Liza Donnelly on gender, cartooning as a career, and growing up in DC

By Athira Nair,

Cartoonist for The New Yorker. Columnist for Forbes.com. Cultural Envoy for the US Department of State.

It might seem impossible for the same person to juggle all of these hats, but Liza Donnelly wears them all. The author of a new collection of political cartoons entitled Women On Men, Donnelly’s work has been circulated amongst the readership of The New Yorker for the past thirty years. Her provocative and revealing doodles on gender dynamics, the Middle East, and the most hot-button topics in politics have also appeared in online publications including Narrative Magazine, Medium, Forbes.com, Women’s eNews, and TheaterMania.com.

Political cartoons are hardly Donnelly's only medium. As a cultural envoy for the Department of State, she has spoken around the globe about women’s rights and civil liberties. Her TED Talk about how humor can be used as a mechanism for social change has been viewed over 500,000 times. What's more, Women on Men is hardly her first foray into the intersection of the cartooning and book publishing worlds. The 16 titles Donnelly has published include When Do They Serve The Wine? The Folly, Flexibility and Fun of Being a Woman and Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons.

Donnelly chatted with us on a December morning about developing her career as a political cartoonist and what Women on Men is really about.

TheCelebrityCafe.com: What made you want to create this collection of cartoons about gender at this time?

Liza Donnelly: I've been in this business for thirty years, and I've always done cartoons about a variety of subjects. One of those subjects is gender. Gender is in the news so often now, and women's rights are in the forefront globally. I like to look at the little things in life that are funny or problematic. I wanted to do this book to show how women can be funny and how we can poke fun at those little things between the sexes that are bothering us. Maybe we can laugh at them and even fix them. Also, I like to have women speaking in my cartoons from time to time.

What impact do you want a cartoon to have on an individual and how can that translate to having social and political effects?

LD: I'm an idealist. My greatest hope is that humor can make people happy, first of all, but also make them think about the things we need to work on as individuals. If you have a cartoon about something between the sexes that's touchy, it's a great way to address a difficult subject because people are prepared to laugh. They're not prepared for something difficult. So, you catch the viewer unaware, really. If you use humor, you can get people to look at it, laugh at it, and talk about it. It's a way to increase dialogue.

TCC: So, we can bring up issues that we normally can't?

LD: Yes. Issues that go untalked about.

TCC: How does an idea for a cartoon come about? Is it right after an observation or does it happen when you're reflecting?

LD: It happens in a lot of ways. It varies. Some days, you're sitting at a desk with a piece of paper and thinking about life - your own personal life or what you've observed around you. Other times, it's responding to something in the news. I do cartoons for a weekly publication, The New Yorker, and I do cartoons online. Sometimes, I can respond to something in the news - for example, a politician who has said something sexist or abuses of women internationally. It's hard work. You have to sit down, pull apart what the elements are, and make it simple. You have to distill it down and then figure out a way to visually present it.

TCC: How long is the editing process?

LD: For me, it can be very quick. Sometimes, it's a longer process. For The New Yorker, generally speaking, I submit on Tuesday and they'll respond on Friday, letting me know if they want to buy anything. Usually, the editor doesn't change anything there. Online, it can go much quicker, within an hour. I work for Medium.com. My editor there will respond very quickly, telling me, "yes, it's a go" or "maybe you want to change the title a little bit."

TCC: You grew up in Washington DC during the civil rights movement and the feminist movement. Is that what inspired you to start cartooning?

LD: Yes. I was a shy and quiet person. Growing up amidst all of the turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s, I felt confused and was trying to figure out the world around me. I didn't talk much, so I drew to express myself. Also, a lot of college students want to change the world, and I was like that. I wanted to fix things. The funny thing is that I didn't think I had enough opinions, so I looked at The New Yorker as a place where I could be quietly political. I'm much more able to be opinionated now. That happens when you get older.

TCC: Is this book for men as much as it is for women?

LD: Yes! A lot of my male friends have commented to me that they like it. That makes me really happy.

TCC: Is that something you were conscious of when you were creating these cartoons? Did you want to make sure that they would speak to both men and women?

LD: Yes. I don't like it when we separate the genders so much. That's not my intent. I don't want to make it the battle of the sexes. I want to make it a dialogue. I'm really unhappy when the media make stereotypic separations like 'all women like to shop' or 'all men like to go hunting.' I don't like those kinds of divisions, and I don't think they're true. This book is hopefully about talking to each other and making light of things.

Women on Men can be purchased at Narrative Magazine.

Images courtesy of Liza Donnelly. Follow her on Twitter.


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