Most agree that Newt Gingrich’s win over Mitt Romney in South Carolina had to do with what the pundits are calling “unforced errors” on Romney’s part—a series of gaffs, blunders, and obfuscations relating to Romney’s wealth, his unreleased tax returns, the fortune he amassed at Bain Capital (as well as how he amassed it), and his offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. While in 2008 comedians compared Romney to the Muppet Guy Smiley, in 2012 Romney is looking more like a cartoon cut out of the corporate stereotype—the top-hatted villain in countless American political cartoons of the last 100 years.
While Gingrich is more of a hard scrabble upstart when it comes to his family story, he certainly belongs to the inner circle of the super rich today. And if you have been following Rachel Maddow’s coverage of Gingrich, you know that she has successfully argued that he is little better than a scam artist, using his run for president to sell books written by himself and his wife Calista and using his consulting firms as tax write-offs, for example. But whatever Gingrich’s millions or his ethical problems, he has been able to paint Romney—with Romney’s considerable assistance—as the only nervous, goofy, out-of-touch super rich guy in the race.
As the Republican primary continues on its strange course, I am convinced that Occupy Wall Street deserves a great deal of credit for our ability to see Romney as a purveyor of “vulture capitalism.” While the idea of the 1% wasn’t even on the radar during the Iowa Straw Poll in August, since then the Occupy movement has shifted the conversation, and the blame for our current economic crisis, to the wealthy. Even now that the Occupy movement has been forced into hibernation for the winter, it has resurrected the grammar of the iconic rich dude in all of his manifestations—a visual grammar with a rich and complicated history. That image of the 1% has been applied most effectively in this campaign season to Romney. We’ve seen this hundreds of times, in articles and blog posts, and perhaps most iconically in this disturbing photo taken when Romney was the head of Bain Capital.
Given the pervasive use of the super rich caricature, I thought it might be useful to take a look at its cultural history. One of the oldest negative 20th century stereotypes of the rich is the fat cat. The term in its current usage, as an insult for wealthy businessmen, was first coined by Frank Kent writing for H.L. Menken in The American Mercury. By the 1930s the term was used to insult specifically those wealthy businessmen who bankrolled politicians. The fat cat in political cartoons is usually represented as an obscenely fat orange tabby cat standing on two legs. He is always masculine, humanoid, and he towers over everyone else in the image—all the while wearing a dark suit, a cigar, and a sneer. In recent years the fat cat has been used by political cartoonists and activists in the US and around the world. Wisconsin-based cartoonist Mike Konopacki has a nice fat cat, and here’s a larger-than-life inflatable fat cat strangling a worker at a protest in front the World Bank. The fat cat is not to be confused with the black cat, an image used by Progressive Era IWW cartoonists to symbolize worker sabotage and resistance which has been making a comeback by way of Occupy Wall Street.
The robber baron is a close cousin of the fat cat. He is always male, top-hatted, holding a cigar, usually fat, and often very tall in scale compared to other figures in the image. The modern day iconography dates back to the 1870s era cartoons of Thomas Nast, poking fun at Andrew Carnegie and Jay Rockefeller, but the term is much older. According to Wikipedia the term dates back to Germany in the Middle Ages, when powerful Catholic bishops were allowed to collect tolls from passing ships on the Rhine river, sometimes stringing iron chains across the river. At times they overstepped their boundaries, and were perceived as “robbing” more than their fair share of tolls.
The Monopoly Man got his start as “Milburn Pennybags,” the capitalist icon of the best selling Parker Brothers Monopoly game in the 1930s. Mr. Pennybags is in considerably better shape than his fat cat/robber baron brethren. He is trim, agile, and more benignly comic. Like them, he does wear a top hat and a tux coat, but he usually holds a cane and has a monocle. In recent years Milburn Pennybags has become a counter-revolutionary icon, especially in the hands of LA street artist “Alec.” The New Yorker seemed to be channeling a rioting horde of Milburn Pennybag-types with its cover mocking the 1% last Fall. According to internet rumors, Mitt Romney always chooses to be the top hat when he plays Monopoly.
When it comes to animated comic images of the super rich, we have many figures to choose from, including Scrooge McDuck, Mr. Magoo, and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. But one of more unusual icons is that of the child millionaire Richie Rich. He was born out of the comic series “Little Dot” in 1953, and, according to Wikipedia, he was Harvey Comic’s most popular character for much of the 1960s and 1970s. Richie Rich is usually dressed in blue short pants, an Eton collar, and a large red bow. Unlike his adult counterparts Richie Rich likes to give away his millions. He was turned into an animated television cartoon in the 1980s, and a live action film starring McCauly Caulkin in 1994. In 2011 Ape Entertainment re-licensed Richie Rich, making him into a globe-trotting do-gooder.
There are almost no animated icons of the super rich in feminine form, except perhaps Cruella De Vil. She was created in 1956 by British novelists Dodie Smith (the daughter of a bank manager) whose novel about Dalmations was adapted by Disney in 1961. In the original story Cruella was a London heiress with a 6 million pound fortune (or 1 billion dollars today, according to Forbes Magazine). As a school girl she was expelled for drinking ink. It has been argued that some of De Vil’s extravagances were based on those of the actress Tallulah Bankhead. In the original story, she is married to a furrier who comes off as a hen-pecked husband, but in the Disney version she is definitely a single lady. Her name can be easily parsed. Cruella stands for “cruel,” and “De Vil” is “devil.” She is something of a fashion icon, copied recently by Lady Gaga, and for some inexplicable reason there is a facebook page called “people who think that Nancy Pelosi looks like Cruella De Vil.”
There are many more icons of the rich, of course, and some personal favorites include Thurston Howell, III from Gilligan’s Island, Bruce Wayne (Batman), Willy Wonka and Jed Clampett. But I was surprised to see that the idea of the filthy rich fictional character has become so embedded in our culture that for the last ten years Forbes Magazine has been tracking the fortunes of the 15 wealthiest rich icons. Daddy Warbucks, Santa Claus, Laura Croft, and Jabba the Hut have all appeared on this tongue-in-cheek list.
All this leaves me with more questions than answers. On the one hand I believe that attention must be paid to these burlesques of the super rich, if only to acknowledge that Americans have a penchant for ridiculing both the higher and lower orders in our comedic traditions. It is not just the blue collar bus driver (Ralph Kramden), or the nuclear plant worker (Homer Simpson) that is the butt of the joke in American culture. But for all the laughs we might have at the expense of the super rich, how is that they still have so much power? Is the comedic icon a mere distraction, like everything else in our culture, drawing our attention away from the streets and the voting booth? Or can the representation of the banker as ogre have genuine political impact on the American electorate? If Newt Gingrich becomes the nominee, will his status as a secret member of the “Van Dough” family finally be revealed?
What is your favorite icon of the rich and famous? And what do you think it means?
Kathy M. Newman