Power of the pencil: Sun Media cartoonist talks about women in cartooning

Sue Dewar speaks to a group at Ryerson about political cartooning.

Sue Dewar talks about the challenges of being a female in political cartooning.

Cartooning may still be a man’s world, but that hasn’t stopped women from entering the profession.

“Women cartoonists are funny and brave and growing in numbers,” says Sue Dewar, a cartoonist for the Toronto Sun.

Dewar came to Ryerson as part of the School of Journalism’s annual Atkinson Lecture on March 31.  She spoke about her experience as Canada’s only full-time female political cartoonist, and about the dangers of cartooning, particularly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January.  Dewar reminded the crowd that cartoonists face daily threats all over the globe.

“They’ve been harassed, they’ve been threatened, they’ve been killed and they’ve been completely removed from sigh,” says Dewar.  “They’ve disappeared.”

U.S. cartoonist Molly Norris, for example, started a ‘Draw Mohammed Day’ in 2010 after the creators of South Park received death threats for an episode in which they drew Mohammed. Islamic tradition forbids any depiction of the Muslim prophet.

Norris received thousands of drawings in response. When she tried to backtrack and apologize, it was already too late.  Norris was put on an Al-Qaeda hit list. Norris is still in hiding and nobody knows where she is.

Dewar had her own brush with controversy during the 1995 Quebec referendum. Separatist leader Lucien Bouchard had been given a breather by many cartoonists after losing his leg to a flesh-eating disease. But Dewar says that changed after some comments he made. She drew  a cartoon that included his leg being eaten by a beaver.  Dewar says her cartoon ended up on the front page of every Quebec newspaper with her phone number on it.

“We got 6,000 death threats,” she says.  “This is before email.  Those were letters.  God knows how many phone calls.”

Dewar says she learned that cartoonists can be used for political gain and also that timing is everything.  When she went to speak at McGill University years later, she says she thought she would be shot off the stage by presenting the Bouchard cartoon.  Instead it was received with laughter from a predominantly French-speaking audience.

While cartoonists face a lot of danger in many parts of the world, being a female cartoonist brings its own challenges.

“I couldn’t get (my cartoons) past the female editor,” says Dewar, of her time as a freelancer.

When she mentioned this to her colleague, famed cartoonist Andy Donato, he intervened by changing her signature to a man’s name. The editor approved the cartoons. Although Dewar says she didn’t have to do this for too long, her gender still remains a mystery to some of her readers.

“Most of my readers think I’m a man,” says Dewar, who still receives emails and letters referring to her as Mr. Dewar.

She says she thinks it’s funny.

Dewar takes a serious tone when she talks about the violent response many cartoonists receive from people who disagree with what they draw.

“If you’re offended, (draw) your own rebuttal cartoon. You can write a letter to the editor, you can protest, you can sue, you can take it to the Human Rights Tribunal, you can take it to the UN.  But there is never ever an excuse for violence,” says Dewar.  “Je suis Charlie.”

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