Why Cathy didn’t cut it

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion - MEGHAN DAUM

This week­end marks the end of an era for Amer­i­can women. Cathy, the weight ob­sessed, choco­late lov­ing, shopa­holic comic strip hero­ine who has ap­peared in news­pa­pers (in­clud­ing this one) for more than three decades, will make her fi­nal ap­pear­ance on Sun­day.

Cathy’s cre­ator, Cathy Guise­wite, has been chided for plenty of things over the years, not least sab­o­tag­ing fe­male progress by traf­fick­ing in hoary and re­duc­tive fe­male stereo­types. The ti­tle char­ac­ter had a nag­ging mother, a fear of dress­ing rooms and a straight-from-the-con­tainer Haa­gen-Dazs re­sponse to all of life’s frus­tra­tions. Cu­ri­ously, she didn’t have a nose, but if she did, you can bet she’d have longed for rhino­plasty.

In fair­ness to Guise­wite, it’s no small thing to be counted among the first na­tion­ally syndi­cated fe­male comic strip artists and, more­over, to do so with a char­ac­ter that was at least the­o­ret­i­cally po­si­tioned to of­fer some in­sights into the lives of con­tem­po­rary women. Cathy had a job, her own apart­ment and a res­cue dog. Her de­but in 1976 in­volved wait­ing for the phone to ring, but even with that start, she might have been run­ning a com­pany by 1986 or run­ning for pres­i­dent a few decades later. In­stead, Cathy re­mained a largely static fig­ure.

Comic strip char­ac­ters have a way of do­ing that, of course. (We don’t re­ally want to see Char­lie Brown on an­tide­pres­sants, though he could prob­a­bly use them.) But as Cathy be­came a brand and her neu­roses dec­o­rated cloth­ing, mugs, cal­en­dars, mouse pads and other ac­ces­sories for the home and cu­bi­cle, the strip came to be read as a kind of short­hand for the state of Amer­i­can wom­an­hood, an in­vi­ta­tion to join the sis­ter­hood of chron­i­cally sad but ever hope­ful “mod­ern gals.”

Does Homer Simp­son’s couch potato dom makes him chief rep­re­sen­ta­tive of “all men”? Let’s hope not. If most men were like Homer, the world would screech to a halt. Some­how, though, Cathy’s binge eat­ing and thigh-re­lated anx­i­ety weren’t idio­syn­cra­sies but, well, just the way women are: in­se­cure, needy, pe­ri­od­i­cally psy­chotic. (Cue the PMS joke.)

Cathy had ubiq­uity on her side; she was in the paper ev­ery day for all those years (there was even an Emmy-win­ning TV spe­cial in 1987). And her for­mat re­quired a punch line in four frames, which kept her on mes­sage and ac­ces­si­ble. But more im­por­tant, she tapped into some­thing Homer couldn’t: a sup­port­ive wave of murky, squirmy and highly pop­u­lar women’s me­dia.

That be­he­moth, of course, is the realm of the Life­time chan­nel, “fem jep” ( “fe­males in jeop­ardy”) movies of the week and Dr. Phil’s en­tire ca­reer of hec­tor­ing “ther­apy.” This is the genre that cen­sures nor­mal bod­ies while pre­tend­ing to cel­e­brate them, that pathol­o­gizes re­la­tion­ships while claim­ing to help heal them, that makes you feel like crap while of­fer­ing you 10 tips on how to feel like a mil­lion bucks.

Cathy, with her cus­tom blend of self-loathing and at­tempts at self-help, was a shoo-in for this soror­ity, an icon of the crab­bi­ness-as-em­pow­er­ment move­ment that the women’s me­dia ca­bal has been spe­cial­iz­ing in since roughly the 1970s. (Pre­sum­ably, its let-it-all-hang-out M.O. was a re­ac­tion to the gir­dles and good be­hav­ior of pre-Betty Friedan Amer­ica.) But in the end, to a lot of women (and men), Cathy — and her sweat pants, her co-depen­dency and her cease­less ex­pres­sions of need — some­how seemed more a ca­su­alty of the new regime rather than a ben­e­fi­ciary of it.

On the one hand, you have to hand it to Guise­wite. She got rich in this bar­gain and, in fair­ness, the is­sues at the root of “Cathy” — work­place in­equities, body im­age, the never-end­ing Mars/Venus com­mu­ni­ca­tion break­down — are not only per­sonal but also po­ten­tially po­lit­i­cal in im­por­tant ways.

But the apo­lit­i­cal Cathy never got there. She may have rid her­self of the sin­gle-girl cliches (she even­tu­ally mar­ried, long af­ter Guise­wite did). But she never out­grew the cliche of woman-as-emo­tional-train wreck. Hers was a world in which sis­ter­hood wasn’t so much pow­er­ful as it was a club of shared mis­ery. And that was not only to­tally un­fem­i­nist; it was to­tally un­funny.

mdaum@la­timescolum­nists.com

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