US-Cuba Relations: Political Cartoons in the Spanish-American War

By Ginette E. Walls, MALD ’16

With President Obama’s visit to Cuba last week and the restoration of diplomatic relations between US and Cuba last year after 54 years of Cold War policies and politics, it is important to look back at other moments in history that contributed to the strain and tensions in U.S.-Cuba relations. The Spanish-American War was a significant moment in these relations, followed by U.S. political and economic domination of the island until the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

History has placed much of the push to go to war with Spain with the Yellow Journalism of the time that fanned American anti-Spanish sentiment. Yellow Journalism used sensationalized or manufactured stories and “…used melodrama, romance, and hyperbole to sell millions of newspapers.”. The sensational was prized above facts; such stories sold newspapers and increased the profits of their owners. Prior to the war, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal published numerous stories on the situation in Cuba including those of “…female prisoners, executions, valiant rebels fighting, and starving women and children…” with the effect of changing the public mood of Americans and increasing their urge to go to war with Spain. This piece analyzes four political cartoons, published in the New York Journal and in Puck Magazine in the lead-up to, during, and after the Spanish-American War. Googling ‘political cartoons Spanish American war’ will produce a plethora of images depicting Uncle Sam, the archetype of the United States, standing protectively next to or over a woman representing Cuba, from either Spain or the Cuban patriots who took over after the Spaniards lost the war. Not only do these cartoons portray the push for intervention and war with Spain, they also depict the countries and peoples involved in highly gendered ways.

Print shows Uncle Sam in the role of the "Noble Hero" in a melodrama, defending a young woman labeled "Cuba" from the "Heavy Villain" labeled "Spain".

 

The image to the right, “The Cuban Melodrama”, from 1896, portrays Uncle Sam (the United States) as “the Noble Hero”, protecting Cuba, a young, white woman, from the “Heavy Villain” of Spain, dressed in all black attire (with black being traditionally associated with evil in Western cultures). The woman in on her knees, reaching and looking up to Uncle Sam. She is voluptuous, dressed in white to demonstrate her innocence, and barefoot, demonstrating her poverty. Her clothing, accenting her bust, slim waist, and buttocks, emphasizes her hourglass figure.

 

The image above was published in 1898 in the New York Journal, in black and white, portrays President McKinley holding back a towering Uncle Sam who is attempting to rescue Cuba (a skinny, skeleton-like woman) from a vulture who has apparently already killed a soldier. The two men presented above demonstrate gender hierarchies and gender enforcement. Tall Uncle Sam, pulling up his sleeves to reveal a muscular arm wielding a sword, wants to rush in to protect the Cuban woman from the vulture. President McKinley, depicted as short and scared, prevents him from taking action by holding him back. Portraying McKinley as weak and cowardly can be seen as a way to increase U.S. passions for war, with the message of ‘Americans are not weak and cowardly, and therefore must take action to save this woman!’

http://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/ppmsca/28600/28628r.jpg

The third image was published in Puck Magazine after the end of the war in 1898. Here a lean, tall Uncle Sam is shielding Cuba, a woman, from Cuban patriots. The woman’s skin tone is browner than in the first image. She is also on her knees (as in the first image), but looking back warily at the Cuban patriots, all dressed in military garb and with skin tones matching her own. Her hands are together, signifying begging and the need for protection, from Uncle Sam.

The Spanish American War, political cartoon showing Uncle Sam bidding goodbye to Sapin after conquering Cuba, from Stock Photo

This last image is from Puck Magazine in 1900. This time the darker-skinned Cuban woman is standing next to Uncle Sam, holding hands, but in such a way that he appears to be leading her to the beach to show her that Spain is leaving. Spain, a defeated looking man dressed in pirate garb (perhaps to signify Spain’s plunder of Cuba), is draped onto a departing ship. The Spanish flag is in tatters and dragging in the water. The woman is again voluptuous, dressed in light colors, but in this cartoon she is crowned with a star, and wears a green hooded cape.

The skin color of the Cuban woman is not the same in all of the images. In the first image her skin color is white, like that of both Uncle Sam and Spain. Kimberle Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality emphasizes this need to identify with ‘the other’ in need in her analysis of advocacy efforts regarding domestic violence. The Cuban woman is a woman “like us”, white, and therefore more deserving of US protection and intervention.

The images where the Cuban woman is of a darker complexion (the third and fourth images) are published at the end and after the war when the U.S. has acquired Cuba (along with other territories). Perhaps this alludes to the US’ perception of Cuba’s inferiority, and functions as a justification for imperialism, since ‘the other’, darker-skinned peoples are seen as in need of U.S. control and domination in order to save them. The depiction of the Cuban woman, in many of these images kneeling or in need of protection or assistance from the U.S., wearing white, aligns with many historical representations of the occupied nation as feminized. This is particularly evident in the third image, where Uncle Sam shields the Cuban woman from her fellow Cubans, patriots whose intentions seem nefarious. The body is a key site where nationalism, racism, femininity, and masculinity play out, perform, and forge themselves.

These political cartoons depict gendered notions and norms of nationalism and nations during the Spanish American War. Hegemonic masculinities clash with subordinated masculinities, with ideal notions of femininity and gender performativity, and reaffirm racist stereotypes. Women, as ethnic and national markers for Cuba, are portrayed as sexualized victims in need of protection from a man, namely Uncle Sam. In these images, the portrayal of nations is intricately linked to bodies and gender. We should keep such representations in mind when consuming the images presented to us in popular culture.

Ginette Walls is a second year Masters of Law and Diplomacy student at the Fletcher School, focusing on Gender Analysis in International Studies and International Environment and Resource Policy. She can be reached at ginette.walls@tufts.edu.

Sources:

  1. Public Broadcasting Service. “The Crucible of Empire.” Available at: http://www.pbs.org/crucible/frames/_journalism.html Accessed 2/20/2016.
  2. Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” Stanford Law Review (1991): 1241-1299.
  3. First Image, 1896, Puck Magazine, available at: https://oldsaltbooks.wordpress.com/tag/cuba/
  4. Second Image, 1898, New York Journal, available at: http://fch.fiu.edu/FCH-2006/Spivey-A%20Visual%20Conversation.htm. Spivey, Denise. “A Visual Conversation: Media Images During Wartime, 1898-1918.” Florida State University.
  5. Third Image, September 1898, Puck Magazine, available at: http://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/ppmsca/28600/28628r.jpg
  6. Fourth Image, 1900, Puck Magazine, available at: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-the-spanish-american-war-political-cartoon-showing-uncle-sam-bidding-32387693.html

Further Works Used in the Academic Paper for this Piece:

  1. Yuval-Davis, Nira. “Theorizing Gender and Nation,” in Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, Sage 1997.
  2. Reeser, Todd. “Masculinity and the nation,” in Todd Reeser, Masculinities in Theory, Wiley Blackwell 2009.
  3. Kimmel, Michael. “The contemporary crisis of masculinity”, in Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A cultural history, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press 2011.
  4. Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me, Spiegel and Grau 2015.
  5. bell hooks, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center, South End Press 2000.
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