A controversial icon who is hard to stan
March 19, 2019 9:12 AM   Subscribe

“I grew up with Betty Crocker as my model and who I thought I’d be,” she said. “And then there was Betty Friedan with The Feminine Mystique, which opened up this universe! After college, I literally gained a lot of weight on one of Betty’s triple-fudge layer cakes while trying to digest the other Betty’s liberation manifesto. I graduated [college] in 1972 with subscriptions from my mother to both Brides magazine and Ms. magazine. That’s why I was unhappy.”
Writing for The Cut, Rachel Syme profiles Cathy Guisewite, creator of the loved and hated, mainstream working woman comics page staple and merchandising phenomenon that was Cathy: "AACK!"
posted by Going To Maine (41 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
(There is a good essay to be written comparing Guisewite and Roz Chast.)
posted by Going To Maine at 9:16 AM on March 19 [4 favorites]

(There is a good essay to be written comparing Guisewite and Roz Chast.)

(And I would read it as immediately as I read this article, which I found incredibly thoughtful and enjoyed immensely, even though (maybe especially because) I have often been a Cathy nay-sayer in the Tina Fey 30 Rock variety. There's a lot of details about her life that I loved (how she got her start partially because of the nagging mother who'd end up a character in the strip, her meeting and friendship with Charles Schulz, the silver AACK) and a decent background to place the whole thing in a wider cultural context. Neat stuff.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:33 AM on March 19 [8 favorites]

Kathy Acker / Cathy AACK mashup

I like how the intro to the tumblr mentions that Acker's work was informed by her life but does not say that Guisewite's life informed Cathy.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:42 AM on March 19

This was great. See also the linked article "On Hating Cathy." ("Her frustrations at work, including an episode of sexual harassment from her boss, could never be considered powerful in the manner of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or Death of a Salesman. Her play is goofy—and the strip itself is, of course, an artifact of women’s play. Her sorrow is to be mocked.")

I'm reminded of Twilight, 50 Shades, and other pop-culture phenomena that are a) disproportionately hated, due both to regular misogyny and the performative internalized kind, and b) still pretty crap. But Cathy was at least decent and unassuming; if it didn't inspire women, it also didn't suggest that they wanted to be personally debased. Of course, no form of entertainment should suggest that about its readers, but as we all know, it's widely assumed that if women like to read about something unsavory, it's a reflection of their essentially low and weak natures. No wonder nobody wants to admit to liking Cathy.

(Do I? I know I did when I was little. I had a book, and I thought this was how you did womaning. One strip tossed off the joke "Thirty: The Desperate Years," and I thought of that a lot when I turned thirty.)
posted by Countess Elena at 9:51 AM on March 19 [22 favorites]

I think the reception of Cathy reflects the way that women (and any minoritized people) are treated in the arts - There Can Only Be One. Cathy obviously represents some women's experiences, and some experiences that are general to most women, but cannot represent all women or all women's experience. But of course once you have one mainstream comic strip about a single woman, well, that niche is filled. In theory there's no reason not to have lots of other comic strips reflecting the many realities of single women, but that would require us to say "women are as diverse and interesting as men, and their interior lives are various". So of course Cathy has to bear cultural weight that it can't bear, and of course it comes up short.

I've been watching a broad array of contemporary children's cartoons recently, and the old Rule of Two that held during my childhood is still in place - in any mainstream multi-gender ensemble show you can't have more than two girls. There's no such thing as a show with five characters of whom three are girls, or six characters of whom three are girls. In general, there's a dark-haired girl who is acerbic and smart, and a light-haired girl who is sweet and kind. No one is romantically interested in the dark-haired girl; crushes on the light-haired girl are a recurring plot point. Progress has been made since I was a child in that the light-haired girl is generally not depicted as stupid and vain, and the dark-haired girl is allowed to be acerbic without being explicitly positioned as an irrational bitch, but there Still Can Only Be Two.
posted by Frowner at 9:58 AM on March 19 [63 favorites]

Somewhere in the multiverse, there's a live-action Cathy movie with Eugene Levy as Irving Hillman.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:59 AM on March 19 [17 favorites]

Personally, I thought a large part of why people didn't like Cathy was the exact same reason that they didn't like Family Circus: the same, marginally funny but relatable stuff would cycle through every couple of months or so.
posted by Foosnark at 10:38 AM on March 19 [6 favorites]

That’s newspaper comics in a nutshell, Foosnark. Comfort food for the eyes. Familiar characters behaving in predictable ways with a punchline in panel four that writes itself. Garfield hates Mondays but loves lasagna. Marmaduke is, I hope you’re sitting down, a large dog. Jughead would rather make time with a submarine sandwich than Ethel. Beetle Bailey? Laziest man in the US Army.

The Far Side, Doonesbury, Pogo, etc. now that’s where you’re going to see something unexpected or at least something to make you think. I’m surprised they lasted as long as they have.
posted by dr_dank at 10:57 AM on March 19 [6 favorites]

“Where I got so tired of lusting after these men with the good houses and I went, Wait a minute, I could buy a house.”
Economics, sex and power all rolled up into one.
posted by clawsoon at 11:00 AM on March 19 [20 favorites]

Oh wow. This was excellent but it didn't change my view of Cathy: I hate that fucking comic strip. I know it's reflecting culture at large so I don't blame Guisewite for it. I hate it because I had the privilege of being raised by feminist parents and learning about body liberation really young, and being queer and for the most part missing out on dating toxic men, and yes, I am a millennial so I'm benefiting off all the labor women did generations before me to get the point where I can dismiss her success because I fucking hate Cathy and everything she stands for.
I wished that I had been the woman who could drive to the man’s house when he said he was gonna show up and then he didn’t and it turned out he was with somebody else. I wished that I could have said no to a box of Oreos as much as I wished I could have said no to being demeaned in the office this way or that way.
That just breaks my heart.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 11:09 AM on March 19 [20 favorites]

I really like that TCJ article, because it points out that, while Cathy wasn't that great, it was hated orders of magnitude more than similarly uncreative strips. R. Crumb did a parody of Cathy once [link does not go directly to images, but links thereof; if you do click through, it's NSFW because Crumb, of course], and while Crumb was a better artist in any random sketch than Guisewaite has ever been, it's still more about Crumb and his general misogyny than it really is about Cathy.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:09 AM on March 19 [9 favorites]

There's no such thing as a show with five characters of whom three are girls, or six characters of whom three are girls.

Frowner, I hope you're watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which has dozens of important female characters and only 2 men. It's so great.

Which is not to say you are wrong: She-Ra is the only contemporary cartoon I can think of which does beat the Rule of Two. (I tried to watch Voltron and gave up in disgust after 40 minutes when only one female character was introduced.)
posted by suelac at 11:18 AM on March 19 [6 favorites]

Alison Bechdel also loathes Cathy and skewered her in Dykes to Watch OUT For
posted by brujita at 11:28 AM on March 19 [4 favorites]

There's no such thing as a show with five characters of whom three are girls, or six characters of whom three are girls.

♪ Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl... and Steven! ♪
posted by Foosnark at 12:06 PM on March 19 [27 favorites]

FWIW, in a previous job, I met Guisewite and she's a very nice person. That's all I got.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:15 PM on March 19 [20 favorites]

Thomas the Tank Engine has a couple of dozen trains who present as girls or women, but I suspect that the rule still applies in most episodes.

Paw Patrol is pure regression.

“When I see my daughter and her generation, I see that a lot of the games between men and women, the fixation on fashion—‘I’ll die if my hair doesn’t look right.’ And I really thought we could have lost that in the last 30 years. But I guess we haven’t.” She’s right. We haven’t gotten there yet. In a lot of ways, we’ve slid further from where we’re trying to get to, where we might be able to be human at last: fucked up and failing sometimes, but still worthwhile. Until we get to that point, I’ll keep reading Cathy.
The re-creation of civilization in each new generation is... I dunno... it just careens along, and we try to pass some of the wisdom that we think we've figured out along, and random pieces of it stick and random pieces from all over the culture that we thought we threw away also stick, and we end up with children who are, like us, random agglomerations of woke and screwed up.
posted by clawsoon at 12:24 PM on March 19 [2 favorites]

To follow up: What I was trying to get at by saying " in any mainstream multi-gender ensemble show you can't have more than two girls" was "in any not-explicitly-feminist multi-gender ensemble show". Steven Universe and She-Ra are explicitly feminist and, among terrible people, hotly controversial. They're not the equivalent of, god help us, Boss Baby or Teen Titans.

Unless you are spending a lot of time with a small child and a streaming service, you have no idea how many multi-gender ensemble shows there are. There's a huge, huge sea of content out there, most of which you've never heard of. And believe me, it's not Steven Universe - it's endless boring repeats of the same characters in different skins, and there's never more than two girls. I can think of a couple that are basically "girl lead and side-kick", but the side-kick is always male (because two female characters would be unacceptable!) and the rest of the show is hideously misogynist, fat-shaming, etc.

Overwhelmingly the message is still "girls are boring". The culture has shifted a bit so that girly things aren't always portrayed negatively, and girls who like "boyish" things aren't always portrayed negatively, but the idea that female people have distinctive, interesting interior lives is totally absent. The shows are less hateful, I'll give them that, but it is very clear that female people are not legit subjects of narrative.
posted by Frowner at 12:24 PM on March 19 [26 favorites]

I mean, you have to hand it to Cathy on that level - there still aren't too many mainstream comics that unquestioningly accept that women's experiences are worthy of narrative in themselves.
posted by Frowner at 12:26 PM on March 19 [29 favorites]

I remember reading Cathy and wanting to like it but not being able to. I think what bothered me most was not that she had those feelings/bad dates, but that the cycle never resolved. She seemed so doomed, it was depressing. She was never going to look good to herself. She was never going to find love. She was never going to become the boss. She was never going to tell her mom where to stick it. It made being a woman seem so miserable and hopeless. I didn't want to be like Cathy, who would?

I was so so desperate in the 70s and 80s for women role models who were truly powerful, who accomplished things on their own and were funny and interesting and they just weren't there. If a woman was strong, she was also evil..and some guy would take her down. If she was pretty, she was frail, and some guy would have to rescue her. Even if she was a heroine, eventually she'd get in trouble and a hero would have to rescue her. The drumbeat, every single day, was that Women are Weak, Women Always Lose to Men, Women Shouldn't Try, and Cathy felt like just another one of those, even though you can read it now as also compassionate towards women.

It was a hard time to be a girl, and that's why I'm a grown-ass lady who watches Steven Universe and Hilda and She-Ra and Captain Marvel. Because I still feel bad for younger me, who was so tired of being told she would never succeed because her destiny was always to be in second place to a man.
posted by emjaybee at 12:54 PM on March 19 [19 favorites]

I remember a Cathy cartoon, and I'm hoping someone might have a link to it.

Cathy said something like, "There's a moment when your body is perfect." I forget the details and the terminology but the idea is that breasts and rear end peak separately, and there's this brief time when they're both good. "And then you get pregnant".

And my reaction was that this culture does not deserve to survive.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 12:55 PM on March 19 [10 favorites]

I look at Cathy as sort of like Garfield, in human female form, but with poor self-esteem. If there was a strip where she was two-fisted eating lasagna , no one would have doubted it. Irving? Jon. Mom? The veterinarian. I know that makes no sense, because it's Jon, not the cat, who seeks approval from the veterinarian, but work with me here.
posted by thelonius at 1:31 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]

Alison Bechdel also loathes Cathy and skewered her in Dykes to Watch OUT For

Was that in the strip where she's also doing the DTWOF characters in the style of several different newspaper strips, such as Mark Trail and Hi and Lois? Because I didn't get that she hated Cathy as much as she was satirizing her own characters. (She's also done "backstage" strips where she shows the DTWOF cast as typical Hollywood types that are the complete opposite of their usual characterizations, and one where DTWOF is a corporation that does focus-group testing of plotlines; that one showed Bechdel herself literally chained to a drawing table.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:59 PM on March 19 [3 favorites]

Compare Cathy with Esther in The bell jar:

the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

neither of them can "have it all" if their partners refuse to pitch in.
posted by brujita at 2:00 PM on March 19 [15 favorites]

There's no such thing as a show with five characters of whom three are girls, or six characters of whom three are girls.

There are occasionally shows where all the main protagonists are girls: PowerPuff Girls, Sailor Moon, She-Ra, Jem and the Holograms, My Little Pony. But they're marketed exclusively at girls, and yeah, mixed-gender casts are beyond rare. Steven Universe would be a "girl show" except that the main protagonist is a boy.

...Wow, I hadn't realized what a cliché-breaker Daria was until just now.

(Rugrats started with just Angelica and Lil, but later added Susie and Kimi.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:04 PM on March 19 [9 favorites]

Gravity Falls comes to mind as a show that was pretty balanced, genderwise.
posted by bouvin at 2:48 PM on March 19

"I've been watching a broad array of contemporary children's cartoons recently, and the old Rule of Two that held during my childhood is still in place - in any mainstream multi-gender ensemble show you can't have more than two girls."

Almost everything on PBS Kids is pretty explicitly 50/50 at this point, and the programming slate overall tries to hit 50% female leads (like, Caillou is a male lead; Peg of Peg + Cat is a female lead).

My 7- and 9-year-old sons watch Dinotrux (boy-heavy), She-Ra, Spirit (3 female leads), My Little Pony, Just Add Magic (3 female leads), The Worst Witch (almost entirely female, with Lyanna Mormont in the lead role), Carmen Sandiego (female-led), Magic School Bus Rides Again (50/50), Voltron (boy-heavy), The Dragon Prince (50/50), and Thunderbirds are Go (boy-heavy). So of their non-PBS shows, there are three boy-heavy/Rule of Two shows (Thunderbirds are Go, Dinotrux, and Voltron), two 50/50 (Magic School Bus, Dragon Prince), and six female-led or female-heavy shows (She-Ra, Spirit, MLP, Just Add Magic, Carmen Sandiego, The Worst Witch).

There are a lot of boy-heavy cartoons (not that many live-action shows, weirdly!) available on your streaming platform of choice, but a lot of them are lazy, low-quality cartoons, and because my kids are used to serialized fare (Dragon Prince, She-Ra), quirkier fare (MLP), or at least educational fare (PBS Kids), they lose interest in lazy adventure-of-the-week shoot-em-up cartoons pretty quickly.

The buzzy shows at my kids' school are She-Ra, Carmen Sandiego, and Voltron. The boys are not at all shy about shouting "BATTLE CRY!" as their battle cry. Nobody's buzzy about Boss Baby.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:58 PM on March 19 [4 favorites]

Right now my family is starting to read the X-Men-adjacent New Mutants comic series, which came out in 1982. Since I'm not as much of a comics person as my husband and 14-year-old son, I've been pleasantly surprised that of the six teenage protagonists we've met so far, four are girls (and only three of the six are white, and only two of the six are Americans). (And they're all mutants, of course.) It looks like there's a movie coming out this year with most of the same characters.
posted by lisa g at 4:05 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]

I look at Cathy as sort of like Garfield, in human female form, but with poor self-esteem

What would be the Cathy equivalent of Garfield Minus Garfield, and would it be a similar improvement?
posted by schadenfrau at 4:20 PM on March 19 [4 favorites]

I was completely oblivious to the "Cathy" haters - I just thought it was delightful to see a comic strip based around, you know that thing, that people do, what they have to do - WORK.

Please feel free to introduce me to any predecessor comic strip that centred the work done in the workplace and its spillover into life. "Beetle Bailey" - that's about the army. "Doonesbury" - yeah eventually Mike and Joanie are shown going about their work (fabulous shout out to Garry Trudeau for walking out on the "beauty pageant" mentioned in The Cut). But WORK in an OFFICE at a DESK with a COMPUTER and going home to cook and meet people - just take a look at what is on Metafilter

Work as the core around which other things revolve - this was GROUND BREAKING from my acquaintance with comic strips and comic strip history (cf. "Max und Moritz", "The Katzenjammer Kids", "Krazy Kat", etc). She did it FIRST, and she did it in our real world - not a Dilbert-universe
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 4:22 PM on March 19 [19 favorites]

Perhaps not in the same vein as Garfield Minus Garfield, but I have a juvenile urge to go through old Cathy strips and replace every AACK! with FUCK! or the like, depending on the context.
posted by Meghamora at 4:24 PM on March 19 [7 favorites]

...which Funny or Die already did in 2013. Never mind.
posted by Meghamora at 4:26 PM on March 19 [4 favorites]

Barbara Spitzer, maybe Blondie? The plots often revolve around Dagwood's office worklife, and eventually Blondie works outside the home, too.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:00 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]

OK so Blondie has been going since 1930 - but it is still in the "domestic comedy" tradition - following on from something like "Gasoline Alley", where the relationships are the axis for the plots - not work. "Agatha Crumm" is another example of a strip which supposedly revolved around business and work - but was really a "domestic" comedy as it was not about WORK but about relationships.

I like Blondie, and Agatha Crumm - but I don't see myself, my children or my friends in those story lines. That experience of work is a peripheral device, whereas in Cathy, the work looks like my work, and my workplaces, and my workmates.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 5:18 PM on March 19 [6 favorites]

Halloween jack, i read an interview in which bechdel explicitly said that she hated the guisewhite strip.
posted by brujita at 10:24 PM on March 19 [2 favorites]

I still remember a series of strips in which Cathy's boss goes to her home and hits on her. I can't remember all the details but I remember how she questioned her own perceptions of his escalating behavior - which to the reader is clearly egregious. I probably read that in my college years. I've had many occasions to remember it, when I catch myself thinking things like "maybe he was reaching for a soda and my butt was just in the way?" "Maybe there's some other way to interpret that joke that's not about my breasts?"
posted by bunderful at 5:25 AM on March 20 [6 favorites]

go through old Cathy strips and replace every AACK! with FUCK! or the like, depending on the context.

Cathy has a lot in common with Aggretsuko.
posted by asperity at 6:21 AM on March 20 [6 favorites]

I was so so desperate in the 70s and 80s for women role models who were truly powerful, who accomplished things on their own and were funny and interesting and they just weren't there.

Same. I think this is why I cleaved to Princess Leia as quickly as I did. Even as a small child, I bristled at the way girls were depicted in cartoons -- if they were depicted at all -- and to have a princess who immediately begins supervising the crew of idiots who think they're rescuing her ... it was almost a shock of recognition, like Star Wars was saying to me personally, "We see you and how you think you should be seen."

I began reading the paper as a late elementary schooler in the early 1980s. I read Cathy and wondered if this is who I was supposed to be. I read Doonesbury and Bloom County and looked for any sign the writer saw me as clearly as Princess Leia did.

The absence was instructive in its way -- for one, it taught me to pay more attention to someone's actions than to their words. But it also made me question the legitimacy of my presence in so many spaces for so many years. And I can't even begin to imagine what I could have done in my 20s if I had just believed I deserved to be there.
posted by sobell at 4:21 PM on March 20 [4 favorites]

Last fall, we had a work retreat in Orlando that included a scavenger hunt at the Universal theme park. One of the "neighborhoods" is based on comic strips, which must be bewildering to children who have never seen a newspaper. Some of the characters were old-timey by the time my parents were kids (Prince Valiant! Beetle Bailey! That dog from the cartoon races with the evil laugh!). And then there was poor Cathy, sentenced to spend eternity posed on top of an ice cream shop in a most unflattering way.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:10 PM on March 20 [5 favorites]

When Bloom County was winding down the first time, the characters all started to try to find new work. I remember Steve Dallas ended up on Cathy as a new prospective boyfriend.

That was the truest AACK that was ever spoken.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:49 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

I have weirdly fond memories of Cathy -- something about the way womanhood was presented when I was little overcomes the questionable bits. My favorite auntie growing up was very Cathy-like (although about a thousand times more driven along a lot of axes), and she was the one who taught me how to apply eyeliner and she had her colors done (she's an autumn!) and it was all very exciting for tiny me.

I'm glad I read the article, but it just left me sadder, and kind of really not liking Cathy-the-comic and feeling really, really sad for Cathy-the-artist. I have a lot of compassion for how bloody hard it was to get ahead when she was in the work force, but I kind of wish she'd...found more joy over the years, I guess? Lady, just eat the pastry if you want to eat the pastry.
posted by kalimac at 9:42 AM on March 21 [4 favorites]

« Older "There’s nothing wrong with writing people checks!...   |   META IS GAME. WINNER IS YOU. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments