Liza Donnelly: One of The New Yorker's 'funny ladies'

By GERRY HARRINGTON, United Press International  |  May 2, 2013 at 12:25 PM
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RHINEBECK, N.Y., May 2 (UPI) -- U.S. cartoonist Liza Donnelly's humor is almost an inside joke. You don't have to be a woman to get it, but it helps.

Her single-panel gag cartoons, which appear in The New Yorker magazine and elsewhere, are also more than just humorous. They make a point, often commenting on, if not confronting, women's place in society, usually within an everyday-life context.

One cartoon depicts two young girls playing with dolls on a bedroom floor. One girl says to the other, "I can't decide what I'm going to be when I grow up -- a good girl or a slut."

Another cartoon, done during the 2008 presidential campaign, shows a woman in a hair-salon chair talking to her stylist before a cut. "I want to look like Sarah Palin, but not seem like her," the woman says.

Yet another shows two women in their 30s or 40s walking among modern art in a museum. "Art is like sex: you get it or you don't," one woman says.

"Cartoons can get at issues quickly and succinctly, and they can reach people through the heart as well as the intellect," Donnelly tells United Press International.

They also let Donnelly tackle topical subjects edgewise because readers' guards are down.

In a recent cartoon titled "House Therapy," a distraught male lawmaker lying on a couch tells his therapist: "I don't know who I am anymore, doc. I voted for the Violence Against Women Act this time."

The House renewed the landmark 1994 act in February, with 87 Republicans joining 199 Democrats in supporting reauthorizing the law that assists victims of domestic and sexual violence. The Senate passed the measure two weeks earlier with 78 votes, including those of every woman member, all Democrats and just over half of Republicans.

Another Donnelly cartoon points to a U.S. intercultural awkwardness amid the Western European political debates over Islamic dress, especially public face veils and full-body garments worn by women in some Islamic traditions.

The cartoon, titled "Flatter Diplomacy," shows a blond woman in a pink blouse and blue skirt telling a woman in a black burqa, "Black really brings out your eyes."

Donnelly, who grew up in Washington, D.C., during the civil rights movement, started drawing cartoons when she was around 7, after her mother gave her book of cartoons by James Thurber.

Thurber, whose cartoons were published mainly in The New Yorker, was known for celebrating the comic frustrations and eccentricities of ordinary people.

"I just ate it up," Donnelly told the first TED Women conference in Washington in December 2010. "I drew and I drew."

TED conferences focus on "ideas worth spreading." Donnelly often uses her cartoons when she speaks around the world about women's rights and freedom of speech.

Donnelly sold her first cartoon to The New Yorker in 1979, and her work began appearing regularly in the magazine in 1982. She was the youngest, and one of only three women cartoonists, at the magazine at the time.

"I like their warmness," New Yorker Cartoon Editor Robert Mankoff said.

"We live in a culture in which everything can be distant and cold," he said. "I like the fact that there's a genuine feeling that goes through her cartoons. It could have a little bark to it, but it isn't mean."

He mentioned three Donnelly cartoons.

One, appearing after Barack Obama first won the presidency, shows a female psychiatrist talking to a woman on a couch. "So you're a Democrat and you've won. How does that make you feel?" the psychiatrist says.

Another shows a boy and girl playing in a park sandbox. The boy says: "I don't see liking trucks as a boy thing. I see it as a liking-trucks thing."

Another shows a mother about to push a child on a rope swing for the first time. "You can say anything you want, or you can say nothing, but most people say 'Wheeeee!!!'"

"I try to do about six or so cartoons a week," Donnelly tells UPI, adding she typically gets half of them published.

Donnelly has also written or edited 15 books, including "Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons," "Sex and Sensibility: Ten Women Examine the Lunacy of Modern Love ... in 200 Cartoons" and "When Do They Serve the Wine?" a look at generations of women "and how we can communicate and laugh with one another about being women in a man's world," Donnelly said.

An upcoming book, "Women on Men," showing cartoons of women's humor about men, is due out later this year.

TV and film producer Mark Gordon optioned "Wine" for an hourlong TV comedy giving him the exclusive right to purchase the screenplay later.

Gordon is an executive producer of ABC-TV's "Grey's Anatomy" and CBS-TV's "Criminal Minds."

"Cartoon Marriage," a his-and-hers cartoon book Donnelly wrote with her husband, New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin, has been optioned by actress-producer Jennifer Garner for ABC Studios.

Besides The New Yorker, Donnelly's work appears in The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Women's eNews and The Huffington Post.

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