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Jim Carrey, Mussolini And the Politics of Comics

If Carrey had actually drawn Trump murdered like Mussolini, such a drawing would certainly have gained even more attention, and have been interpreted as a threat to the president.

For years now, Jim Carrey, known for his cartoon-like facial expressions and raucous and pointed comedy, has been sharing his own satirical art on Twitter. Carrey has drawn United States president Donald Trump as ‘Trumpty Dumpty’ wanting a wall, the Wicked Witch of the Westa vampiric baby-eatera Star Wars villain, and a swastika branded fireball crashing into Earth. Carrey’s drawings are often coloured with felt-tipped pens or digitally, always rendered with messy, rough, thick, black lines.

Recently, the comedian posted a crude drawing of fascist leader Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci ­– disfigured and hung upside down as they were in their deaths. Notoriously, Mussolini and Clara’s bodies were left virtually unrecognizable after an Italian mob got hold of the bodies after their executions. Carrey captioned the image: ‘If you’re wondering what fascism leads to, just ask Benito Mussolini and his mistress Claretta’. Carrey’s warning is two-fold: 1) fascists are on the losing side of history and 2) fascism’s end is particularly horrific

While Carrey’s drawing is not particularly funny per se, it sends a clear message that is meant to criticize and agitate against would-be fascists.

Satirical drawings of those in power are not new by any stretch of the imagination, going back centuries. Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Francisco Franco were lampooned endlessly during their lives and in death – particularly by their critics in other countries. While Carrey’s drawing is not particularly funny per se, it sends a clear message that is meant to criticize and agitate against would-be fascists. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the radical right Forza Italia politician and granddaughter of il Duce himself, Alessandra Mussolini, responded pointedly to Carrey by tweeting, ‘You are a bastard’. She then went on to post dozens of tweets related to Carrey’s drawing. She asked Carrey why not draw something else, then followed this by posting images of Native American chiefs Joseph, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and Red Cloud, as well as the whipping of an African American man. She challenged Carrey to depict the horrors of Hiroshima, and she retweeted an image of a child screaming during a now infamous Napalm attack in Vietnam. She referenced multiple times the fact that Carrey is a naturalized American from Canada – as though indicting Carrey for some unknown crime.

All these images Alessandra Mussolini recalled were indeed acknowledging actual horrific atrocities committed by the United States. However, by juxtaposing a call for Carrey to draw horrific images of the darker parts of the United States’ past alongside that image of her grandfather, il Duce’s granddaughter not only shows anger toward Carrey for depicting a horrific scene, but her tweet storm maybe indicates that she believes that the United States is responsible for her grandfather’s death. Through this comparison to some of the worst US atrocities, it appears that for his granddaughter, il Duce’s death becomes an act of violence committed by the Allies comparable to slavery, genocide, and chemical warfare.

Challenging presidents

Ironically, for Carrey, who has been an open critic of horrors committed by Trump’s America – and had previously equated Trump with fascism –, this image of il Duce is potentially a warning (or a coded threat) to the president of the United States himself: to the effect that fascist politics has one inevitable, unpleasant end. Carrey’s choice in deploying a historical figure in lieu of a drawing depicting Trump also might tell us something.

If Carrey had actually drawn Trump murdered like Mussolini, such a drawing would certainly have gained even more attention, and have been interpreted as a threat to the president. In fact, to threaten the US president is a federal felony under U.S. Code Title 18, Section 871which is based on an English lawTreason Act 1351, which made it a crime to ‘imagine’ the death of a king or queen, or their heir. By depicting Benito Mussolini as such, Carrey instead references a historical event and relies upon the viewer to imagine unnamed modern day fascists in il Duce’s place.

Of course, the tradition of political caricature is far from new. David Francis Taylor, who has written extensively on the ‘graphic satire’ of the early modern period, argues about earlier caricature, ‘In its appropriation of a particular text, a print will often open up to scrutiny not only its own strategies of political emplotment but also the narrative procedures of its target text.’[i] Carrey, similarly, appropriates an image of the past for his own purposes, drawing inspiration from the well-known death images of Mussolini hanging upside down with a grotesque blank, unrecognizable face. It would not take much for the viewer to imagine another wannabe strong man in that place.

Indeed, through his intentionally grotesque drawing of Mussolini, Carrey elucidates a limit to freedom of expression in the United States. If the ability to create burning political satire is a marker for democracy and liberty, Carrey’s decision to draw il Duce as dead instead of Trump himself might reflect the very real limits of freedom of expression in the United States – and ultimately the ability of a president to stand unchallenged by critics.

[i] Taylor, David Francis. ‘The Literariness of Graphic Satire’ In The Politics of Parody: A Literary History of Caricature, 1760-1830, 3-39. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018, 15.

This article was originally published at openDemocracy and has been republished under the Creative Commons licence.

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