This week, there was an announcement that Cathy Guisewite is ending her “Cathy” comic strip in October after 34 years of drawing it. I got sucked into a couple of pages of reader comments about the story on “Yahoo” before I could stop myself. And the trend seemed to be that the people lamenting “Cathy’s” demise were women. But not all women liked it. Some despised it.
Meanwhile, most of those readers who said they were male (or whom I presumed by name to be male) were saying things like, “Good! That strip was stupid! It was never funny!”
And it made me think, as I often do, about how drastically different we humans are about humor, and what degree gender sometimes plays in that.
Yesterday in my ESPN.com chat, Kevin – an astute women’s basketball fan who regular submits several questions – asked me about a story on “Swish Appeal” that discussed perceived differences between interpersonal relationships between male athletes and those between female athletes.
I basically said I tended to take such topics on a case-by-case basis, rather than make generalizations about how female teammates act toward each other vs. how male athletes act. Because I think there’s always more at work than just gender. There may be racial factors, various background factors (including socio-economic, geographic) and even age factors.
And all my life, I have chafed at those proclamations that men/boys were like “this” and women/girls were like “that.” Because I knew that was malarkey. I’m not saying generalizations don’t often fit large groups of people in a “general” way to some degree. But … lots of people don’t fit those generalizations. Or they only fit a part of them.
Which brings me back to “Cathy” and the topic of gender and humor, which I’d like to write about more on this blog. (Hence the hopeful “Part 1”). As with everything else, gender is only one factor in humor, and sometimes is so mixed in with other factors that it’s very hard to discern how much impact it has. However, “Cathy” is one of those comic strips where supposed gender norms, roles and expectations did factor greatly into the everyday plots and the perception that readers had of the strip.
Growing up in the 1970s and into the ’80s, I read every comic strip in the newspaper every day. I guessed most kids did. I even read the ones I thought were never funny. I mean, come on. Compared to today, we just didn’t have that much frivolity to distract us.
Little one-panel strips like “The Girls” and “Ponytail” seemed to be rooted in the 1940s-50s-60s in their one-dimensional view of females, as if the 1970s and the women’s “liberation” movement didn’t exist. I recall “The Girls” being about middle-aged women who did nothing but spend money and try to avoid their husbands’ wrath, while “Ponytail” was a vapid teen-ager who went to the malt shop, talked on the phone and failed her classes. (And I won’t even get into the attitude toward women displayed in “Beetle Bailey.”)
“If nothing else, “Cathy” appeared to be living in the present times. She had a job that often frustrated her but that she was committed to, a boss that tended to condescend to her, overprotective but reliable parents, a women’s-libber close friend, and a man-child boyfriend who was afraid of commitment. And, of course, a love/hate relationship with clothes shopping.
Even as a child, I sympathized with “Cathy” because she did seem very nice and perpetually the underdog. However, I didn’t relate to her at all. I never thought I was anything like her or that I ever would be when I grew up. (And I was definitely right about that.)
But … to a degree, I kind of cheered for her. Admittedly, she often irritated me with her almost-paralyzing self-doubt and lack of self-esteem. I wanted her to dump the selfish, sexist, lazy and inconsiderate Irving, and I couldn’t figure out what she saw in him or why she put up with him. Other times, though, I thought he was an idiot for sticking with her. They seemed to bring out the worst in each other.
At some point when I started college, I stopped reading the comics regularly. I’d check them now and again. Of course, it wasn’t that hard to keep up with “Cathy’s” life … she was still dealing with many of the same problems. But over the years, it seemed like she had made some progress in her self-esteem. She was more willing to toss some well-deserved zingers back at people. She appeared more comfortable in her own skin.
Was I annoyed at “Cathy” for still worrying about what seemed to me dumb and frivolous things? Sure. Did she seem to be confirming some stereotypes about women that I strongly disliked? Yeah. But … I also understood the nature of comic strips. Everything in them is at least somewhat exaggerated. And whatever criticism you might have had for “Cathy,” you couldn’t say the strip didn’t have a heart.
I don’t recall the strip making me laugh out loud, but I’m not sure it was ever supposed to do that. Guisewhite’s intention, I believe, was to work out her own fears and neuroses with “Cathy,” and make people smile either because they felt they were in the same shoes as her, or because they knew a person like her, or because they naturally rooted for someone who so often seemed to be getting deflated.
I can’t remember the last time I actually read the “Cathy” strip. And when I saw it was ending, I had that little snarky side of me say, “So she’s finally giving up the endless swimsuit search.”
Then I paused, and thought about how much work it takes for an artist/writer to produce a product for 34 years that people read, and that seeped into the public’s consciousness and stayed there. Oh, sure, it’s SO easy to make fun of “Cathy” or to be irritated by the aspects of it you didn’t like or say, “It was just the same thing over and over!” (As if most comic strips aren’t like that). But give Guisewite her due: The strip lasted for three decades and surely got clipped out millions of times by someone who smiled when reading it.
I had to smile myself when thinking about those reader comments along the lines of “This was NEVER funny. Not one time!”
Really? Not even once? I guess that means the commenters always read it, even though they supposedly hated it. “Cathy” would surely get a chuckle out of that.