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How to analyze a cartoon

Nationalism & Imperialism

Unit 8


  1. Observe
  2. Reflect
  3. Analyze

How do I analyze a Cartoon?

Click here to listen to the text!

  1. Observe
  2. Reflect
  3. Question

Stereotypes:How are other nations represented in this cartoon? Think about Uncle Sam's position and age vs. their position and age.

Visual Symbol: Who is Uncle Sam representing?

Let's Practice!

Watch the video and then respond to the questions below.

The cartoon’s original caption reads: “It's all a matter of perspective. When a Chinese [laborer] strikes a French soldier the result is a public cry of ‘Barbarity!’ But when a French soldier strikes a [laborer], it's a necessary blow for civilization.”

Practice round 2!

ticket out the door

What do you wonder about... who? · what? · when? · where? · why? · how?


Ask questions that lead to more observations and reflections.
Visual Symbols

A visual symbol is an image that stands for something else, such as a country, event, or idea. For example, in American political cartoons, a donkey often represents the Democratic Party, while an elephant symbolizes the Republican Party.Political cartoons often use the character Uncle Sam (image) to represent the United States.

The cartoon is an 1899 French cartoon. At the time, France was seeking to spread its influence and control in China. Chinese laborers sometimes attacked French soldiers who were exerting control in China.Be sure to read the image’s caption to help you understand the cartoonist's message.

Visual Distortion

Cartoonists use exaggerations in sizes, shapes, facial expressions, and gestures to express their messages. For example, cartoonists sometimes use a dragon as a visual symbol to represent China. A large, menacing dragon breathing fire would make a different point about China than a tired, limping dragon with a worried expression would. In the image, the large size of the “child labor employer” hand suggests employers held oppressive power over child workers.

The United States

Uncle Sam is positioned as the teacher and an adult, while other nations are children being taught.

Arguments and Reasoning

Political cartoons often bluntly show a specific opinion without expressing the complexities of the issues they depict. However, artists may back up their opinions with reasons to support their views. While a cartoon may be biased, it may invite the viewer to consider the reasons for artist’s opinion. The cartoon in the image points out the contradiction of the United States donating money to “save” the non-Christian or uncivilized people of foreign lands, while numerous acts of cruelty and violence occur in the United States. The artist shows multiple scenes that suggest the United States itself is uncivilized, including race-based lynching and violence against animals for entertainment.

Describe what you see:What do you notice first? What people and objects are shown? What, if any, words do you see? What do you see that looks different than it would in a photograph? · What do you see that might refer to another work of art or literature? What do you see that might be a symbol? What other details can you see?


What's happening in the cartoon? · What was happening when this cartoon was made? · Who do you think was the audience for this cartoon? · What issue do you think this cartoon is about? · What do you think the cartoonist's opinion on this issue is? What methods does the cartoonist use to persuade the audience?


Generate & Test Hypotheses about the source.

A stereotype is a generalized and simplified view of a group. Stereotypes are often insulting and fail to acknowledge the individual differences among people in a group. Cartoonists sometimes use stereotypes to make a point quickly. When you analyze political cartoons, the stereotypes depicted can show you what attitudes or beliefs people had about a certain group. The cartoon in the image responds to the territories of Arizona and New Mexico applying to become U.S. states in 1912. It uses stereotypes to represent people from those territories as wild cowboys.


Irony refers to an expression that, on the surface, means one thing, but actually means the opposite. If a person says, “Great weather today, huh?” when the weather is stormy, the person is probably using irony. Cartoonists may use irony to mock something they see as unfair or untrue by pointing out a contradiction. The cartoon in the image responds to an 1882 United States law that prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. The cartoon shows the irony that the “Golden Gate of Liberty” is not giving people access to liberty, but is excluding Chinese workers despite being open to groups considered dangerous. The word “Chinamen” in the cartoon was common in the past but is now considered a derogatory word.