In a year when politics in North Carolina have turned absurd and grotesque, one can take comfort in knowing that political cartoonists are here to keep us sane.

The panel discussion titled “Bathroom Banter” was held on Friday, Sept. 23 at Reynolds Theater, featuring Charlotte Observer reporter Jim Morrill and Kevin Siers, a Charlotte-based Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist. Billed as a “hard look at satirizing North Carolina’s House Bill 2 controversy,” the event was part of the Political Cartoon and Satire Festival, which was co-hosted by Duke and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and concluded Sept. 24.

“It started when the Governor and the legislature got together and said, what can we do for the nation’s cartoonists?” Morrill said of the controversial HB2. 

But, like the cartoons themselves, there is sobriety beneath his humor.

HB2, also known as the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, is notorious for what some believe is its discriminatory treatment of transgender persons. The panel recapped the bill’s legislative history, with Morrill giving a behind-the-scenes look at state-level decision making. The recent fallout with the NCAA and ACC is considered a crucial turning point, but Morrill believes the matter will eventually be decided in court.

“[Governor McCrory] wanted it as a wedge issue, and with all the follow-up they’ve basically given themselves a wedgie,” Siers said. 

Calling it an unenforceable law for a non-existent problem, Siers argued that HB2’s central mistake is that it labels transgender people as either predators or not real.

While the event mixed the cartoon showcase with political commentary, the panel made clear that they were not in any way whether the bill had any substantive merits. Frederick Mayer, Associate Dean for Strategy and Innovation at the Sanford School of Public Policy, moderated the event, and stressed that Duke has condemned HB2 in no uncertain terms.

Courtesy of Steve Sack

Some cartoons took a look at the logistics behind enforcing HB2. | Courtesy of Steve Sack

Some artists (including Bruce Springsteen) have responded to HB2 by canceling shows in North Carolina. However, unlike other artists, political cartoonists do not have the luxury of being on the sidelines when it comes to legal drama. Drawing cartoons on a hot-button topic like HB2 can be tricky, and one way or another satire is always partisan. Siers and Morrill spoke of the common pitfalls of reporting on HB2, noting that the most visceral approach—that of potty humor—may not be best.

“Because the law is so complicated, so many other things get short shrift. We rarely mention the minimum wage part, or that it strips the authority of local governments,” Morrill said.

Despite there being other important aspects of the bill, Siers said that the bathroom aspect is a convenient shorthand that has become a metaphor for the bill itself, making it an easy target for cartooning. However, both panelists agreed that cartoons should work with news and editorial pages to present a more complete picture.

Courtesy of Rob Rogers

Some cartoons tied into other state political issues, like voter ID laws. | Courtesy of Rob Rogers

As with other forms of art, there is the problem of responsible representation. When asked how to portray transgender people respectfully, Siers defended the value of cartoons which may be seen as offensive, comparing the situation to how cartoons of Obama and Clinton can be accused of being racist or misogynist. By using the techniques of exaggeration and caricature, cartoonists “tell little lies to tell a larger truth,” he said. The challenge with these cartoons is finding the most intelligent way to deliver the message.

In the panel discussion as well as the coordinating exhibit (held at the Chaplin Family Lounge in the West Union) there were depictions of transgender people which, depending on the audience, could be either amusing or in bad taste. Adam Zyglis, the president of the AAEC, said he did not receive any complaints about the cartoons, and encouraged students to “understand the opposition.” The panel also expressed the hope of seeing more cartoons coming from the LGBTQ+ community itself.

Courtesy of Rick McKee

Some cartoons shown at the panel painted a more positive view of HB2. | Courtesy of Rick McKee

HB2 elicits strong feelings from most North Carolinians, and the attitude of cartoonists seems to alternate between wry detachment and outright glee. But even though our state politics going down the toilet is no laughing matter, it is hard to blame them for having fun.

“It’s a godsend,” Siers said. “[HB2] is a civil rights issue with lots of potty humor—who can resist?”

A recording of panel discussions at the Political Cartoon and Satire Festival can be viewed here. The “Bathroom Humor: National Cartoonists Take on HB2” exhibition will be on show until Sept. 30 at Horse & Buggy Press, 401-B Foster Street, Durham. Claire Ballentine contributed reporting.