The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo can be a little bit tough for people outside the Francophone world to grasp. The magazine's brand of satire is peculiarly French and often references issues that aren't well known outside the Francophone world. Luckily, there's a new project designed to explain Charlie Hebdo cartoons for English speakers: Understanding Charlie Hebdo.
Currently, the site features in-depth explanations of 12 Charlie Hebdo cartoons. It covers the context and meaning of each piece, including translations of the text, explanations of major symbolism and cultural references, and an a straightforward analysis of its satirical meaning.
Take, for instance, this cover image of French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, a black woman, drawn as a monkey — one oft cited as an example of racist themes in Charlie Hebdo:
According to Understanding Charlie Hebdo, the cartoon is actually lampooning a depiction of Taubira as a monkey by the French far-right National Front:
The cartoon was published after a National Front politician Facebook-shared a photoshop of Justice Taubira, drawn as a monkey, and then said on French television the she should be "in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government" [Le Monde] (she was later sentenced to 9 months of prison). The cartoon is styled as a political poster, calling on all far-right "Marine" racists to unify, under this racist imagery they have chosen. Ultimately, the cartoon is criticising the far-right's appeal to racism to gain supporters.
The cartoon was drawn by Charb. He participated in anti-racism activities, and notably illustrated the poster (below) for MRAP (Movement Against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples), an anti-racist NGO.
As you might guess from that interpretation, which sidesteps valid criticisms that depicting a black government office as a monkey is offensive regardless of intent, the authors of Understanding Charlie Hebdo see their site as a kind of defense of the magazine.
"The purpose here is just to defend the cartoons against some of these charges leveled against them," the authors write on their homepage. "Saying Charlie Hebdo is homophobic is as absurd as saying Stephen Colbert is right-wing, or that Ali-G is racist."
Contacted via email, the authors (who prefer to remain anonymous) expanded on their mission. "The main contributors to the site are a European group of friends, all of whom have somehow grown-up in Francophone environments," they wrote. "Because we have all moved on to Anglophone countries, we understand how very easy it is for people immersed in Anglo-Saxon cultures to completely misunderstand the background, context and humor of Charlie Hebdo."
This has been a common complaint among French speakers in the Anglophone world.
"As a Frenchman and a radical left militant at home and here in UK, I was puzzled and even shocked by" comments calling Charlie Hebdo racist, Cambridge lecturer Olivier Tonneau writes at Mediapart. "It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or Islamophobic."
You don't have to buy Understanding Charlie Hebdo's arguments. Still, its detailed explanations of context surrounding some of the more controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons are really interesting. The site is well worth your time.