Requiem for an Overweight

Posted by on September 7th, 2010 at 12:01 AM



Fuckin’ Cathy, 1976-2010

My reaction to hearing that Cathy Guisewite was discontinuing Cathy was not unlike my initial shock at the news of bandleader Mitch Miller’s death: Wait, Mitch Miller was still alive? It’s easy to forget that family daily strips, like network TV shows and top 40 radio, are still running.

It may seem like a silly waste of time to go out of one’s way to badmouth Cathy — like bothering to point out, on the occasion of the series finale of Friends, that it wasn’t actually a very good show. Anyone looking to a family daily-newspaper strip for humor, or turning to network TV for comedy, deserves whatever he finds there. And after all, quite a lot of people are stupid and humorless, and there’s no reason there shouldn’t be a plentiful supply of dumb unfunny art for them to enjoy. And yet in my own career as a cartoonist I’ve seen more than one smart, talented, hardworking colleague try and fail to make even a modest living drawing a newspaper comic strip. It doesn’t just offend me professionally but galls me personally to see such an ugly mediocrity honored and celebrated.

It would be hard to improve on Art Spiegelman’s description of Cathy Guisewite’s art as looking like bits of string dipped in ink and dropped indifferently onto the paper. To compare it to beautifully drawn Golden Age strips, like Raymond’s or Caniff’s or Kelly’s, would be to wallow in the pointless self-torture of nostalgia. But even compared to more modern, minimal comics that were drawn with artistry and flair, like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, Cathy still looks amateurish and bland. It lacks character, except for whatever character is imparted by the quality of unabashed incompetence. Guisewite’s drawing is about as good as an average 13-year-old girl’s — but for all I know, this may be part of what gives it its evident frission for female readers, reminding them subliminally of the hearts and frogs and boys’ names they doodled on their middle-school notebook covers.

A New York Times obit for the strip made it out to be a voice of the first generation of postfeminism. I suppose we might regard Cathy as a spokesperson for second-generation feminism in the same sense that J.J. (“Dy-no-mite!!!”) Walker was an icon of post-civil-rights African-Americans — that is, an embarrassing caricature embodying the oldest and most obvious stereotypes about her/his group. The character confirms that women are vain, insecure, dithering creatures who are obsessed with their weight and whose only real goal is to land a husband. The formula saw Cathy reduced in each strip to a blithering frenzy of indecision, paralyzed between guilt and desire, emitting her trademark bleat of helpless frustration. Cathy‘s limited fund of clichéd and dated gags — the trauma of swimsuit season, the addictive allure of chocolate, mother issues and nebbishy boyfriends — were the equivalent of an earlier generation’s stock jokes about golf and mothers-in-law. Far better cartoonists than Guisewite — like Roberta Gregory (Bitchy Bitch), Marian Henley (Maxine), or Nicole Hollander (Sylvia) — were working the same thematic territory at the same time — all the contradictions and double-binds of female biology and feminist ideology — except that their art was expressive, their insights other than obvious, and their humor actually funny.

And yet Guisewite’s minstrel-show version of modern womankind seemed to resonate with millions of real-life women. I suppose, like most stereotypes, it metastasized out of some cell of truth. I’d be interested in reading a female defense of Cathy. This may just be an irreconcilable gender difference, like the love of The Three Stooges, a genetic predisposition as fixed as the PTC-tasting gene. Even the smartest and most wickedy funny contemporary female cartoonists — I’m thinking here of brilliant colleagues like Emily Flake and Lauren Weinstein — occasionally fixate on Cathy-ish issues like flab. Maybe these are the counterparts of men’s bottomless fascination with sex and violence, the basic elements available to them from which to construct comedy. And yet so many female artists have played inventive variations on these themes with intelligence, self-awareness and wit, whereas Guisewite just complained that they existed, day after day, for decades. One of my female colleagues suggested to me that there is a certain comfort in immersing yourself in unchallenging art that reinforces your laziest stereotypes, the aesthetic equivalent of Kraft mac and cheese or a Hostess cupcake — something you know is not very good for you but whose appeal to the infantile palate is deeply gratifying. It is, apparently, enough to build a career on.

As we observe its overdue passing, I’m willing to acknowledge Cathy‘s enviable mass popularity, its secure second-tier place in the history of the medium’s decadence, even its passing significance as a sociological phenomenon. And I congratulate its creator on her breakthrough professional success in a field dominated by men since its inception. All I ask is that we not solemnly pretend, even for a moment, that it was ever any good at all.


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One Response to “Requiem for an Overweight”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Since you asked for a defense of Cathy written by a woman, I’d suggest this essay by Shaenon Garrity. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve seen from her, which is saying something.