NOTE: This is the first of 5 commissions I took after my wife was in the hospital.
Why is Cathy so acceptable to hate?
I ask this because it’s a strip that’s been unusually targeted. 30 Rock mocked it. So did SNL. Pearls Before Swine, a strip known for sharp blows, was even crueler than the norm. And most of the jokes all strike the same blow. It’s a comic about a frenzied miserable ugly woman who does nothing but whine. Cathy is the safest target on Earth.
But is it the worst comic ever? Of course not. We know there’s much worse. A medium that produced The Duplex or the soulless Garfield can’t have this as the standard bearer for the worst. Still this is treated as a bad comic.
And not only is that not true, it erases one of the most important comic strips of the 80s and 90s. Cathy by Cathy Guisewite is to women’s issues what Doonesbury is to politics. It charted the important moments with a sharp level of commentary. Guisewite saw a world talking about promising women more while abusing them on every level.
That it’s been reduced to a strip about shopping and food isn’t shocking. Pop culture has a way of reducing art to the thinnest version possible. And that’s especially true when the people commenting on the art didn’t take it seriously or in the case of 30 Rock needed to throw it under the bus to make it look good. Well that’s not how I roll. So yes, a burly bearded guy from Arkansas is going to explain this strip’s value.
Ok I’m not actually an unlikely person. I grew up on the strip as it was the only strip in the Conway library to read. I inhaled it though. I found it funny. Did I get all the references? No. But it was a guide to understanding the culture. Much of my understanding of that age starts here. It’s like all good documents of a time. It preserved it perfectly.
The basics. The strip was written and drawn by Cathy Guisewite between 1976 and 2010 with occasional single panels running online starting in 2018. The strip focuses on the eponymous character and her issues with food, love, her mother and her job. There’s ample time to focus on shopping and friends and all manner of hell too.
Indeed this is a strip of shocking diversity in its topics but I’d argue the central theme of the strip is stress. Cathy is perpetually on edge, worried about trying to be perfect in a world actively against her. And she can’t win. No wonder she cries “aack!” There’s a deeply relatable sisyphean hell to her life.
But let’s break those groups down. Food would seem to be a cliched tired trope but Guisewite elevates diet humor to an art. Indeed there isn’t one diet unreferenced in the strip making it arguably the equal of FoxTrot in culture logging. We see over and over the desperation diets induce and the guilt bred by breaking them. It’s hard not to eventually wonder what the point is. And you could slide in any topic societal norms have focused unneeded guilt on here. It’s all the same.
Work is a dark and frustrating topic here. Cathy works an anonymous yet eminently familiar job at Product Testing, Inc. What she does doesn’t matter. She’s a drone working for a company without any appreciation for all she gives to it. She’s underpaid and only noticed when she’s needed. Calling her plight relatable is an understatement.
Her relationship with her mom is one of the richest, most honest threads. She loves her mom. She wants her out of her life. Logical given that her mom obsessively butts in. She means well but she’s exhausting. Again, this goes beyond relatable.
But it’s with men I think the knife starts to gleam. There’s two ways. The first is the endless stream of terrible men that parade through the strip. Is there a facet of bad men left out? I don’t think so. We see sexists galore. We see egotists like few others. The nice guys are weak and useless and often just as cruel. All are funny.
But all of them are represented by one man. Irving. He is the embodiment of the flawed man. He has his good traits—she does marry him and it is a win—but he’s an asshole. And that he’s the winner reflects both how all men are broken but also that that’s ok. After all Cathy is a mess. She wouldn’t be happy without another mess.
And then there’s shopping. If those are the guilt group, this is the rage group. It’s where Cathy endlessly fights against a system that hates her. It doesn’t matter what store she goes to, she will be abused by one woman, the vicious Mabel who will force her into the latest trends. Shopping is where Cathy vents and these strips are often catharsis.
All of that is fun stuff and I can’t stress how funny this strip is. It’s one of the best strips for wit on the page. It’s often laugh out loud in the art too. Guisewite is a true cartoonist. The strip is a blast to binge.
But as I’ve been building to, it has something on its mind. The strip is often aggressive in its political perspective yet that gets overlooked. This is despite Guisewite doing a series on the good Michael Dukakis would have done as President. Make no mistake, this is a feminist strip.
And that’s fascinating in the era covered. The strip started in the age of Carter and quickly ran into the conservative settling down of the 1980s. Cathy hit an era where being a strong independent woman wasn’t the ideal it was. That wasn’t ignored by the strip. Cathy was caught between her need to be loved and her want to stand on her own and the conflict of it.
The strip also looked bluntly at how much it was impossible to succeed as a woman. Cathy’s friend Andrea lost her job after having her child and the strip captured the way business throws women away. Sadly it would keep on this theme. Over and over Cathy would see the inequity of the workplace and the wage gap came up a lot in the strip.
The strip also stood apart by looking at interests women had and took them seriously. How many strips treated movies like The Big Chill, a cultural event, seriously? Dallas scored nods. The music, the gossip, things that matter to 80s pop culture far more than the modern touchstones all got preserved here.
I also strongly love that the strip looked at the dating scene as it was in this age. It’s a topic you’d think came up often but Cathy was the rare place to truly show it. The dawn of internet dating was here. Speed dating. Going to “classes.” Singles bars. The strip feels lived in on this front.
Let me stress that while the strip hasn’t had much impact with a mere one book in the last 21 years that wasn’t a reprint of older material even with 11 years of content to use, it was big in the 80s. Part of that was because Guisewite is a master self promoter, acutely aware she is, unlike her character, a boldly confident, conventionally attractive woman. She was a big talk show guest. The strip had merchandise.
It even had three brilliant animated specials! These three manage to hit one everything you’d expect from the strip in its prime. Kathleen Wilhoite (Pepper Ann) played Cathy while Rob Paulsen (all of animation for the last 40 years) was Irving. Guisewite wrote all 3 and they’re worth watching.
But as I noted, it’s now reduced to a shout of AACK. That’s all we know culturally. That and the memetic unfunny status.
Here’s the bitter truth about comic strips. They always outlast their moment. Peanuts was in the past when I was a kid. Garfield didn’t reach theaters until long after his. Unless you’re Bill Watterson or Gary Larson you’re going to keep going after you shone. It’s the nature of art that churns daily.
Cathy was explicitly about the moment it ran in. But unlike Doonesbury or Bloom County, it wasn’t about what the culture deems important to revisit. It’s seen as dated now. Jokes about dating services seem alien now.
But I won’t go along with the idea that means it should be tossed away. There’s profound value to the strip. Not just as a record of the world but as a brilliant study of life with anxiety in a hostile world. Cathy struggles and though the superficial elements change nothing else does. Her fight is ours.