A Cosmic Ramble through Comics History, Part Two

Posted by on September 1st, 2010 at 8:14 AM

Down from a peak of 1,400 subscribing newspapers to about 700, the comic strip Cathy still enjoys a respectable circulation as it approaches its final throes. But respect is in short supply in the one place you’d expect to find it. Oddly, as reporter Antonia Zerbisias observes at thestar.com, young feminists aren’t saying good-bye to Cathy in an affectionate or grateful mood.

“The reaction has been venomous,” says humourist Rosalind Warren, editor of The Best Contemporary Women’s Humor. “I was surprised myself.”

“Even a quick trip round the femisphere reveals how hard Cathy has pushed some women’s buttons,” writes Zerbisias, starting with the popular blog Feministe: “I’ve always gotten the impression that Cathy was meant as something for women to bond over, but for the most part it just reinforced a lot of wretched stereotypes about women: chocoholics who are always desperate to lose weight but can’t part with the carbs, women who ruin their finances by splurging on overpriced handbags and shoes, being mean to Nice Guys knowing in the end that they’re the reliable and steady kind you want to marry, mortal panic about being single, etc.”

“I am surprised at how they are saying good riddance,” says Rina Piccolo, creator of the comic strip Tina’s Groove and part of the all-woman team behind Six Chix.

To Piccolo, Guisewite was a trailblazer: “Newspaper comics in 1975 were all men, Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible and Frank and Earnest,” she recalls. “All the female characters were like Blondie. They were either a housewife or a glamour girl. Cathy totally changed the page. Here’s a young woman talking about, basically, her fat ass and how she couldn’t fit into a swimsuit or that she had had it with her boyfriend and all the little neurotic things that a lot of women go through in day-to-day living. She was the first female character to really let loose and say what a lot of women were thinking at the time.”

“She was a trailblazer,” says Canadian cartoonist  Sandra Bell-Lundy, who draws Between Friends and credits Guisewite with inspiring her own career. “When Cathy launched, I was just graduating high school,” she says. “I’d always drawn cartoons. It was just a pastime. But I remember reading about her in the St. Catharines Standard and I thought, `Wow, this could actually be a career option.’ And then when Lynn Johnston (For Better or for Worse) came on, I thought, yes, and she’s Canadian too.”

But, explains Piccolo, Cathy’s shtick got old. “She did it in the 70s, and in the 80s, and in the 90s, and in the 2000s, and, at this point, women’s lives have changed quite a bit. She ran the gag into the ground. The crowd that says good riddance just got sick of it.”

Guisewite makes no apologies: “I don’t know, as women, what we are past?” she asks. “When I write about dieting, I feel like I am writing as truthfully to women’s pressures and concerns today as I was as 34 years ago. The daily battle with self-image, self-consciousness and will power is exactly the same to me.” And, she adds: “I’m extremely proud that my work’s been hung on the world’s most important museum: the refrigerator door.” She laughs. “It doesn’t get anymore significant than to be displayed that close to someone’s food.”

Next: How Women Are Portrayed in Comics

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3 Responses to “A Cosmic Ramble through Comics History, Part Two”

  1. Jeff Albertson says:

    “Don’t it always semm to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” — Joni Mitchell, ‘Parking Lot’

    ‘Cathy’ has been the butt of comics lovers’ contempt for decades. Thanks, Mr Harvey, for this revaluation.

  2. Jeff Albertson says:

    Uh– that’s ‘seem’, not ‘semm’.

  3. […] R.C. Harvey posts a thoughtful essay on what Cathy meant to female readers in 1975, and why today’s young women take a dimmer view of the strip’s chocoholic, shopaholic heroine. [The Comics Journal] […]