Garry Trudeau Talks to Slate About Why He Took on the Ultrasound Mandate

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 15 2012 12:31 PM

“You're a Good Friend to the Ladies, Dad”

Garry Trudeau talks to Slate about the reaction to his Doonesbury strip on state-mandated ultrasounds.

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Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau

Photo by Rob Loud/Getty Images.

Garry Trudeau has famously kicked up a fuss this week by using his Doonesbury strip to tackle the ultrasound mandates that states like Virginia and Texas have passed for women seeking abortions. I read an interview Trudeau did in the Washington Post and wondered if he might be up for answering a few more questions. To my fan-girl joy, he said yes. Here is our exchange over email:

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Slate: You told the Washington Post this week that you didn't feel the need to take on the issue of abortion before because you thought reproductive rights was a settled issue. Do you think the right has overreached with these ultrasound bills, and does that help explain why they're ripe for comedy?

Garry Trudeau: I don't think we can assume they've overreached. These bills are not being passed in the dead of night. They're being enacted by elected state officials all over the country, and in some states like Texas, signed into law with great public fanfare. The systematic dismantling of reproductive rights, much like the takedown of collective bargaining, has been taking place in full view. All I'm trying to do is cut through a little of the complacency and lay out in some detail what's at stake. 

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Slate: Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart agree with you that the idea of an invasive ultrasound is good fodder for humor. Did either of their takes on TV feed into your thinking, or did you get everything you needed from news stories?

Trudeau: I was already well into the writing when I heard that both SNL and The Daily Show had done bits on it. So I checked them out just to satisfy myself that I was doing something a little different. 

Back in the day, I didn't have competition like this. Except for a few tame jokes on late night talk shows, there was nothing like the rapid-response satire that's so ubiquitous now. I love it all, especially Colbert and Borowitz, but I have had to adjust, trying to avoid ground that is likely to have been well-trod by the time I get into print. The strip has never been quite as timely as I've been given credit for, but now I have to be even more circumspect in my choices or the strip will feel stale.

The one advantage I do have over the other guys is the slow, unfurling nature of comic strip storytelling. The reveals take place over a week or two, which can be more impactful than the one-offs of late-night comedy. It's even more engrossing if I'm using characters readers care about. When B.D. lost his leg during the Battle of Fallujah, the reaction was pretty intense. Longtime readers were more invested than I realized. This week is a little different, as all the characters are stock, last-minute creations. The challenge was to make people sympathize with this nameless young woman. 

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Slate: I'd argue that by taking on this topic, and especially by skewering "middle aged, male state legislators" for getting behind the ultrasound bills, you're having a feminist moment. Do you see it that way? 

Trudeau: The comment that pleased me the most this week came in an email from my daughter: "You're a good friend to the ladies, Dad." 

I used to self-identify as a feminist, simply as a matter of principle. But now I'm also a father and a husband. This is about the health and rights of people I love.

Slate: You've gone viral this week, as I'm sure I don't need to tell you. Does it feel any different to have a particular series of strips take off in the era of social media? 

Trudeau: Yes, of course. I’ve been getting pulled from newspapers for my entire career. But up until a few years ago, the only way people knew about these dust-ups was if their local paper carried a story the next day. There was little sense of any controversy outside their own community. I think the most eventful year was 1985—there were over a dozen various pulled-strip stories carried on the wires—but even if you combined all the coverage from that year, it wouldn’t come close to the stir that this single week has created, gratis social media.

It’s not necessarily a good thing, especially if you’re trying to protect the release date of an embargoed feature. One paper thought it would be a good idea to post the entire week of strips on Tuesday, days before they were scheduled to appear in hundreds of sister newspapers. Gawker pounced on it, and by the time we got both sites to pull the material down, it was too late. All six strips had entered the Twitterstream and were available for everyone to see. That outcome probably hasn’t hurt the strip much, but our clients, who pay for the strip, have every right to be annoyed.

Slate: Does the attention remind you of any other weeks in Doonesbury's amazing history?

Trudeau: Well, anytime you bring sexuality into the comics pages, you have to brace for pushback. The strips I did long ago of Joanie and Rick in bed together caused us real problems, as did some of the 1989 strips on gays and AIDS. Of course, this being America, there’s no problem with violence. I’ve been writing about war with some consistency over the past decade, without incident.

Slate: In the mail you're getting about the strip, is there a difference in the reactions from men vs. women?

Trudeau: No difference in content, I’m happy to report. In tone, decidedly.  If the gender gap widens even further this year, the GOP will have only itself to blame.

Slate: You told the Post that in coming up with this week's strip, you settled on resigned outrage for expressing the perspective of doctors who have to comply with ultrasound bills. From the abortion providers I've talked to, that sounds about right. Do you know any doctors or nurses who do this work, or did you read anything from their point of view, or did you just use your imagination?

Trudeau: I didn’t talk to any providers personally, but from news accounts I saw, they sounded very distressed—and insulted as professionals. Medical decisions have been politicized. What doctor wants a state legislator in his consulting room?

Slate: The Republican candidates have approached the recent controversies over abortion and birth control in a couple of different ways. Mitt Romney seems to be trying to tiptoe around a minefield. Rick Santorum, on the other hand, is happy to talk about sex and why no one should have it all day long. Do you have any advice for the GOP candidates about this topic?

Trudeau: Keep it up.

Slate: As the 40-year supreme veteran of the daily political comic strip, do you think the form is alive and well in 2012 or dying off, as some people worry?

Trudeau: People are right to worry. Everyone knows where print is headed, and most Web comics are struggling. With adroit merchandising, a couple of them have been profitable, but they don’t connect with readers in the same visceral way that traditional comics once did. Comics used to be central to popular culture, enormously influential. They were a daily habit we all had in common.

A comic strip is a modest undertaking. The creator tells his story and makes his points in tiny, incremental steps. It fit nicely in a simpler world of commonly shared morning routines. But we’re now living in a Pixar/YouTube world. Children find their amusements elsewhere, and they are unlikely to turn to newspapers in adulthood.

Slate: Are there any women comics who you read and like? 

Trudeau: I like Rhymes With Orange, but my favorite woman cartoonist is Roz Chast, who contributes to the New Yorker.

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