Cathy is potently of a time when a very specific subspecies of verbal irony became a thing. The roughly annual collections of the strip from its early years bear such mordant titles as What’s a Nice Single Girl Doing With a Double Bed?! (1981), I Think I’m Having a Relationship with a Blueberry Pie! (1981), Wake Me Up When I’m a Size 5 (1985), and Thin Thighs in Thirty Years (1986). Even the bio on the back of the latter uses sarcasm: “Creator Cathy Guisewite was named one of the ‘Twenty-Five Most Influential Women in America’ by the World Almanac and Book of Facts… and has belonged to a health club for four years that she’s been to twice.”
Normally sarcasm is cruel, but Cathy’s irony is not critical of a person or institution or ideal: it’s circumstantial and self-directed. It is self-policing sarcasm, the kind that acknowledges the unfairness of a situation while simultaneously foreclosing the expectation that the situation can be improved. It substitutes attitude for action. In one comic, Cathy’s friend Andrea, a former feminist now hell-bent on marriage and children, generalizes thusly:
A man looking for a wife is “sincere.” A woman looking for a husband is “desperate.” A man looking for a wife is “mature.” A woman looking for a husband is “desperate.” A man looking for a wife is “caring,” “open,” and “adult.” A woman looking for a husband is “desperate, desperate, desperate!”
“Makes you feel kind of desperate, doesn’t it?” says Cathy; Andrea replies by stuffing a huge spoonful of ice cream into her mouth and grunting, “Mblgpf.” The irony—one to which Cathy returns consistently over the years—is that Andrea’s observation should be a tool to oppose the patriarchy, but having identified the double standard doesn’t make her any less subject to it—and certainly doesn’t make her feel better, at least not in the way eating ice cream does.
By the time Cathy began, the sexual revolution had ended, so the strip stands as a perfect artifact of a moment when the cultural understanding of coercion changed completely—a moment when, one could argue, second-wave feminism basically died. With its baby-boomer characters, Cathy dramatizes the aftermath: the ’60s ended when it became clear that a revolutionary movement toward a just society wasn’t happening; the ’70s ended up being about trying to navigate the wreckage of the ’60s. The ’80s were largely about looking for strategies to accept injustice and inequality, and to construe that acceptance itself as a positive value.
Cathy takes its place in this cultural progression by drilling in the notion that it doesn’t matter what the law says: you are being coerced not by the state but by your desire to be valued. In Cathy’s case, this manifests as a desire to get married—because what else is she going to do? She can’t imagine any satisfying alternatives. The back of Thin Thighs in Thirty Years sums up her predicament:
Cathy stops at the bakery on the way home from aerobics… proclaims her love for the single life yet secretly keeps a list of songs for her wedding… files business correspondence in the “doomed pile” in the corner of her office… begs her mother for advice, and then screams at her for giving it… and like millions of bright, successful women, spends bathing suit season sobbing in the department store dressing room.
Substantial social change ceases to be possible when people can no longer conceive of conditions being any different from what they already are. Cathy illustrates this phenomenon, and sort of critiques it; yet, as often as not, the target of the critique is Cathy herself, her own hopes and aspirations. And even these—her ideas about what is possible in her time and place—are extremely narrowed by the repetition of negative experiences, both large and small. If Cathy makes a political statement, it is along the lines of the following: people marched in the streets for equality, and I’m still here feeling and being made to feel incomplete and inferior owing to my lack of a husband. Although we can’t assume this arrangement is OK anymore, with the right measure of dignity-restoring irony, we can live with it.
When I was a kid, I read the heck out of Cathy. I was not a career woman; I was not struggling to appeal to men; I had no strong feelings about trying on bathing suits or shopping for shoes; my mom was not attempting to fix me up, nor were my friends pressuring me to have a baby. It would be easy enough to dismiss my affection for the strip as originating before I understood feminism or could articulate why so much of Cathy was damaging and retrograde. But perhaps my failure of taste was not a failure so much as a search for social scripts.
During our childhood, my peers and I were told constantly that we were exceptional, yet we knew even then that by definition this could not be the case. The Cathy of the comics modeled an attitude to which I might have recourse once I inevitably discovered that my potential was not entirely within my control—that my thighs might never be thin enough, that my dealings with my mom might not be smooth, that my boss might fail to appreciate my talents. Reading Cathy provided a response, surprisingly difficult to find elsewhere, to the unutterable question What if I’m average?
The title of a Cathy anthology from 1980, the year of my birth, asks: What Do You Mean, I Still Don’t Have Equal Rights??! To its credit, this title asserts the right to equality not just of exceptional women but of all women; the sentiment gains more rather than less authority when expressed by a stressed-out, pudgy, romantically frustrated and professionally undervalued female character. Note the terminal punctuation: the interrogatives invite discussion while the exclamation conveys critique. Thirty-two years later, Cathy’s question is still worth asking.
Date Cathy debuted: November 22, 1976; Date Cathy ended: October 3, 2010; Primary pastimes of eponymous heroine: being a “career woman,” dealing with “issues” (as divisible into “four basic guilt groups”); The four basic guilt groups: food, work, love, Mom; Awards received by Guisewite: Emmy Award for an animated TV special (1987), Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year from the National Cartoonists Society (1993), seven
honorary degrees; Number of newspapers that carried Cathy at its syndicated peak: 1,400.