 under the title “the pink flamingos demonstrate against the emirate occupation” is a picture of a group of pink flamingos protesting against the joint venture between the government and the United Arabia of Emirate (UAE). The pink flamingos have a double significance. In one hand, they symbolize the ecosystem and the distinctive features of the lake. And in the other hand, they symbolize the oppressed citizens in which the lake was sold without their consent. Those flamingos are carrying three banners bearing slogans against the project “Go away”, “it’s ours” and “we will remain here”. Metaphorically, the cartoonist personifies the birds and provides them the ability to talk and express their opinions about founding the project. He resorts to drawing animals instead of humans to send indirectly his messages without referring to the government. The choice of the title of this cartoon is very significant, especially the phrase “the emirate occupation” which connotes a warning of the indirect settlement of emirate in public properties.

The following political cartoons were published in 2009. The cartoonist tries through his cartoons to highlight his opinion towards elections in Tunisia. According to cartooning for peace website, in 2009, a professor in the university and a blogger activist named “ Fatma Riahi” was arrested by the Tunisian authorities, accused of being Z because of a cartoon which Z drew titled “The electoral comedy”, two days following Ben Ali’s re-election. The authorities after a few hours of arresting Fatma, they released her because Z drew another cartoon contained a direct message to the government. This cartoon was a picture of his trademark” pink flamingo” with two captions “I am not Fatma” and “we all Fatma”. Thus the political cartoon represents a certificate of innocence for Fatma. In more details:

The cartoon N°2 published in October 2009 and entitled “the electoral comedy” depicts the president in a white suit with a purple necktie standing in a theater circling with his supporters wearing in Ben Ali’s favorite color “ purple” applauding and cheering for the president. Ironically, Z chooses the theater to draw Ben Ali and his political party with a title in above “the national theater of Tunisia presents for the fifth time! The electoral comedy” to convey the idea of forgery and that the election is no more than a big play performed by the same actors for two decades “ for the fifth time!”.

On both sides of the curtains, there are two captions. On the left, “100% suspense” sarcastically contradicts with the phrase “presents for the fifth time” to indirectly convey that the result of the election in 2009 is predictable, and in the contrary, there is no suspense. While on the right, the caption “100% extras” indicates ironically and indirectly the idea that nothing is new. In other words, for two decades it is the same play and the same end. According to Donis circles imply infinity. Thus the act of surrounding Ben Ali and shaping a circle implies that the fake elections, repression and the whole play are enduring. Also, Ben Ali is depicted in a white suit. According to Kress and Van Leeuwen, the white color tends to express purity. The cartoonist uses the white color not to express the purity of Ben Ali but in contrary to convey that this cartoon represents a masquerade where the oppressor wears the cloth of purity and pardon.

The above cartoon published in November 6, 2009, is a picture of his trademark” pink flamingo” and a mountain in the back with angry facial expressions bearing the slogans “I am not Fatma” and “we all Fatma”. These slogans are a direct message to the government to inform them that Fatma is not him “Z”. Symbolically, he uses the mountain of “Boukornine” to refer to Tunisia and Tunisian people and their anger towards arresting Fatma. Thus, his cartoon represents a certificate of innocence for her.

It is one of his most powerful cartoons. It was published in his blog in December 28, 2010 (15 days before Ben Ali escaped) and entitled “soon”. The title clarifies that it is a premonitory and predictable cartoon. It depicts a prediction of Z due to the recent events in Tunisia and illustrates the dream of Tunisian population to free themselves from dictatorship and the authoritarian regime. The analysis of this cartoon and the exploration of its symbolic indicate that while the burst of the “Boukornine Mountain” as a volcanic that occurs at the background of the cartoon symbolizes the outrage of Tunisians and connotes the revolution against the regime, Ben Ali and his family are getting on a plane to flee to Saudi Arabia. The choice of the plane number “air force 7” connotes the date of Ben Ali inauguration as president of Tunisia in November 7, 1987. Symbolically and deliberately, the cartoonist uses the number “7” to represent two main events; the past power and the current loss. In this cartoon, the family of Ben Ali is carrying with it a box while they ascend the stairs. The box symbolizes all the money stolen from Tunisians and connotes a warning to the Tunisian population that their money would be disappeared with the ousted president. Sarcastically, Z depicts the supporters of Ben Ali holding bags and asking “what about us?” while the bodyguard is preventing them from riding the plane and the president farewell them and calling them “ungrateful people”. So, the “mauves” are left behind to face the outrage of the revolutionaries, while the president is fleeing safety with his family.

Cartoon N°5 and cartoon N°6 were published in January 16, 2011, after the ousting of Ben Ali, and entitled “the new Tunisia”. The title connotes a dream of Z about the rebirth of Tunisia after liberating its population from the oppressive regime. In the cartoon N°5, Z depicts a table covered by the Tunisian flag where a group of people is sitting around the table with a smile on their faces. Here, the table covered by the flag symbolizes the beginning of a free debate. The participants in this debate symbolize the different categories of society; where we can see the Islamist, the liberal, the blogger, women, and men are sitting together and starting a democratic debate to reform Tunisia.

Typically, the cartoon N°6 represents Tunisia after decades from the jasmine revolution as Z dreamt of. Here, he transmits his prediction about Tunisia and how it would be after reforms. The cartoonist depicts a grandfather sitting and talking with his granddaughter in a garden. The little girl with a smile in her face asks her grandpa about the revolution as it represented in the bubble “grandpa! Tell me about the jasmine revolution”. Added to that, the cartoonist depicts at the back of his cartoon two couples walking in the road hand in hand. Thus, Z represents the freedom, peace and calmness, and harmony that would Tunisia achieve. He predicts a colorful future for Tunisia without the purple one. As we see in this cartoon, all the colors are presented in the cartoon except “purple” which symbolizes the dictatorial regime. The green color is dominated in this cartoon. According to De Bortoli and Maroto, the green color implies peace and calmness. So the cartoonist expects a bright future for Tunisia. Also, the flying pink flamingo in the cartoon symbolizes the cartoonist and connotes his freedom of expression, while the two pigeons universally connote peaceю

Cartoon N°7 and cartoon N°8 were published in September 14, 2017, and entitled successively “Reconciliation with dictatorship” and “National reconciliation”. The first title structure is based on the contradiction “reconciliation and dictatorship”. This contradictory composition reveals what is behind the curtains of the transitional government. The two cartoons expose the real situation of Tunisia after the revolution and the deconstruction of the dream that was explained in the previous cartoons. In more detail:

The cartoon N°7 depicts a group of politicians such as the actual president “ El Baji Kaid El Sebssi” and the leader of Enahdha “Rashid El Ghannoushi” and others who symbolize the government in Tunisia after the Jasmine Revolution covered together by a purple lace while the “El Sebssi” and “Ben Ali” giving a hand toward each other and smiling. In this cartoon, the purple color reappeared in Z cartoon to symbolize the dictatorial regime and to connote the existence of remnants from Ben Ali’s regime, the failure of the revolution, and the illusion presented in cartoon N°5 and cartoon N°6. There are two main captions in this cartoon “give me five” and “great job people”; they represent a dialogue between “El Sebssi” and “Ben Ali” and connote a conspiracy between them. For instance, according to our culture “give me five” connotes a secret plan. Thus the cartoonist tries to transmit the threat that would affect Tunisia in the future.

The cartoon N°8 depicts the result of the conspiracy presented in the previous cartoon. Here the cartoonist displays a different version of his cartoon that was published in December 28, 2010 where he predicted the escape of Ben Ali and the end of the oppressive regime (see cartoon N°4). Z transmits through this cartoon his new prediction according to the recent events. He depicts the return of Ben Ali and his wife to Tunisia on “air reconciliation lines” while the “Boukornine Mountain” that symbolizes the Tunisians is looking to the scene in astonishment. The choice of the name of the plane “air reconciliation lines” connotes the conspiracy. Ironically, Z depicts “El Sebssi” and “El ghannouchi” welcoming the comeback of “ZABA”. Symbolically, ZABA is the acronym of the name of the ex-president “Zine El Abidine Ben Ali”, while “BajboujAllah” is the blending between the nickname of El Beji “Bajbouj” with “Allah”. The playing with words is for the purpose to transmit his message in a very symbolic and unique way. On the right of this cartoon, there is a group of people hugging each other. Some of them is wearing suits in blue while the others in purple. According to Z style, the blue color symbolizes the Islamists while the purple symbolizes the supporters of Ben Ali. To sum up, the cartoon as a whole connotes a warning to Tunisian people about a great threat on the road.


The findings of the study suggest that Z political cartoons are able to mirror the socio-political issues and expose the Tunisian regimes before and after the jasmine revolution. His cartoons functioned as a diary. Thus the objectives of the study are full filled. To address the first question that focused on the main themes of political cartoons drawn by the Tunisian cartoonist Z, I collect 4 main themes illustrated through 8 political cartoons. These themes succeed to reflect the social and political conflicts. The analysis of Z’s cartoons reveals that political cartoons are capable to threatening the regime and making the cartoonist endanger as we see what happened when Z drew “the electoral comedy”. Secondly, the study proved that we can see Tunisia through the eyes of political cartoons. Thus the second question is well answered. As a result, the hypothesis is verified.


The political cartoon becomes a communicative weapon due to its capability to transmit easily the most complicated issues in a single image. In this paper, 8 political cartoons were investigated. The findings demonstrate 4 selected dominant themes. Through the main themes, visual elements, and the content of each cartoon, this study proved that people can see Tunisia through the eyes of political cartoons. Also, it’s clear that the opinion and thoughts of the anonymous cartoonist Z are easily translated through his cartoons. His style influenced all themes and all the details of his cartoons. Obviously, all his drawings contain probably the same visual elements, especially the purple color that dominated his cartoons. Also, probably all the investigated cartoons were targeted directly by the government due to the anonymity of the cartoonist. He enjoys his full freedom of expression. Hiding his identity helps him to criticize intensively the Tunisian government and gives him the opportunity to practice his freedom and expose all conspiracies that threaten Tunisia. His political cartoons function as a mirror to reflect the socio-political issues in Tunisia.

This research paper has two main limitations. First, the study focuses only on one cartoonist which makes the research reflect only the thoughts of one cartoonist. Secondly, the study focuses only on themes and visual representations by political cartoons without going in depth toward ideologies behind the cartoonist, the government, and the political cartoons.


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