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The New Cartoon Tuesdays: How Female Cartoonists Are Changing Mainstream Publications

Artists are challenging the traditionally white, male world of illustration to recognize women’s work

Last month, it was announced that Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor for The New Yorker for nearly 20 years, would be stepping down and that Emma Allen, an editor for the magazine’s Daily Shouts section, would be taking his place. The New Yorker is a notoriously difficult place to submit cartoons, and the fact that Mankoff’s replacement will be a woman isn’t just a small editorial change.

“Submitting to The New Yorker under Bob entailed pushing through a huge crowd of men to submit your work to a man,” tweeted Hallie Bateman, a cartoonist whose work has appeared on The New Yorker’s website, The Awl, Jezebel, and more. “Bob told me my cartoons weren't funny — but also that he was mandated to publish more women so I should come back,” she continued.

The experience that set off her tweets, Bateman tells me over the phone, happened during the New Yorker process known as “Cartoon Tuesdays,” when several cartoonists bring a batch of 10 cartoons to submit to Mankoff in person. “It was just a ton of men, maybe one or two women in this huge crowd of white guys,” she says. “It’s really exciting, but it also doesn’t feel very good.” After Mankoff rejected her cartoons, Bateman went back to publishing online before trying again with the magazine, at which point he told her she can’t be a “dilettante.”

“He seemed very offended that I thought I could just saunter into The New Yorker [again],” Bateman says. “There was the weird vibe of knowing that he needed and wanted more women. And basically, when he told me, ‘Only do this if it's what you want to do, not just because you want to get into The New Yorker,’ I looked at my cartoons and I didn't like them that much and was like, I don't think this is what I want to do.”

Mankoff wrote in an email that it is hard for all cartoonists to get into the magazine partly due to limited space, and that he has told many people “to get to be a New Yorker regular, be regular,” so as to pitch better work. "We’ve taken other steps to broaden our pool of artists, including reaching out to art and design schools,” he wrote, noting that there is still more work to do when it comes to publishing female cartoonists. "Call it a mandate if you want. That’s fine by us. It’s a good mandate — one that better reflects the world in which we live.”

Allen doesn’t start the job until May 1, and so she declined to comment, though she did say the following in an email: “[Hiring women] is certainly a subject that’s important to me. I’ve served as Daily Shouts editor since 2014 (and will continue doing so in addition to cartoon editing). In that role, I’ve worked to recruit scores of women humor writers — not hard, as there are so many talented women working in comedy — and just generally a more diverse mix of voices, a number of which have gone on to appear in the magazine as well.”

That The New Yorker’s cartoon section needs to publish more women isn’t surprising considering how publications and newspapers are pushing to look beyond the white, male bylines that have dominated newsrooms and magazines for years now. But while there are many institutions like the Columbia Journalism Review, Nieman Journalism Lab, and VIDA keeping track of diversity and gender disparities when it comes to writing in mainstream publications, there are few counting how many cartoons and illustrations by women make their way into print.

Female illustrators make less money than their male counterparts on average and still have a long way to go when it comes to winning awards. The first Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning that was given to a woman went to Jen Sorensen in 2014, but just last year the prestigious comic artist award Angoulême Grand Prix nominated 30 men and zero women (which caused many male cartoonists, including Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, to ask to be removed from the list). So while publications are seeking to diversify the bylines of writers and artists, when it comes to the artwork and cartoons published alongside them, the conversation is just getting started.

After artist Julia Rothman discovered that 55 issues of a prominent, unnamed magazine only included four covers illustrated by women in a year, she and artist Wendy MacNaughton decided to create Women Who Draw, a site that indexes female-identified illustrators and cartoonists. Rothman and MacNaughton, who have both had successful illustration careers, created the site last year to foster a sense of community among female artists and make sure that no art director or editor can say they just can’t find any female illustrators to hire. “People tend to hire who they know and who is the most visible,” says MacNaughton. “And, historically, that tends to be more male.”

Women Who Draw is similar to artist MariNaomi’s Cartoonists of Color Database, which has divisions for cartoonists of color, female cartoonists of color, and LGBTQ cartoonists of color. Naomi, a Japanese-American cartoonist and author whose work has appeared in BuzzFeed, xoJane, and Bitch, originally started the database as a personal list she kept for herself and kept adding to. “Once I had, like, 100 or 150 I thought, Man, someone should really put a list together and put it on the internet,” Naomi tells me. “Then my stomach fell and I realized that if I didn't do it, probably nobody would.

“You know, throughout my 20 years of comics people still say, ‘Oh yeah, women don't make comics, women don't read comics, women of color don't make comics,’” Naomi says. “I really just wanted a place to direct them to.”

The truth is that female cartoonists have always existed, so much so that panels about “women in comics” at festivals are seen as passé. The National Woman’s Party had several cartoonists making work for the suffrage movement, like Nina Allender and Ida Sedgwick Proper. June Tarpé Mills, who wrote Miss Fury, the first female-action-hero comic strip created by a woman, in the 1940s, and Dalia Messick, author of the Brenda Starr strip at the same time, both adopted the common tactic of using ambiguous or male names (Tarpé and Dale) to get their work seen by editors. Starting in the 1970s, the underground comics scene flourished with female artists like Trina Robbins, and later, Phoebe Gloeckner and Julie Doucet, all of whom had to duke it out with male comic artists like R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman.

In the ’70s, Shary Flenniken was a member of the San Francisco cartoonist group The Air Pirates, and would go on to edit the National Lampoon. She recalls getting work and making contacts by hanging out in bars and palling around with guys. “There are a lot of friendly men who are kind of afraid of women cartoonists,” she says. “I think they sense that we are able to draw that picture of them saying something stupid and really take them down a notch.” Flenniken ended up quitting the Lampoon because she couldn’t deal with “office politics.” She describes championing the work of a rising illustrator named Mimi Pond, whose comics were cut out of an issue at the last minute. “I think that was kind of the last straw for me,” she says. “I always stick up for women and I had to defend her because it made me really mad that they cut her out. I felt like it was a big issue!”

“I don’t make the distinction all the time for us being women [artists], but there was this need for us to kind of go like, ‘Hello, hello!’” says Caryn Leschen, an underground cartoonist whose strip Ask Aunt Violet ran in papers like the Chicago Reader and SF Weekly in the ’90s. “If you’re in a room full of guys and you’re in a brainstorming meeting where there’s one funny woman, you can’t get a word in edgewise. We know we are basically funnier than you, but we don’t get the chance as often,” she adds with a laugh.

The white maleness of much illustration and cartooning in mainstream publications might not register immediately to readers, Rothman says, because people might not see a name under an illustration or go looking for it. “You don’t know it’s happening,” she says. “But people feel things when they’re looking at all these images, and if they’re [only] coming from a certain group, it’s only getting across one viewpoint instead of everyone’s.”

That one-note viewpoint can sometimes lead to disastrous and sexist results. In 2015, for example, Edel Rodriguez’s controversial Newsweek cover illustrated a story on sexism in tech with a simplistic drawing of a woman’s skirt being lifted by a computer arrow. Rodriguez and the story's author defended the cover because they felt it accurately captured Silicon Valley’s sexist culture, but it was derided by many female illustrators and women in tech, and called “despicable” on the Today show. Rodriguez’s views on the cover have not changed, and as for whether women’s stories should be illustrated by women specifically, he believes it’s a “very close-minded concept.” “The story was about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley and that is what I illustrated,” Rodriguez wrote in an email, citing illustrations he has done on subjects that he has no experience with, like Africa or living with disabilities. “I think it’s a dangerous road to take for illustrators to state that we are best qualified to illustrate stories that only deal with our own experiences.”

The “sameness” of cartooning doesn’t just occur on a hiring and commissioning level, but in the illustrations themselves. In 2015 a study conducted by the journal Proceedings of the Natural Institute of Science found that over 70 percent of characters depicted in New Yorker cartoons are white men, with women disproportionately depicted as moms, wives, and assistants. And many female artists find themselves playing down aspects of their work that are too feminine, too queer, or too diverse to meet a traditional look of mainstream comics and illustration.

“If there are white people in the comic, that’s the go-to,” Naomi says. “But as a person of color I feel like we have kind of been too discouraged when it comes to including diversity. Even just a one-panel joke, if it’s a gag joke that’s happening to anyone but a white male. If it’s a woman, or if they’re black, there always needs to be a ‘reason’ for that. The question is, why is that person that way?”

“As women we tend to self-censor a lot more,” illustrator and Maryland Institute College of Art professor Shreyas R Krishnan says. “Whether it’s OK to put something in the work or not purely because it doesn’t conform to the default that’s been established.” Krishnan describes working, as an Indian woman, on a commissioned illustration of a female musician of color for white, male art directors. “I tend to abstract skin color, using blue or purple, so that’s what I did,” she says. “But then the art director was like, ‘No, we need her to look like what she looks like,’ and I was like [laughs], ‘Sure, I can do that, I just wasn’t sure if you guys would want it that way.’ I was assuming they might not because they were white men.”

Sara Lautman, a queer cartoonist whose work has been published in The Pitchfork Review, The New Yorker, Playboy, and more, describes how she can see firsthand what gets accepted at a place like The New Yorker versus a place like The Hairpin. “I think I went in with 90 percent of the stuff that was kind of queer or weird or just explicitly feminist, but I never sold anything that I'd consider that category,” she says. “[Mankoff] has to look at so much stuff, just like all editors, and you have this built-in filter that catches the stuff you want and lets go of the stuff that you don't want or that doesn't concern you.”

The distinction drawn by Bateman’s tweets was that it was much easier for her to find work and get published at the online version of The New Yorker rather than the print version. Most artists interviewed agreed that the online version of major publications or sites like The Hairpin, Jezebel, Lenny Letter [Editor's note: The author has written for these outlets], and more were generally more inclined to publish work by women, especially via editors who understand their perspectives. Naomi believes that a piece she published at BuzzFeed Reader was probably published there because of the diverse editorship, which included LGBTQ representation, people of color, and women. “When an editorial staff is populated by just one kind of person, they're more likely to publish their own kind,” she says.

The problem is that while work by female artists is frequent on women’s blogs and online spaces, there are problems that come with work being relegated to the web, especially when it is still considered less prestigious or secondary to print. “You get paid a lot more when your stuff is in print versus online,” Rothman says. “You could have a lot of women being hired online but not for the printed version, and then they make half as much as the men.”

“Any publication is, in the long term, going to suffer if they only cater to white men,” MacNaughton says. “That might have been their audience in the past but the audiences are changing, the demographics are changing, so if publications want to not only stay relevant but also just be sustainable, then they are going to have to diversify their voices, and that includes art, illustration, comics, cartoons.”

Whether women decide to keep publishing online in spaces that already accept them or keep pushing at older institutions that need to change, Lautman sees benefits in both paths. “If the force of creative women in publishing just decides to opt out of pitching the old-school gatekeepers, then the status quo will be starved for cool content and they'll have to adapt,” she says. “Or if the opposite happens, and it's a whole bunch of women who decide to jump the fence and pitch to a bunch of old-school places, eventually those barriers will break down too.”

“I think right now it's really fashionable for people to include a person of color or a woman or any kind of marginalized group in their catalogue,” Naomi says. “I'm hoping that it's not a fad and this is just the beginning of something.”

“Cartoons have to be universal,” Bateman tells me toward the end of our interview. She tells me about the work of Sempé, a French cartoonist she loves whose work features a lot of tiny men. But some of it, she says, is alienating because “the man’s perspective is in the spotlight,” such as in a scene of a bustling café in which the only woman is in the corner with a serving tray.

“That feels shitty to read. It feels shitty to be closed out of this beautiful world that’s trying to be represented,” she says. “Whatever the artist is trying to communicate, it isn't getting through to everyone because it isn't getting through to me. It's obscured by the fact that he's showing one type of face. I think diversity of faces, of bodies, of gender is so important to welcome everyone in. Our goal is communication, and we want to communicate to everyone.”