Cartoons for change

This lesson asks how humorous language can be used to change the way we look at women in society. Specifically, we will look at the cartoons of Liza Donnelly, who draws for the New Yorker, and listen to her talk about the effects that cartoons can have. We will deconstruct several cartoons in order to examine different kinds of humor, such as pun, irony, sarcasm and rhetorical questions.

Deconstructing political cartoons

Political cartoons consist of one frame and usually comment on a debatable issue. Cartoonists construct meaning through artistic style, choice of words, placement of images and use of humor. Below you see a cartoon by Liza Donnely. Fill in a table like the one you see below, as you analyze her cartoons.

Deconstructing political cartoons

People: What kinds of people are in the image? What are they doing, literally?

The is comprised of two girls, perhaps 6 to 8 year olds, playing with dolls. They are of different race.

Objects: What physical items are included in the image? What do these stand for or symbolize?

The physical items are important: The dolls are the focus. The setting is a little girl's room. The lampshades match. The chest of drawers has flowery handles. The pillows have lace and there's a teddy bear on the bed. There's even an innocent picture of a unicorn on the wall. All of these symbols stand for innocence and purity. The girls are too young to understand what they are talking about.

Debatable issue: What is the contentious or controversial issue that the cartoon comments on?

The issue at hand is how girls are given (by the media) extreme role models. They, the media, seem to portray either 'good girls' or 'sluts' and nothing in between.

Artist's technique: To what degree is the artist's style abstract, iconic or realistic? Is there use of caricatures, exaggerated features, symbols?

The artist uses very simple lines to emphasize the simplicity of an 8 year old's life. The expressions on the girls' faces are very innocent. Their body language suggests that they are engaged in play and casually talking. The flowers, frills and curtains are all basic but girlish. Anyone can quickly see that this is a little girl's room.

Humor technique: Ironic, parody, satire, understatement, pun, black humor, juxtaposition, analogy, allusion?

The artists shows that children can say the strangest things, because children often do not have a sense of propriety. That is to say, the girls do not say what is expected of them in such a situation. There's a contrast between setting and language. There's an over-simplification, which has been caused by the media.

Artist's purpose: What is the artist's biased perspective on the issue? What is his/her call to action?

She is warning her audience against the dangers of gender stereotyping by the media. She calling on us to provide girls with more fair and realistic representation of women in the media.

Agree / disagree: What side of the debate are you or other people on?

The cartoon makes me stop and think about why a child would say something like this. I tend to disagree with her, personally. I can't imagine children think in such black and white terms.

"I can't decide what I'm going to be when I grow up - a good girl or a slut."
Liz Donnely


As you watch the video, look for answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the traditional image of women that Liza Donnelly wants to challenge? How does she show us this tradition? How does she challenge this traditional image in her cartoons?

  2. Pause the video on one cartoon that you especially find funny and explain why it makes you laugh. Refer to the elements of the table above in your analysis of the cartoons.

  3. Not all of Liza Donnelly's cartoons are humorous. Many are autobiographical. How might these cartoons inspire the audience at TEDwomen?

  Drawing upon humor for change
Liz Donnely on
December 2010

More to deconstruct

Deconstructing political cartoons is like anything else. Practice makes perfect. The more you work with these texts, the more you perceptive you become. Here are six more cartoons that comment on gender issues. You can deconstruct them according to the model presented above.

6 cartoons on gender issues as MS PowerPoint.

Your dad's a feminist!

Liza Donnelly

Cemetery of women

Football women

Magazines which are degrading to women

Women should stay at home and raise their chilren

Towards assessment

Written task 1 - You could write a letter to Liza Donnelly to either commend or criticize her on her efforts to create awareness for gender issues through cartoons. In your letter you can refer to both her TED talk and the cartoons she presents.

Further oral activity - Using the five cartoons above, you can hold a presentation in which you explain how cartoons and humor can be used to promote gender equality. You will want to discuss how gender stereotypes are challenged, and which types of humor are used.

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