Free Speech And Humor

Liza Donnelly
3 min readMar 24, 2022

Sometimes you get it wrong

I wonder what was going on in the mind of this cartoonist, Barbara Shermund, when she wrote this cartoon (above) in the 1930’s. Did she intend to have the men saying that even women make mistakes, i.e. “women are human;” or did she intend this to be understood that the men here were finally resigned to accept women as more than just bodies?

Cartoons can be misunderstood. I have to wonder if any of mine have been misunderstood. I am sure some have been, or at least interpreted differently than what I intended. That’s just the nature of humor. Sometimes a good cartoon is one that can be interpreted many ways.

I did do one that was not well recieved by one individual, and rightfully so. I forget exactly when I drew it, but record indicate it was around 2014. The criticism/push back was that I was making fun of transgender folks. That was not my intent, rather I was trying to make fun of the men in the boardroom who were only thinking that wearing a skirt would make someone a feminist; or rather that these men thought only women could be feminists. Both of which are false assumptions, of course. Men can be and are feminists, not all women wear skirts, and wearing a skirt does not “make” you either a woman or a feminist. And some women who wear skirts are not feminists!

But I should have thought it through more before I drew it. We as a culture weren’t talking about and understanding the transgender community and gender fluidity in 2014 like we are now, but that’s no excuse for me. With more consideration, I could have realized the problem. I do, however, think it works on the making-fun-ofpeople-who-don’t-understand-feminism front. But it’s not worth it if I offend a group of people.

That’s what I have always said about cartooning and freedom of expression. In humor, it is possible to really offend, and one has to weigh if exercizing your right to free speech is really worth offending someone. There are: 1. many other ways to prove you have free speech, if you are so lucky to have it, and 2. many other ways to express humor.

I think diversity in a given field helps erradicate misunderstandings because we hopefully learn to understand others’ lived experiences. Humor is no exception: we need to hear from everyone and as we do, we can potentially see the world through their eyes. There is more diversity within the community of cartoonists at The New Yorker, but we still have a long way to go.

Originally published in my newsletter, Seeing Things, subscribe here.

My new book, Very Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Women Cartoonists, 1925–2021, is available at Oblong Books where you can get a signed, personalized copy; other bookstores; and Amazon.

Liza Donnelly

Visual journalist/writer for New Yorker, New York Times, WaPo, CNN. TED, SXSW speaker. Looking to change world w humor. newsletter:https://lizadonnelly.substack