Editorial cartoons are supposed to spark discussion, and perhaps even controversy. By that measure, the Post-Gazette’s still-newish political cartoonist Steve Kelley has hit the mark.
Several of his recent cartoons, however, are drawing scorn from critics who say they attack women and simply are not funny. One depicted a woman on a dinner date saying she’s a big fan of equal rights, until the dinner bill arrives. Another shows a young girl whose goal is to one day divorce a billionaire. And the third says Nancy Pelosi can’t blink in negotiations with Trump, due to Botox.
After the Post-Gazette refused to publish a letter to the editor from newsroom staff objecting to the cartoons, The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh wrote an open letter saying:
“The cartoons display a contempt for women and an obvious deep-seated prejudice against them. The cartoons are not witty, insightful or funny. They are a puerile recycling of ridiculous, outdated and hurtful tropes about women that have rightfully brought scorn upon this newspaper.”
I reached out to Kelley to interview him about the controversy. He wrote back saying he wants to talk with me and should be available next week. I will share his thoughts in a column once I’ve spoken with him.
In the meantime, I had an interesting conversation with Liza Donnelly, one of the nation’s leading cartoonists (or as she calls herself, an “opinion journalist”) about Kelley’s images and the controversy over them. Donnelly draws for many publications, including The New Yorker and CBS News. Her cartoons cover a wide range of topics, and many highlight the unique challenges women face.
She spoke at the National Conference on the First Amendment at Duquesne University in October, defending cartoonists’ rights to draw anything they want — but also acknowledging that they must be accountable for their images, too.
Here’s our conversation:
AC: You agreed with the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh that recent cartoons by Steve Kelley seem sexist or misogynistic. What about them makes you feel that way?
LD: All cartoonists should be able to draw what they want to draw. We have the freedom to do that in this country because of the First Amendment. But I found the three cartoons that we are talking about to be using old stereotypes that are unnecessarily negative towards women as a group. The jokes are based on the notion that women are gold diggers, duplicitous and use botox. The jokes are meant to create a laugh based on old-fashioned ideas about women — I am not saying we can’t laugh at ourselves, but these are tired stereotypes.
AC: What care do cartoonists have to take to avoid attacking people who are not in privileged groups? In this case women or young girls?
LD: For any group of people, cartoonists should avoid using stereotypes — particularly for those groups who have suffered at the expense of stereotypes for centuries and who still do not benefit from equality.
AC: How are the best cartoonists able to make a pointed, or perhaps even controversial, statement without crossing the line of being unfair?
LD: It’s very possible to do that without being mean to others; it just takes time to look for different approaches to whatever issue you want to draw about. An editorial cartoonist’s job is not always to simply entertain and get a laugh sometimes, but to point out something or start a conversation about an idea.
AC: How do you in your own work try to raise issues to bring about awareness or stimulate new thinking? Can you provide an example or two of your work that you feel does this?
LD: I have done many cartoons about gender equality and women’s rights; it would be hard to describe an example. I would need to show you [see the examples posted here]. I specifically try to break down old ideas, traditions, stereotypes in our culture. Cartoons are sometimes a good way to get people to see things freshly.
AC: Who are some cartoonists today who are doing really interesting work that highlights gender equality or diversity?
LD: Ann Telnaes, Signe Wilkinson, Garry Trudeau, Kim Warp have always dealt with these topics, as have other editorial cartoonists, both men and women. I am not particularly well versed on some of the very newest cartoonists, but I know they are doing great work. The New Yorker is publishing many new cartoonists online, and sometimes they deal with ideas of equality. There is an online site called The Nib that has many cartoonists who get into the subjects of diversity and equality.
AC: How difficult is it to be a woman who draws cartoons in a field that traditionally has been dominated by men and male perspectives?
LD: Now I find the culture receptive to women cartoonists, and to ideas about women’s rights; that wasn’t always the case. Ten or 15 years ago, a cartoon about feminism would have been considered uninteresting or possibly controversial and not a topic for mainstream publication. Now I can draw and write about feminism, harassment, rape, inequality (mind you that’s not all I draw about), along with many other creative people. It’s very much a topic on the table to be discussed. Things have changed during the course of my career, and it’s great because we need to hear from everybody.
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.