For such a harmless-looking character, she engenders strong feelings: revered and reviled as a picture of womanhood.
But now the commercial powerhouse that is Cathy, the starring schlub of a 34-year-old comic strip, will retire so her creator can obsess over another character dear to her heart — her daughter.
“I want the chance to be a completely devoted, overbearing, overpowering mom for one year,” said Cathy Guisewite, 60, from her home in Los Angeles, noting that her daughter just became a high school senior. “She needs for me not to be worrying about deadlines.”
Overpowering? Overbearing? That doesn’t much sound like the character readers have come to know over 12,400 deadlines, a seemingly one-dimensional woman with stringy hair who perpetually frets over her looks and finding (and then fretting over) Mr. Right.
Therein bristles the underlying tension that Cathy and her creator have tumbled through during their three-decade-plus tenure. (Women are concerned about more than dating and dimpled thighs! What’s wrong with admitting we struggle with food and fashion?) But as the Cathys depart the comic stage — the last strip will appear Sunday — the picture of women’s roles and their place in cartooning aren’t a lot clearer.
Guisewite has been a member of an exclusive sorority — currently one of 12 women nationwide who write and draw syndicated comics, says Alan Gardner, editor of the Daily Cartoonist blog. (There are about 250 U.S. syndicated cartoonists total.)
At one point, her strip appeared in 1,400 newspapers and was turned into an Emmy-winning animated special. In 1992, she received a prestigious Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society.
Still, Guisewite wasn’t the first woman to achieve a prominent place in cartooning history.
Philadelphian Grace Drayton created a bunch of well-known strips in the early 1900s — although she was best known for creating those chubby, red-cheeked Campbell Kids, says cartoonist, writer, and comics historian Trina Robbins.
From 1918 until 1966, Edwina Dumm drew Cap Stubbs and Tippie, about a boy and his dog, and Nell Brinkley made signature drawings of flapper girls and silent-movie-era starlets known as “Brinkley Girls.” Then there was Dalia Messick, who in 1940 used the first name of Dale to sell her comic strip Brenda Starr Reporter, about an adventurous and sophisticated journalist.
Guisewite didn’t have to change her name to sell Cathy in 1976, but she did have to contend with a movement that scowled at women like her character, who was vocal about everything from the guilt her mother ladled on to maid-of-honor duties.
In one of her early strips, Cathy sits in the front row at a “Women-of-Today Club” meeting. “Please repeat our motto after me,” says the female speaker. “I am a woman!” The audience, not including Cathy, obliges.
“I am equal and independent,” says the speaker, and the crowd follows suit, except Cathy. When the speaker says, “I can survive without men!” Cathy jumps up and cries, “ARE YOU NUTS?!!”
“My strip was picked up by Universal Press Syndicate specifically because it dealt with the emotional aspects of the changing world for men and women,” Guisewite says.
In recent months, the Cathy strip has covered technology woes (husband Irving spends days trying to find the best online airfare only to have the Web page expire once all his information is entered) to dog-obedience failures.
It is these messages, of a woman not always strong and independent, that make some old-school feminists glad to see Cathy go.
“Oh God, good riddance,” says historian Robbins.
Robbins, whose books include A Century of Women Cartoonists, was part of an all-female group in the 1970s that produced an anthology of underground comics drawn by women, called Wimmen’s Comix (changed in a subsequent edition to Wimmin’s Comix). Its contents had a range of subject matters, all seen from a woman’s perspective.
And then came Cathy, which quickly gained fans.
“Here we were feminists,” Robbins says, “and the subject matter is always ‘Oh, I’m so fat’ or ‘the latest styles don’t work on me.’ “ Or, Robbins says as though she were spitting out the vilest of words, “dieting.”
Both character and cartoonist were “old-fashioned,” says Nicole Hollander, 71, whose Sylvia comic is more than 30 years old.
“Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone wants to look good,” she says. “But it’s not a woman’s whole life,” and Cathy “didn’t do much to help show the variety of women there are in the world.”
All women share some concerns, says Kristin van Ogtrop, 46, managing editor of Real Simple, a magazine that helps women address some of those concerns.
“You work in women’s magazines for two decades and you start to see there are some constants that women always will think about, worry about, care about,” van Ogtrop says. “Weight and body image is a huge one and always will be.”
What’s old-fashioned, she says, is that “good-riddance” attitude.
“I’d like to think we’ve reached a place in our culture where you can be a strong, intelligent, powerful woman and still say you wish you got to the gym more often, and not have that be a strike against you,” van Ogtrop says.
So, thanks to Guisewite and the women who came before her, female cartoonists vying for newspaper space are now better off, right?
Not exactly, says Philadelphia Daily News editorial cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, who draws and writes the comic strip Family Tree, about a contemporary household’s efforts to live a green life.
There should be more opportunities for women today, Wilkinson said. “But the rise of equality for women has corresponded with the decline of the newspaper industry.”
That, along with a younger generation that’s comfortable with new media, may explain why more women put their work on websites and in the increasingly popular form of graphic novels.