"Cathy" was not a Feminist Trailblazer

Is Mary Beth Williams playing madlibs with "...feminist trailblazer"? That would explain her post entitled "Goodbye Cathy, feminist trailblazer". The "Cathy" in question is Cathy Guisewite's syndicated strip about a desperate, sad sack single woman named Cathy. Guisewite announced last week that she would be wrapping up the 34-year-old comic in October.


Williams writes:

"Yet her mere existence, as the star of the first nationally syndicated strip by a woman, as a lady in the funny pages, is political in itself. She has, for most of her run, been a semi-satisfied, semi-lonely single gal (finally tying the knot with longtime beau Irving five years ago), toiling away at her job while struggling with body image, meddling parents and, frankly, the banal crap that most of us shlubs thanklessly wrangle every day. Empowerment is for her usually a fleeting state in an otherwise self-doubting existence. She may be that nightmare, neurotic gal pal whose calls you screen, but girlfriend, admit it; sometimes she's also your own dark side." [Salon/Broadsheet]

As a woman with a nationally syndicated comic strip and marketing empire, Guisewite is indeed a trailblazer. The same cannot be said of her fictional alter ego. There's nothing feminist or trailblazing about a character who spends 34 years on a diet, marking time at work while joylessly trawling for a husband. Williams and I agree that the aesthetic value of Cathy is nil. Her character has all the depth of Garfield and none of the charm.

I will admit, however, that "Cathy" was important to my development as a feminist. As a kid reading the comic in the funny pages of the Vancouver Sun, the strip struck me as a terrifying thought experiment about a character whose life was completely defined by normative female anxieties. Cathy only cares about her shoes, her weight, and her marital status. Therefore, she's predictable, pathetic, and boring. She's the antithesis of funny.

The sheer existential horror of "Cathy" spurred my will to resist. Evil Fizz knows what I'm talking about.

Cathy exists in a state of chronic failure. She's always falling off her diet, or just about to. Guisewite identifies the pursuit of unattainable goals as the source of Cathy's continual frazzled misery, but she treats these standards as non-negotiable rules of female life. The female audience is supposed to laugh along because we're stuck hating ourselves, too. Keep pushing that rock up the hill, ladies; pushing tones the quads!

If "Cathy" has any feminist value, it can be subsumed under the maxim: "If you can't be a good example, you can at least be a horrible warning." 

[Image via dcist.]

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