"Cathy," 1976-2010

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 13 2010 2:30 PM

"Cathy," 1976-2010

Cartoonist Cathy Guisewite announced yesterday that her long-running comic strip, "Cathy," will end on Oct. 3 . In 1987, the New York Times called it "a clever running commentary on the joys and frustrations of being a single woman." In 1991, the paper cheered that the strip "documents the trials of being an imperfect thirties-ish woman in a world that expects perfection," to the "delight" of its legion of devotees. No less a leading light than Charles Schulz was a fan—but in his 2000 Times obituary, the writer directly followed that revelation with a quiet slight:"His favorite ice cream flavor was vanilla." It was a sign of the changing times:   By 2002, the Times downgraded Cathy to "insecure, romantic and eternally single." And in response to an article on the demise of the strip in yesterday’s Times , many commenters were gleeful: "Oh man, what a needed drop," one wrote. "It's a terrible comic, and does nothing but paint a picture of sad lonely women that isn't humorous in any way, but just plain pathetic. Good riddance!"

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Lately, the strip’s been the butt of more low-hanging punch lines than it has actually manufactured—the main character is easy shorthand for the sort of pathetic single lady no one wants to become. (One recent Friday night, my roommate warned that I shouldn’t turn down an invite in favor of sweatpants and television, lest I turn into Cathy. I was out the door in 10 minutes.) Andy Samberg* mocked the character on SNL ; Tina Fey on 30 Rock . (I think Kathy Geiss, Don’s cat-lady daughter, is an overlooked Cathy-gone-extreme reference on the show.)

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Why did Cathy fall out of favor? When the strip debuted in 1976, her career-woman-making-it-on-her own status signaled that she was an explicitly feminist protagonist—like Mary Tyler Moore or Maude, only more relatable, as she was more obviously flawed. Then there was the feminist backlash, and the backlash to the backlash, etc. Whatever the scorekeeping along the way, at some point it became clear that a woman preoccupied with the horrors of bathing suit season wasn’t going to cut it as a feminist heroine. Relatable morphed into pathetic, and Sex and the City —surely a reaction against Cathy culture, on some level—became the dominant vision of singledom. Even Cathy’s 2005 marriage to her longtime boyfriend did nothing to change the perception of her as a particularly inadequate specimen—and quashed any remaining narrative suspense.

There are still people buying Cathy mugs and collections ( Shoes: Chocolate for the Feet or $14 in the Bank and a $200 Face in My Purse , for instance), so not everyone has ceased to find her charming. But like many (most?) comic-strip characters, she just hasn’t managed to remain funny and culturally relevant for a mass audience.  

*Correction, August 13, 2010: This post originally credited Adam Sandler with Andy Samberg's SNL Cathy sketch. Ack!

Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.