Did you know there are women’s comic strips? Because there are! But sometimes you can go through much of your life without addressing, or even really recognizing, the huge impact of a cultural phenomenon that at one time was taking place all around you. Thus, during a recent bout of insomnia that drove me to read the entire Internet (and also because RESEARCH) I made a couple of really messed up discoveries about the iconic women’s comic strip Cathy.
See – and this is the part I did know about – according to many women’s writers and artists (Did you know there are women’s writers and artists, also?) there is basically an entire world of women (but no men) who feel fat and weigh themselves daily and think about chocolate, dating, and Mom, like ALL the time. In a way that is tooootally not infantilizing! If you don’t believe me, just check out the below excerpt from women’s writer Virginia Woolf’s blog, which was called a “journal” at the time. As you will see, she shared these same fundamental concerns.
“So many days, now, thoughts of chocolate, a dream come too often, had floated in her mind, he did not call, he did not call still, why did he still not call? ‘Oh Mother!’ she cried – for all she could do was cry, the words came forth, he did not call – ‘It seems that this leftover Halloween candy must fill the lack.'”
For all of the years of my childhood and most of the years of my adulthood, the iconic women’s comic strip Cathy was considered by women to be comic gold because it was just SO EXACTLY HOW IT IS TO BE A WOMAN ALWAYS IN LIFE ALWAYS. Let’s delve further, shall we?
Just The Facts, Ma’am
Here are some things that my friend Internet tells me are true about the iconic women’s comic strip Cathy.
- The iconic women’s comic strip Cathy was born when “one night, instead of just waiting for Mr. Wrong to call and eating everything in sight, [Cathy Guisewite, creator of the iconic women’s comic strip Cathy] drew a picture of what it looked like, and it was so funny to see this disaster in picture form that [she] sent the drawing home to Mom.” Mom, as it turns out, loved the shit out of it, and within an amount of time that will be eye-stabbingly infuriating for anyone who has tried to sell their creative wares for money, Guisewite had a comic strip. That eventually ran in some 1,400 newspapers.
- The iconic women’s comic strip Cathy is based on the “four basic guilt groups” faced by women everywhere. Seriously you guys: all of the women. Everywhere. The guilt groups are: Food, Love, Mom, and Work. I’m going to insert a blank item after this just so that the profound truth of this ontological system can sink in.
- [. . .]
- Cathy – the eponymous main character in the iconic women’s comic strip Cathy – has a catchphrase, and that catchphrase is “ACK”.
- She also weights herself more or less daily because she is obsessed with losing weight and has a fear that she has suddenly become fat – generally in the night, while sleeping – and talks to chocolate as though it is a sentient being.
- In 2010, after 34 entire years of giving women the self-actualizing gift of seeing their Real Insecurities in newspapers throughout North America, which was “the most astonishing form of therapy,” Cathy Guisewite, creator of the iconic women’s comic strip Cathy, stole this gift back from society. Why? To follow the edicts of her “creative biological clock”. Again, why? Because, as we know, for women, the art of making meaningful art is inextricably linked to having a uterus, and then something growing in that uterus, and then pushing it out of your vagina in an hours-long ordeal of unimaginable pain. (NOTE: this is not true for men, who do not have uteruses and thus just stoically isolate themselves in remote cabins and don’t shave, mostly.)
- For years, I labored under the false belief that there was really just one joke about swimsuit shopping and that the joke was, roughly, “OMG I AM SO FAT BECAUSE CHOCOLATE VAGINA BABY FEELINGS.” This is extremely not-true. There were, for years, multiple jokes – and this is in iconic women’s comic strip Cathy ALONE – about swimsuit shopping. They are as beautiful, natural, and variegated as snowflakes or grains of sand. They communicate the real experiences of real women everywhere.
- On learning that iconic women’s comic strip Cathy was going to be ending its tenure in the funny pages, the responses of various journalistic publications call to mind everything from an obit for, say, Henry Kissinger to, well, people laughing at shitty art but not wanting to be loud about it because they’re at a funeral. (Okay, basically it was a range of uncomfortable funeral behavior of varying degrees of appropriateness and convincingness.) Highlights include: The New York Times‘ dismissive “Swimsuit Season’s Over. For Good.” which sounds rather like the trailer for an all-female softcore action movie called, maybe, Hottt Water, as well as NBCnews.com’s weirdly defensive “You try being funny and meaningful and spot-on every day for 34 years.” (I was born in 1977 so GAME ON, NBC News.)
- The extremely informative eHow toolkit “How to Be a Cathy Cartoon Fan,” which exists, lists under the Tips & Warnings section that “Cathy often requires a woman’s perspective to be funny. Men have complained over the years that they just don’t get it.” Now this shook me to my very core because all my life I’ve had this sickening feeling that something was missing, and then I realized that I do not, repeat, DO NOT have a women’s perspective. I have never had a better reason to wake up my therapist at 4:30 in the morning while doing aerobics, applying a clay facial mask, and eating straight out of a tub of Pillsbury Funfetti brand prepared frosting. And let me tell you, it is damn hard to multitask like that when you are already stanting on a bathroom scale, crying.
- I’m not into victim-blaming, but when you click on an article entitled “How to Be a Cathy Cartoon Fan” pretty much whatever happens to you after that is your fault.
- That said, I found the site’s recommendations for other things I might want to learn how to do on the basis of having clicked HTBACCF – presumably because they would be exciting or fun or in some way useful and I would not be able to, you know, just do them unassisted? – to be borderline-abusive in terms of what they implied about my intelligence. These included how to draw a Pop-tart with a face (step 3 of 5, sentence one: “Draw a smiling face on the Pop-tart.”) and also how to draw cartoon men’s underwear (synopsis, sentence one: “Draw cartoon men’s underwear by first drawing the guy’s body.” [I was previously unaware of the impossibility of freestanding men’s underwear, but the let’s just say the veil has been lifted.])
- Another thing I noticed, though, is that in the tutorial about how to draw cartoon underwear on a cartoon guy, there was no mention of drawing a thought balloon over the underwear dude’s head that says “AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” or perhaps “Sure, I’m out of shape, but underwear shopping is a workout – an emotional workout!”
The Conclusion, Which, Like All Conclusions Written by Women, Has Something to Do With My Uterus
Oh my. It seems the stress of being analytical (like in iconic men’s comic strips such as Doonesbury) has caused large, line-drawn sweat droplets to shoot vigorously out of my face.
Do I sound irritated? I’m a little irritated. Which means I should probably get to the serious part.
I recognize that this piece may sound a bit aggressive, and let’s just say that analytical crabbiness is hardly a “guilt group” for me, so I’m not entirely unsympathetic to arguments that I’m getting all worked up over something relatively unimportant. I mean, why, with all the bad things that are happening to both the abstract concept of feminism and the actual lives and equity of women all over the world, do I have such a bee in my bonnet that I just spent 2,000 words on ripping a dinky little comic strip a new one? Cathy‘s been out of print for two years, no one really reads it anymore anyway, and all available information about Guisewite indicates that she is really nice. Like really, really nice. So in some ways, Cathy didn’t even much shape my life as a woman, right?
Except no. For one thing, in terms of the longitudinal shitshow that is the history of women’s rights, the 1980s were really recent. My mom, and a bunch of other women who raised the women in my generation, did read Cathy. Even if they didn’t read it religiously or particularly seriously, it was there every morning when they opened any of 1,400 newspapers to see what was going on in the world. And 1,400 newspapers, in the days before digital media and the centralization of media ownership, is A LOT of newspapers. This means that the process by which people within about 15 years of my age in either direction were socialized into being women had partly to do with the gender stereotyping Cathy so wholeheartedly embraces. And here’s the thing: when you put a damaging stereotype about me and everyone else who happens to share my anatomical features – and possibly nothing else – into the world for almost my entire life so far, I get irritated, because I have to now live in that world.
So sure, in some awful alternate universe there could be a whole collection of Frida Kahlo self-portraits in which she sips Mexican chocolate in her ratty old pantalones deportivos. And that could be called both “liberating” and “art”. But the thing is, we live in this universe, and there isn’t. And what with the wage gap,
state-government-mandated sexual assault required vaginal ultrasounds for abortion-seekers, and a political culture that differentiates “legitimate” from “illegitimate” rape, there isn’t a lot of time to exclusively devote one’s identity to conversing with leftover peanut butter cups and saying pithy and self-deprecating things to dressing room staff about bathing suits.
Even worse is the fact that women consistently do struggle with Cathy’s “four guilt groups” because creating fictional worlds in which these things are the organizing ontological principle encourages actual women to see themselves in this restrictive light, and to think that it is normal and healthy and unlikely to influence their happiness one way or the other. When the culture is flooded with stuff of this nature, there isn’t nearly enough conceptual space for the nuanced identities of women who don’t do this, or do this but wish they did it less, or do this sometimes but don’t want it to be the only thing people think about when they think about them.
That the women of my generation went from being girls to being women in the shadow of the Cathy ethos is part of the reason why, when I was talking with a coworker in an elevator about how I needed a better way of carrying all my projects to and from work than the small (and not particularly gendered) tote bag I was carrying, a man I’ve never met before interrupted our conversation to say “Handbags, huh? Sounds like girl talk to me!” It’s part of the reason why a male supervisor thought it was even marginally okay to address me as “young lady” in the workplace in 2011 (or ever). And it’s part of the reason why there are still so many women who feel the need, and are encouraged, to stick to supposedly inoffensive, culturally prescribed topics such as weight, chocolate, and guilt, whether or not these topics are of interest to their real selves, or are truly either inoffensive or harmless.
So maybe after we laugh with relief that this wasn’t the only vision of woman-created art we were raised with, we can start paying more positive attention to stuff like this.
Q.E.D., as they say (that means quod estrogen demostratum),
Glad you enjoyed it, Michelle, it was a lot of fun to write!
The Sesame Street clip rounds it off nicely.