On Jan. 7, 12 people were killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo by two heavily armed men angered by the French magazine's use of the image of the prophet Mohammed in political caricatures. One response to this event has understandably been to defend the value of caricature by citing its venerable history. In The New York Times, historian Simon Schama was cited as saying that in the 17th century, caricature helped political opponents learn to "fight their battles with words and images rather than swords and guns." In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik linked Charlie Hebdo to a French tradition of "outrageous" caricature in the service of "dissent," exemplified by artist Honoré Daumier, imprisoned in 1832 for lampooning the king.

These accounts make caricature a heroic act, a speaking of truth to power that proves the pen mightier than the sword. But like caricature itself, these versions exaggerate some features and minimize or suppress others.


Caricature has not always been heroic. In future debates about religion, terrorism and freedom of the press, Charlie Hebdo will no doubt be a rallying cry. It should not replace a fuller, more accurate understanding of caricature.

Over the centuries, caricature has been put to many uses, some trivial, some reactionary, some propagandistic. The roots of the term in the Italian words "carico" (to load) and "caricare" (to exaggerate) can be traced to the 1590s. Scholars have linked caricature not only to satire but also to the rise of realistic portraiture and to pornography.

Caricature did play a role in the rise of political democracies, although the path to democracy was often itself a violent one. In France, scabrous images of Marie Antoinette committing adultery with men and women helped pave the way for revolution. Instead of potent sacred figures ruling by divine right, the king and queen were exposed, literally, as lewd, corrupt tyrants who could be deposed and beheaded.

Nor has political caricature always been on the side of the weak and the visionary. Sometimes it has been a poster child for the status quo. The same Honoré Daumier who defied state censorship also caricatured the "Bluestockings," middle-class women who wanted to participate in civic, intellectual and professional life. American cartoonists lampooned Amelia Bloomer for daring to suggest that women might wear pants. Sometimes caricature has been the ally of tyranny and prejudice: The Nazis used caricature to foment anti-Semitism, and opponents of Reconstruction trafficked in racial stereotypes of African-Americans. Sometimes caricature has helped to drum up support for wars and invasions. Cartoonists on all sides of World War I grotesquely distorted their enemies, and just before the 1990 Gulf War, Rolling Stone advertised a T-shirt with Saddam Hussein's face on the rump of a camel and the caption, "America will not be Saddam-ized."

Often caricature has had more trivial uses, such as portraying celebrities. Al Hirschfeld's famous images had no political intent. They were caricatures because they magnified some elements and suppressed others to express what he saw as a performer's essence. At other times, caricaturists combined celebrity caricature and racist imagery. This was especially the case in France after the Third Republic liberalized press laws in 1881. Actress Sarah Bernhardt, the Lady Gaga of her day, became a favorite subject for caricaturists. One depicted the actress, who was Jewish, with a Star of David behind her head and sacks of gold at her feet. Another portrayed her as an invading general conquering the United States with the help of insurgent Native Americans who scalp U.S. senators and force them to install the actress as emperor.

Throughout its long and complicated history, caricature has indeed often been a nonviolent way to voice political dissent. At its best, caricature exaggerates and pokes fun at flaws in order to promote a more balanced view. But caricature also has a long history of mocking the weak, reinforcing bias and encouraging cruel and childish ridicule towards individuals and groups perceived as different.

We have seen the dangers of demonizing caricature; let's also stay cognizant of the dangers of idealizing it. Caricature can be irrational as well as enlightened; it can support authority as well as challenge it. I have a simple reaction to what happened at Charlie Hebdo: It saddens and horrifies me. But when we hear people invoking caricature's past in an effort to evaluate the present or legislate the future, we should remember that its history is very, very complicated.

Marcus is Dean of Humanities in the Division of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University, Orlando Harriman Professor of English and editor-in-chief of Public Books.