Lewd, Ridiculous and a Relief: US Presidential Candidates as Cartoons
Between the endless controversies and the battle of personalities, the 2016 US Elections have felt like an exaggerated and cartoonish version of reality. So when Stephen Colbert introduced Cartoon Donald Trump and Cartoon Hillary Clinton as interviewees for his late-night show, there was something of a sense of relief.
In cartoon form, these caricatures fit snugly into the long legacy animated TV shows have had of bringing cutting contemporary satire into the living rooms of homes across the world. Starting with The Simpsons’ huge popularity, political and cultural satire has appeared in everything from children’s cartoons – such as Pinky and the Brain to adult animated sitcoms like South Park – and US presidents have played a consistent part in this.
Over the years they have cropped up, whack-a-mole style, to be mocked and then ducked back into the abyss. The eras of both Bush presidencies as well as Bill Clinton’s are well recorded in these shows. Yet lately this kind of satirizing has taken a backseat: Obama not has not been heavily featured (and when he is, it’s in an unremarkably favourable light). There’s no clear single cause for the omission of Obama from this otherwise well-established custom; however if it does stem from a lack of ridiculousness on Obama’s part, this seems to be thoroughly rectified by the current presidential candidates. We can hardly be surprised to see a return to form, with Cartoon Trump and Clinton appearing even before one of them ascends to the presidency. So what’s in store for the 45th president of the United States? How did their predecessors fare in the world of animation?
The exaggerated reality nature of these shows makes them a perfect opportunity to draw out a person’s vices and transgressions, and there are few better examples of this than Bill Clinton’s portrayal in Family Guy. From his musical number 'One Fine Day to be Nude', to being a judge on 'Quahog’s Miss Cankle USA', Family Guy holds nothing back in portraying Clinton as lewd and vulgar. This well established portrayal may have a big impact on how Hillary would be portrayed if she gains the presidency. While there’s no doubt the writers of these shows could find Hillary some risible traits of her own to be exploited, one suspects that the draw of having Bill continue his lecherous antics in his new role as ‘First Gentleman’ might be too tempting. Hillary may suffer the only fate worse than cruel attention, that is, cruel inattention; a fate which would leave her standing in the background tutting, as Bill gyrates in centerstage. Trump, however is unlikely to share the same fate. His vanity and narcissism have long been documented and debated, and this coupled with his love of the spotlight make for a perfect storm of fatal flaws for satire. The Simpsons have already taken him to task on this front, imagining his beauty regime, complete with fake tan (except around his eyes) and small dog used as a hairpiece. What may prove most interesting about this satirizing, is Trump’s inability to stay above it. Whereas most people would stay out of these portrayals, Trump’s public and ongoing feuds are almost legendary at this point. One suspects that Trump will find it hard not to comment on his representation in these shows, which in turn will only serve to fuel the fire.
Juvenile behaviour is hardly new ground for the animated shows we’ve been looking at. There seems to be a general suspicious that the ‘leaders of the free world’ are actually over-sized children. Whether it’s a sketch on Histeria based on George H.W. Bush’s infantile statement ‘I do not like broccoli’ or George W. Bush getting excited about slinkies and lollypops in Family Guy, this kind of lampooning has, in the past, been generously endearing in its naïveté. There’s a sense that they may be incapable, but in a childishly innocent way. It seems unlikely that we will see either candidate cast in this light. Even as early as Bill’s presidency Hillary was cast as the responsible figure with all the answers. In an oddly prescient scene from Pinky and the Brain Hillary happily negotiates deals for nuclear waste storage while Bill is left saying it ‘sure sounds smart’.
Following on from this we can guess that Hillary is unlikely to be construed as a child. Indeed the question is whether she’ll be construed as human at all. In Colbert’s interview with Cartoon Hillary Clinton replies to a question with: ‘Powerful question. Best question in all of human history. Words. Stated emphatically. Tilt head 15...no, 20 degrees’. This characterisation follows on from a well established trope in the media of suggesting Hillary may in fact be a robot. Her jilted hand gestures and rehearsed responses are deemed to be too cold to be human, let alone childlike. But where Hillary is far from being childish, Trump doesn’t shy away from his childishness. Yet there is one notable difference between Trump and his predecessors. As we have seen, previously their childish is tied to a sense of naivety and innocence, but Trump has none of these qualities. His juvenile behaviour is captured perfectly in Colbert’s first interview with Cartoon Trump which shows him not only as a child, but specifically a spoilt and petulant child. He spews petty taunts: ‘Anderson Cooper is a dumb-dumb, a total poopy-head’ and puerile plans: ‘I will announce my vice president Optimus Prime. Together we will transform America’. Yet even this childishness manages to be more palatable as the intentionally funny nature of the interview is less threatening than encountering it in reality . This should come as a warning, should Trump gain the presidency. Trump can never be out-done by any parody and so all attempts are doomed to fall short.
We can see the stage is set for whoever is to become the next US president, they can almost be certain of a space in these mainstays of satire on television. The legacy begun in 90s continues and their specific character traits emerge to be taken to bat. All we can hope for now is a good show