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"Reading" Political Cartoons
Lesson Snapshot

Learning objectives
Students will learn to recognize visual stereotyping in political cartoons and to analyze its use.

Grade level



NCSS standards

Time estimate
One class period

What you'll need (see Resources for links)

Lesson Plan

  • Print the cartoons (requires Acrobat) and make enough copies for each student or transfer them to an overhead transparency.

  • Using the resources suggested below, give students a brief history of political cartoons, particularly their use in U.S. political history. For example:

  • Ask students to speculate as to why political cartoons are so effective. (Answers might include because an intended audience can't read, they are humorous, a picture is worth 1,000 words, emotional impact, etc.).

  • Begin with Cartoon 1.

  • Open the discussion by explaining that the cartoon appeared in the U.S. media immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

  • Explain that cartoonists often make use of stereotypes as visual symbols or shorthand to stand for more complicated concepts. You might wish to demonstrate this concept using other political cartoons showing, for example, a fat man representing business interests or Uncle Sam (a white male) representing the United States.

  • Ask students to respond to the following questions:

    • Is timing or the context of events when the cartoon appears important for a political cartoonist? Why or why not?

    • Who is the intended audience for the cartoon?

    • How do the audience's experiences, emotions, and assumptions -- including stereotypes -- influence how the cartoonist will draw and how the audience will understand or "read" a political cartoon.

    • What visual symbol does the cartoonist use to represent Islam? What visual associations does the cartoonist make with Islam, and how do these associations make the viewer feel about Islam (e.g., the skull may represent death; the octopus stands for an animal, viciousness, sneakiness, danger)?

    • This cartoon is called "Al-Qaeda Network," but the cartoonist does not label it in writing as al-Qaeda. Without knowing the cartoonist's intention, what would you assume the octopus represents -- the al-Qaeda network or Islam?

    • What stereotypes can you identify in this cartoon?

  • Distribute or display Cartoon 2.

  • Ask students if they remember any news coverage of people being asked to leave public transportation or not being allowed to travel because of the reaction of other passengers' to how they looked.

  • Pass around copies of an article about such a case. Examples include the following:

    • "Greyhound Profiles Muslim Bus Passenger"

    • "Retaliation: Attacks and Harassment of Middle-Eastern Americans Rising"

    • "Secret Service Agent Accuses Pilot of Racial Profiling"

  • Have students read the article for a few moments, then discuss as a class:

    • Why do you think this incident occurred?

    • Why do you think the people in the news item acted the way they did?

    • What was the influence of stereotyping in the incident?

  • Discuss the meaning of irony with the class. Irony is an implied difference between what is said or expected and what is meant or actually occurs.

    • How is the cartoonist using irony to make a point about visual stereotypes?

    • Do you think the cartoonist makes her point effectively? Why or why not?

    • Which do you think would be a more effective way to make this point -- a political cartoon or a newspaper editorial? Why?

    • This cartoon is actually about profiling individuals who look Middle Eastern as terrorists. What do you think the cartoonist is saying about stereotypes that Americans hold about terrorists?

    • Do you think someone who isn't American would understand this cartoon? Why or why not?

  • Distribute or display Cartoon 3.

  • Ask students to decipher the images in the cartoon. There are three major images: the dollar dragon, the people being burned and fleeing the dragon, and the figure seated on the dollar.

    • What or whom does the dragon represent? (the United States and its economic power)

    • How is this made clear? (through the symbol of the dollar sign)

    • Can you identify the people running away from the dragon, or are they anonymous? Why? (They represent Everyman.)

    • Why do students think the figures in the cartoon don't look more "Middle Eastern"? What are possible implications? Is there an implication that the United States is terrorizing the whole world?

    • What is the moral viewpoint of the cartoonist here? Does he view the dragon as positive or negative? How can you tell?

    • Does the cartoonist sympathize with the people running or not? How can you tell?

    • How does the cartoonist want you to feel about the figure sitting on the dragon?

    • Discuss with students what this cartoon might tell us about the way the cartoonist sees the United States.

    • What view of American wealth and power does the cartoon portray?

    • What view of American values does it portray?

    • Where, by whom, and for whom do you think the cartoon was drawn?

    • What historical situations and conditions might have contributed to attitudes reflected in the cartoon?

    • Can you think of counterexamples that would support a different view of the United States in the world at different times in history?

    • Do students agree with the opinions the cartoonist is expressing? Why or why not? If they disagree, what arguments would they use to convince the cartoonist that his cartoon does not represent the truth?

  • Wrap up the lesson by asking students to think again of all three cartoons and to discuss journalistic point of view and stereotyping as expressed in political cartoons.

  • Ask students what responsibilities other journalists and other citizens have to bring more balance to events and peoples than those represented in cartoons.

  • Ask students to write two editorials that respond to the cartoons. One should address an anti-Middle Eastern cartoon, the other an anti-Western cartoon. Each editorial should attempt to bring more balance into the viewpoint than is expressed by the cartoons.


  • How well can the student recognize visual stereotyping in political cartoons?

  • To what extent can the student analyze content in political cartoons?

  • How well can students explain an editorial or journalist point of view and the possible consequences of political cartoons?

  • How able are students to bring more balance to points of view expressed in political cartoons?


Core Resources:

Global Connections Essays:

Internet Resources:

Related Activities:

Extension activity

Ask students to draw a political cartoon about stereotyping and its effects, either in the United States, in the Middle East, or both.

NCSS standards


  • Predict how data and experiences may be interpreted by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference.
  • Interpret patterns of behavior reflecting values and attitudes that contribute to or pose obstacles to cross-cultural understanding.

Time, continuity, and change

  • Investigate, interpret, and analyze multiple historical and contemporary viewpoints within and across cultures related to important events, recurring dilemmas, and persistent issues while employing empathy, skepticism, and critical judgment.

Global connections

  • Explain how language, art, music, belief systems, and other cultural elements can facilitate global understanding or cause misunderstanding.

Civic ideals and practices

  • Locate, access, analyze, organize, synthesize, evaluate, and apply information about selected public issues -- identifying, describing, and evaluating multiple points of view.

For more information, see the National Standards for Social Studies Teachers, Volume I.

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