ACK! She’d say, in cartoon bubble text, generally while agonizing over her weight, or her boyfriend, or whether she was supposed to be avoiding carbs or fat that week, or some other neuroses over which women of her era–the first beneficiaries of feminism of the mid 70s–were taught not to agonize.
Cathy. She of the four “guilt groups”–food, love, mom, and work.
Writer Cathy Guisewite announced last week that the comic strip that no self-respecting set designer would omit from their single female character’s refrigerator will come to an end in October, after 34 years. I felt obliged to offer an obit, but the thing is, I never did like her much…. she was the opposite of empowerment. Shorthand for lonely, neurotic. A cautionary tale. The opposite of who I wanted to be.
But, if I’m going to be disarmingly honest, maybe my distaste had more to do with the fact that something in Cathy struck an uncomfortable chord: that this–let’s just call a spade a spade–rather pathetic woman put ink to the anxieties I’d rather not cop to. Yes, I’m empowered! Yes, I can do anything! Or can I? I don’t know… Do these pants make my butt look big? That nasty ambivalence that none of us want to admit. The shadow to our resplendent, enlightened selves. A piece in the New York Times quotes Guisewite as saying:
‘A big problem at that time was you had to be in one camp or the other. There wasn’t a camp for ambivalence. You were a liberated woman or you were a traditionalist. To even voice vulnerability if you were a feminist was wrong and to voice interest in liberation if you were a more traditional woman was wrong… So I believe the women I was speaking to in the early years of my strip were women like me, who were at that age in our 20s where we were kind of launched into adulthood with a foot in both worlds and no way to really express it.’
And Cathy expressed it for us. Where she should have been saying, Who needs a man?! she’d wonder instead, Why doesn’t he call? Where she should have been saying the pressure to look perfect is a bullshit instrument of oppression, she’d agonize over bathing suit shopping while gobbling a package of fat-free SnackWell’s. And in that way, she was kind of revolutionary. (ACK!)