Using cartoons to challenge gender perceptions: Meet Liza Donnelly
Liza Donnelly is a cartoonist, observer, speaker, feminist and above all a challenger. Liza has spoken in the United States and abroad, including at TED, The United Nations, The New Yorker Festival, and many other venues. Liza is best known for her work for The New Yorker.
She sold her first cartoon to the magazine in 1979, and they began to appear regularly in that magazine in 1982, at which time she was the youngest of all cartoonists at the magazine. A self-described feminist, in her book, Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists And Their Cartoons, Donnelly chronicles the history of women in New Yorker cartoons, both as illustrators and as subjects.
Here she is in conversation with Sakshi Sirari
Why are you a feminist?
I believe in equal rights and respect for women.
Your cartoons reflect quite a lot on gender roles. Why do you think talking about these roles is so important?
I feel it’s important to keep the dialogue going about the problems between men and women, and the difficulties women face in patriarchal cultures. If we stop talking, nothing will change! I draw about these issues because drawings often speak very loudly to people. When they see, they understand. Often, gender issues/problems, come out in our day-to-day lives in ways we don’t always recognize. So when it’s reflected in a cartoon, it is recognizable. We may talk about equal pay and other “large” issues, but it is often the daily interactions between men and women that need to be observed and changed. Cartoons can show us what those are.
According to you, what impact does a gendered upbringing have on an individual and society? How can parents make sure that give their children a gender neutral upbringing?
So much of our daily lives are filled with choices that we make without thinking; we follow along and do what others in our culture do. This is true in parenting, and our choices have consequences concerning how our children integrate in society. Things as simple as the clothing we buy to dress them, to telling them how to behave in class—all these choices, while they may seem small, are broadcasting to your child who you think they should be. For girls, its often, wear pink dresses, act nice, don’t make waves; for boys, it’s be strong, don’t cry, be a leader. Saying boys are good at math and girls aren’t, and girls are good at crafts and boys are not —stereotypes, often. The culture and advertising/marketing forces don’t make it easy to avoid these stereotypes. But we need to treat our children as “blank slates” and help them discover who they are as individuals. In our efforts to help them “fit in,” we often do them a disservice by forcing them into a gender category. We need to constantly watch our word choices, be aware of what we buy for them, how we encourage them or discourage them from behaviors.
How can cartoons help women rebuild their gendered self-esteem?
I always try to make the person speaking in my cartoons a woman. Even if the cartoon has nothing to do with women’s rights, I give my cartoon women a voice. It could be an annoying voice—but it’s a voice nonetheless! Some of my cartoons also are about topics that many cartoons don’t cover—women’s rights, for example. The images and topics in cartoons can help women see that we are not alone, that whatever sexist behavior we have to deal with, someone else knows about it too, and is coping with it. I often try to do cartoons about how women who live in different parts of the globe have similar problems, often different only by degree. As a global community, it helps us find a way to change what’s wrong and build our self-esteem as women.
Can cartoons play a role in shaping the world we want? How?
I realize that thinking that cartoons can change the world is idealistic. But I like to believe it! Particularly if they are without words, cartoons can cross borders in a unique way, and communicate ideas about what is wrong, what needs to be changed. And everyone loves cartoons! Offering solutions in a cartoon is difficult, because cartoons are all about simplicity and the solutions are not simple. But one can show kindness and care in cartoons, and that helps. That is what I try to do. I see cartoons as dialogue.
Despite close encounters with patriarchy, you managed to lead a life of self-informed choices. What do you think was the greatest factor contributing to this?
The biggest factor, if I had to choose one, is learning how to listen. Listen to the world around me and listen to myself. This involves stillness, which I try to practice, as hard as it is!
Beyond that, I was fortunate to have a good education, I read a lot, and had the good luck to have parents who helped me become who I wanted to be by allowing me to figure it out on my own.
Was there any particular moment where you decided that you wanted to be a cartoonist or was it an ongoing process? What led you to decide that you wanted to be a cartoonist?
There was no one moment. I began drawing cartoons as a child in part because I was extremely shy. I was encouraged by the positive feedback I got when my parents and peers laughed. As a young adult, I began to find a way to make a living at it—it was a long process, however. Basically, I knew I wanted to express myself and help others by either making them laugh or providing political commentary. And cartooning seemed like a great way to do that.
How do you determine if any particular piece is going to be perceived as funny or not? Tell us about some of your greatest hits and misses.
You never know what is going to work! Although having done this for over thirty years, I sometimes have a sense of what will get a reaction and what won’t. Humor is subjective, so I often get it wrong. I have tons of misses! One of my most popular cartoons among women is a drawing of two little girls playing, and one says to the other, “I can’t decide what I want to be when I grow up, a good girl or a slut.”
What does success mean to you and what’s your mantra?
Success means earning a living doing what I love while helping others; having family close and good health. My mantra is “its not about me.”
One message to all aspiring young women out there?
My message to young women is this: don’t be discouraged, don’t give up. Your beliefs, ideas, and opinions matter, and are just as important as anyone else’s. Try to speak up in a way that is true to you. Know that you are not alone.