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TEDWomen 2010

Liza Donnelly: Drawing on humor for change

December 7, 2010

New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly shares a portfolio of her wise and funny cartoons about modern life -- and talks about how humor can empower women to change the rules.

Liza Donnelly - Cartoonist
New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly tackles global issues with humor, intelligence and sarcasm. Her latest project supports the United Nations initiative Cartooning For Peace. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
(Laughter)
00:17
I was afraid of womanhood.
00:24
Not that I'm not afraid now,
00:27
but I've learned to pretend.
00:29
I've learned to be flexible.
00:31
In fact, I've developed some interesting tools
00:33
to help me deal with this fear.
00:35
Let me explain.
00:37
Back in the '50s and '60s, when I was growing up,
00:39
little girls were supposed to be kind and thoughtful
00:41
and pretty and gentle and soft,
00:43
and we were supposed to fit into roles
00:46
that were sort of shadowy --
00:48
really not quite clear what we were supposed to be.
00:50
(Laughter)
00:52
There were plenty of role models all around us.
00:56
We had our mothers, our aunts, our cousins, our sisters,
00:58
and of course, the ever-present media
01:01
bombarding us with images and words,
01:03
telling us how to be.
01:06
Now my mother was different.
01:09
She was a homemaker,
01:11
but she and I didn't go out and do girlie things together,
01:13
and she didn't buy me pink outfits.
01:15
Instead, she knew what I needed, and she bought me a book of cartoons.
01:17
And I just ate it up.
01:20
I drew, and I drew,
01:22
and since I knew that humor was acceptable in my family,
01:24
I could draw, do what I wanted to do,
01:27
and not have to perform, not have to speak --
01:29
I was very shy --
01:31
and I could still get approval.
01:33
I was launched as a cartoonist.
01:36
Now when we're young,
01:40
we don't always know. We know there are rules out there,
01:42
but we don't always know --
01:45
we don't perform them right,
01:47
even though we are imprinted at birth
01:49
with these things,
01:51
and we're told
01:54
what the most important color in the world is.
01:56
We're told what shape we're supposed to be in.
01:59
(Laughter)
02:02
We're told what to wear --
02:05
(Laughter)
02:07
-- and how to do our hair --
02:09
(Laughter)
02:11
-- and how to behave.
02:16
Now the rules that I'm talking about
02:19
are constantly being monitored by the culture.
02:21
We're being corrected,
02:23
and the primary policemen are women,
02:25
because we are the carriers of the tradition.
02:28
We pass it down from generation to generation.
02:30
Not only that --
02:34
we always have this vague notion
02:36
that something's expected of us.
02:38
And on top of all off these rules,
02:40
they keep changing.
02:43
(Laughter)
02:45
We don't know what's going on half the time,
02:49
so it puts us in a very tenuous position.
02:52
(Laughter)
02:55
Now if you don't like these rules,
02:57
and many of us don't --
02:59
I know I didn't, and I still don't,
03:01
even though I follow them half the time,
03:04
not quite aware that I'm following them --
03:06
what better way than to change them [than] with humor?
03:08
Humor relies on the traditions of a society.
03:13
It takes what we know, and it twists it.
03:16
It takes the codes of behavior and the codes of dress,
03:19
and it makes it unexpected,
03:21
and that's what elicits a laugh.
03:23
Now what if you put together women and humor?
03:25
I think you can get change.
03:28
Because women are on the ground floor,
03:30
and we know the traditions so well,
03:32
we can bring a different voice to the table.
03:34
Now I started drawing
03:36
in the middle of a lot of chaos.
03:38
I grew up not far from here in Washington D.C.
03:40
during the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations,
03:42
the Watergate hearings and then the feminist movement,
03:45
and I think I was drawing,
03:48
trying to figure out what was going on.
03:50
And then also my family was in chaos,
03:52
and I drew to try to bring my family together --
03:55
(Laughter)
03:58
-- try to bring my family together with laughter.
04:03
It didn't work.
04:06
My parents got divorced, and my sister was arrested.
04:08
But I found my place.
04:11
I found that I didn't have to wear high heels,
04:13
I didn't have to wear pink,
04:15
and I could feel like I fit in.
04:17
Now when I was a little older, in my 20s,
04:20
I realized there are not many women in cartooning.
04:23
And I thought, "Well, maybe I can break
04:26
the little glass ceiling of cartooning,"
04:28
and so I did. I became a cartoonist.
04:30
And then I thought -- in my 40s I started thinking,
04:32
"Well, why don't I do something?
04:35
I always loved political cartoons,
04:37
so why don't I do something with the content of my cartoons
04:39
to make people think about the stupid rules that we're following
04:42
as well as laugh?"
04:45
Now my perspective
04:48
is a particularly --
04:50
(Laughter)
04:52
-- my perspective is a particularly American perspective.
04:54
I can't help it. I live here.
04:56
Even though I've traveled a lot,
04:59
I still think like an American woman.
05:01
But I believe that the rules that I'm talking about
05:03
are universal, of course --
05:05
that each culture has its different codes of behavior
05:07
and dress and traditions,
05:10
and each woman has to deal with these same things
05:12
that we do here in the U.S.
05:14
Consequently, we have.
05:16
Women, because we're on the ground, we know the tradition.
05:18
We have amazing antennae.
05:21
Now my work lately
05:24
has been to collaborate with international cartoonists,
05:26
which I so enjoy,
05:28
and it's given me a greater appreciation
05:31
for the power of cartoons
05:33
to get at the truth,
05:35
to get at the issues quickly and succinctly.
05:39
And not only that, it can get to the viewer
05:42
through not only the intellect, but through the heart.
05:44
My work also has allowed me to collaborate
05:47
with women cartoonists from across the world --
05:50
countries such as Saudi Arabia,
05:52
Iran, Turkey,
05:54
Argentina, France --
05:56
and we have sat together and laughed
05:58
and talked and shared our difficulties.
06:00
And these women are working so hard to get their voices heard
06:02
in some very difficult circumstances.
06:05
But I feel blessed to be able to work with them.
06:08
And we talk about
06:12
how women have such strong perceptions,
06:14
because of our tenuous position
06:16
and our role as tradition-keepers,
06:18
that we can have the great potential
06:21
to be change-agents.
06:24
And I think, I truly believe,
06:26
that we can change this thing
06:29
one laugh at a time.
06:31
Thank you.
06:33
(Applause)
06:35

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Liza Donnelly - Cartoonist
New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly tackles global issues with humor, intelligence and sarcasm. Her latest project supports the United Nations initiative Cartooning For Peace.

Why you should listen

When Liza Donnelly joined The New Yorker in 1982, she was the youngest cartoonist on staff and one of only three women at the time to draw cartoons for the magazine. She’s still there. In 2005, Donnelly wrote the definitive book about her colleagues: Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons. She’s been part of many other books, including Sex and Sensibility, Cartoon Marriage (about her life with fellow New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin) and a popular series of dinosaur books for kids. Her latest is Women on Men.

In 2007, Donnelly joined the United Nations initiative Cartooning for Peace. She travels worldwide to speak out about freedom of speech, world peace, and other global issues. Along with her New Yorker cartoons, Donnelly writes a column for Forbes, and draws a weekly political cartoon for Medium. She's a founding member of the US branch of the international organization FECO, and has taught at Vassar College and The School of Visual Arts. She received an honorary PhD from the University of Connecticut and is a cultural envoy for the US State Department, traveling to speak about women's rights, freedom of expression and cartoons.

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