A Woman Walks Into A Bar…


If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me why there are so few female cartoonists, I’d be able to put a hefty deposit on a chunk of Sydney’s choicest waterfront real estate. If I had a dollar for every time I was able to give a clear, comprehensive and rational explanation why this is so, I wouldn’t even be able to afford a copy of the Tele to cover myself while I slept on a park bench.

Basically, I don’t have a definitive answer. I have, however, a handful of theories and postulations that I’ve managed to collect in the 10 years that I’ve been wielding the pen.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

There’s one theory I’d like to debunk at the outset. It’s not one of mine but can be most recently attributed to that wine-stained purveyor of piss, vinegar and invective, Christopher Hitchens. Women, he says, are unable to be funny. Hitchens must hang out with the wrong kind of chicks. I know many enormously funny women and men. The difference between them is that the men constantly tell you how funny they are and the women don’t — some even clam up entirely around their male counterparts rather than compete for the limelight. I also know lots of unfunny men who proclaim their comic genius so loudly and so often that people just assume it’s true.

This leads me to my first theory. Part of the reason that there are so few female cartoonists around is because women, on the whole, find the old self-promotion thing doesn’t come naturally. Of course there are successful, assertive, talented exceptions to this rule but generally I think women find it harder than men. In her piece on women in cartooning, US cartoonist Jen Sorensen writes of the "cockiness gap" between men and women, but also notes that "it might have something to do with ye olde double standard that ambitious women are perceived as you-know-whats".

Speaking for myself (and only myself), I’ve always found the freelance hustle excruciatingly difficult. Whenever I feel I should start hassling some editors, I lie down until the feeling goes away. Well, I may be exaggerating — but only slightly. It’s ridiculous and totally counterproductive but I can’t help it. I’m always amazed by, and admiring of, the effortless chutzpah of my male colleagues.

The cut-throat world of the mainstream media can be a pretty blokey place. With few female cartooning role models and many art departments populated solely by male cartoonists, women may be hesitant about trying to break in. Similarly, there may be an (unconscious or otherwise) reluctance on the part of art directors or editors — male and female — to hire women, because of the perception that cartooning is something that blokes do and so are naturally better at and that the rare female cartoonist will probably focus on softer issues, gentler gags or — god forbid! — feminist perspectives. When they think "cartoonist", they automatically think "male".

Of course this is all impossible to quantify and I’m certainly not saying it’s prevalent across the media or true of every workplace but I think that perception can exist.

I’ve had a few experiences that would definitely not have happened to a male cartoonist.

The art director of one major newspaper arranged a folio showing for around midday. He then declined to look at my folio until "after lunch" and I was forced to go to a local pub and sit with him for an hour while he leant back and expounded at length his own greatness. I had to pay for my own lunch. When we returned to his office, he glanced at the unopened folio before saying "I should let you know that we’ve got no work" then, to show his magnanimity, generously flicked through it before sending me on my way.

In subsequent encounters he was either mildly sleazy or ignored me entirely. I don’t think this was aimed at me personally, but rather was just the way he dealt with women in general. As a pretty blokey kind of girl, I wasn’t intimidated by his attitude but I certainly wasn’t encouraged by it either. After a while I gave up on that publication altogether. A less blokey kind of girl might have given up sooner… or given up on trying to get published at all.

But I don’t want to play the victim here either and do not wish to imply that these things happen all the time to every female. However, a perception of a boys’ club attitude could be part of the reason why female cartoonists may be reluctant to aim for mainstream publication.

While there are few women in cartooning, there are also few women in cartoons. Cartooning’s everyman is usually … well … a man. Being female, my everyman characters are women — not because of any conscious agenda on my part but just because they usually say what I want to (and would) say. To my surprise, some people find this problematic. I’ve had blokes tell me on several occasions that they didn’t understand one of my cartoons. Each time the cartoon has been quite straightforward but the female protagonist caused confusion — "Oh, I get the gag, I just don’t get the feminist angle," they say. When I explain that there is no feminist angle, there just happens to be a woman in the cartoon, the reaction is always "well, why didn’t you just use a guy instead?"

Well-known cartoonists like Cathy Wilcox, who often uses an everywoman, have helped to put females in the frame but even now this perception survives. Fellow female cartoonist and winner of the newmatilda.com prize for political cartooning, Sarah Parsons, recently told me that she had encountered this attitude too: "[It’s] as if we can all identify with males as humans, whereas female characters automatically become about a female issue". A male cartoonist from a major newspaper told me that he didn’t use women in his cartoons as it "gets too confusing" for the reader.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

While it’s certainly not always the case, there can be a risk that drawing females leads to the marginalisation of the females who draw. Women who always use women in their cartoons can be defined not as cartoonists per se, but "female cartoonists", which cuts your audience in half.

Again, this is just a theory based on anecdote rather than any concrete evidence. It’s probably less of a theory than a convoluted chicken and egg proposition — to borrow (and butcher) an argument from Jen Sorensen, there’ll be more females in cartoons when there are more females in cartooning and there may well be more females in cartooning when there are more females in cartoons.

Unlike Britain or the US, Australia does not have a wide range of mainstream and sustainable alternative publications – our population simply cannot support them. Which leads me to my final theory: it’s just bloody hard to get work. Decades ago editorial cartooning was the exclusive preserve of the blokes but cartoonists like Jenny Coopes, Cathy Wilcox and Judy Horacek drew the line under that. However, while newspapers may now be open to employing women, they’re also far more open to counting beans and that means they’re less open to employing anyone new at all. Staff positions are as rare as executive salary increases aren’t, and daily editorial cartoonists are all long-termers who will stay — as Sydney Morning Herald cartoonist, Alan Moir, once described it — "until they fall off their stools".

Across the world, newspapers, the traditional employers and nurturers of political cartoonists, are struggling to survive. Cartoons and illustrations are now seen as luxuries rather than an important part of the publication. There has been a marked decline in opportunities for freelancers as belts are tightened across the media and once cartoon-filled publications like the Bulletin, wither and die.

It’s getting harder for established freelancers but even harder for those without a history of publication. The up‘n’comers who are scribbling away at home might have a few female role models to follow, but nowhere to follow them to.

The blogosphere may not pay just yet, but I suspect young aspiring cartoonists will go directly to the net rather than entangling themselves in mainstream media. If they do, it’ll be interesting to see if more female cartoonists emerge.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.