On the lawn

In the July 29th New Yorker, two cartoons about things for American lawns, each requiring one key piece of knowledge for understanding: Bob Eckstein showing a moment of silence; Farley Katz featuring a distressed bird.



Both cartoons are complex — several things are going on at once, including allusions to American political life — but you can’t get anywhere with them unless you recognize the repeated images in them: the shuttlecocks of the game badminton in the Epstein, the plastic lawn flamingos in the Katz.

Badminton. From Wikipedia:

(#3) Badminton racquets and shuttlecocks

Badminton is a racquet sport played using [long-handled] racquets to hit a shuttlecock across a net. Although it may be played with larger teams, the most common forms of the game are “singles” (with one player per side) and “doubles” (with two players per side). Badminton is often played as a casual outdoor activity in a yard or on a beach; formal games are played on a rectangular indoor court.

… The game developed in British India from the earlier game of battledore and shuttlecock. European play came to be dominated by Denmark but the game has become very popular in Asia, with recent competitions [it is now an Olympic sport] dominated by China.

In North America and the UK, badminton is, for the most part, a suburban recreation — like croquet, a sociable game played on lawns in the summertime. In China it’s a serious, intensely played sport, fast-paced and hard-driving — like ping-pong / table tennis (also an Olympic sport, though played as a friendly game in American rec rooms).

Lawn flamingos. From Wikipedia:

(#4) A pair of classic lawn flamingps, on their wire legs: one upright, the other with head down to feed

Pink plastic flamingos are one of the most famous lawn ornaments in the United States, along with the garden gnome.

The pink lawn flamingo was designed in 1957 by Don Featherstone. The first pink flamingo’s name was Diego, and has become an icon of pop culture that won him the Ig Nobel Prize for Art in 1996. It has even spawned a lawn greeting industry where flocks of pink flamingos are installed on a victim’s lawn in the dark of night. After the release of John Waters’s 1972 movie Pink Flamingos, plastic flamingos came to be the stereotypical example of lawn kitsch.

Cartoon understanding. To understand #1, you need to recognize the shuttlecocks and their connection to the game of badminton; to understand #2, you need to recognize the flamingo bird and the lawn flamingos. Without that, the cartoons are just baffling. With it, you will appreciate the absurdity of a shuttlecock lamenting the loss of shuttlecocks to dogs and roof gutters, and of a actual flamingo — shown in #2 in its characteristic one-footed stance — trapped in a field of lawn flamingos.

(#5) An American flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber

But that’s just the bare minimum. Each cartoon incorporates much more.

The Eckstein. First, the cartoon depicts some sort of authority figure in the shuttlecock world presiding (on a raised dais in front of a lectern equipped with a microphone) over a gathering of shuttlecocks (referring to the full set of shuttlecocks as we).

In the midst of a black and white cartoon scene, the shuttlecocks are all, quite strikingly, wearing bright red caps — perhaps, as one Facebook commenter suggested, MBGT (Make Badminton Great Again) caps.

The occasion is framed — by the speaker’s words — as a moment of silence in remembrance of those lost comrades. From Wikipedia:

A moment of silence (sometimes referred to as a minute’s silence or a one-minute silence) is a period of silent contemplation, prayer, reflection, or meditation. Similar to flying a flag at half-mast, a moment of silence is often a gesture of respect, particularly in mourning for those who have died recently or as part of a tragic historical event.

One minute is a common length of time for the commemoration, though organizers may choose other periods of time, normally connected in some way with the event being commemorated (there might be a minute given for every death commemorated, for example). During the moment of silence, participants may typically bow their heads, remove hats, and refrain from speaking or moving for the duration.

(Personal note: at noon PDT on Sunday August 18th, during the dim sum brunch at the 32nd motss.con in Palo Alto, we will have our traditional moment of silence in remembrance of the many motssers who have died — including Steve Dyer, the founder of soc.motss.)

Now, moments of silence are normally solemn events, but they can of course be engaged in, or even led, as purely pro forma exercises — or, indeed, as piously insincere gestures. So we might fairly wonder about the motives of the red-capped leader in #1.

The Katz. The subtext of #1 is (in)sincerity. The surtext of #2 is (in)authenticity. The central figure is an authentic flamingo (call it Flamm), surrounded by representations of flamingos, mere flamingo simulacra — which, however, Flamm identifies instead as fakes, poseurs, inauthentic flamingos, that is, as creatures presenting false claims to authenticity.

But lawn flamingos aren’t presented as authentic flamingos; no one makes claims of flamingohood on their behalf. They are merely flamingoids.

But Americans now live in a political world in which cries of “Fake!” –specfically “Fake news!” — abound. Claims that would appear to be accusations of simple falsity but turn out to be accusations of lying, a type of inauthenticity in which people knowingly present false statements as true. That’s false, and you know it. You’re a faux flamingo, a mere flamingoid, and you know it, you bastard.


3 Responses to “On the lawn”

  1. Yael Ziv Says:

    Thank you, Arnold. I knew something about shuttles and about the part related to the male anatomy, I now know a little about their “coming together”.
    Seriously, though, you managed to clarify to a non American an otherwise opaque cartoon by making shared local cultural knowledge explicit.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      To Yael (for the rest of you: writing from Israel). First, years of trying to explain cartoons and comic strips to children and to my foreign students and friends has made me keenly sensitive to how much cultural background they presuppose. I’ve learned from hanging out with cartoonists in recent years that they understand a bit of that, but are mostly unaware of the dense cultural knowledge they take for granted. So I have a useful role in analyzing the cartoons.

      Then there’s the shutllecocks. I see that I neglected to point out their phallic appearance, with those rounded red heads. Me, of all people — like, phallicity is a category on this blog. Bob will no doubt find that funny.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    To tie the two cartoons together: The shuttlecock used in badminton is also referred to as a “birdie” (or, occasionally, “bird”).

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