I can’t say exactly why, as a grade-schooler in the ’80s, I loved reading Cathy: a comic strip about an adult woman navigating her roles as professional, as partner, as daughter. I imagine it was a combination of appreciation for the fun drawings, a familiarity with the four-panel pacing that earned the appreciation of Charles Schulz, and a curiosity about the adult world. My then-single aunt had a Cathy anthology, and I imagined her life must have have been just like Cathy’s.
It seemed even more clear that the strip was a highly autobiographical creation by Cathy Guisewite, who initially resisted naming the strip after herself but eventually succumbed to posing with lifesize Cathy cutouts. Like many standup comics, Guisewite used her strip to present a caricature of herself that was in fact inspired by her own experiences. She heard from thousands of women who said they could see themselves in Cathy as well.
While the strip was always a product of its time — the first anthology has the title character grappling with the ethics of the 1977 coffee boycott — the strip has dated more quickly than Guisewite and her readers might have imagined. The contested legacy of her life’s work is an undercurrent rippling through Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, a new book of essays that brings Cathy fans up to speed on what Cathy (the author) has been up to.
On the surface, the book often reads a lot like a prose version of the comic strip. Guisewite chronicles her frustrations shopping for clothes that fit, sticking to a diet, and helping her parents cope with new technology. That’s right: during the period chronicled in Fifty Things, the mother and father whose cartoon likenesses are so familiar to Cathy fans were both still alive and lovably on-brand.
The book is dedicated to Guisewite’s mother (who penned her own advice book in 1987) and ends with a tribute to her father, who died in 2015. Aside from its interest for readers of the strip, Fifty Things describes and enshrines a moment in life that many of the author’s contemporaries will recognize. Guisewite’s daughter, adopted in 1992, was transitioning into independent adulthood, while her parents were transitioning, gradually but inexorably, out of it. The author, who quit her cartooning job in large part to spend time with all three, grappled with that transition as her loved ones start to need her in new ways.
The book is also something of a belated valedictory for the strip, as the creator of Cathy muses on the meaning of the 34-year strip for which she’ll be forever remembered. It was wildly successful; she has an entire room of Cathy licensed products, a recent Rachel Syme profile revealed, and the book doesn’t shy from the fact that the work left her financially comfortable. The strip remains a pop-culture touchstone, although these days it’s as likely to be the punchline of jokes as to be remembered for them.
Like the strip, Fifty Things chronicles the frustrations of trying to achieve the impossible in meeting the demands placed upon women while also adhering to the constraints: hence Guisewite’s protest that it’s “not my fault the sweat pants also hurt because someone decided women’s workout wear should be clingy and sexy to show off the hot ‘after’ body, not the non-hot, actually-needs-to-work-out ‘before’ body!”
Syme put her finger on what she called “the paradox of Cathy.” Guisewite is speaking her truth, and in so doing she’s still giving voice to her generation. “There were hardly any nationally syndicated comic strips that even hinted at women’s interiority before Cathy came bounding into papers,” wrote Syme. “And yet Guisewite broke through the glass ceiling by creating a character for whom disempowerment was a way of life.”
Fifty Things reveals that’s still where Guisewite goes to find the funny bone. She’s ridiculing the unrealistic expectations placed upon women, but at the same time implying a wish that all the contradictions of boomer femininity could somehow be resolved. The line above, for example, takes for granted that a curvy figure is “non-hot” and needs to be concealed — until workouts, as promised in the Jane Fonda era, result in a toned and “hot” body.
Fonda was justly hailed as an icon of her generation, but today’s icon is Lizzo, who reenacts a Fonda-style workout in her “Juice” video. The video suggests a new goal: being comfortable with yourself as a healthy, confident woman. The workout is an end in itself, not the means to an “after” body.
In an essay at the heart of Fifty Things, Guisewite grapples with the fact that feminism has moved on. The essay about relationships, titled “Love Stories,” suggests that “it’s a bit painful for my friend and me to see our daughters and remember who were when we were their age.” She knows her daughter will suffer much of the same confusion and frustrations she did — such is the human condition — but also sees her daughter maturing into a world where they can more confidently demand that partners like Irving, from Cathy, respect them as equals.
Looking back on her own years as a young woman, Guisewite writes, “Women were excited by the new world other women were talking and writing about, but without real-life proof, it was hard to believe it was possible to try for a loving, equality-based relationship with someone who would support our dreams, not try to stifle them.”
It’s clear that Fifty Things will resonate with its most natural audience — Guisewite’s peers who moved through adulthood with Cathy — but for anyone who’s been drawn to the author’s work, Fifty Things will read as a moving reflection on art and life, on personal progress and social progress, on generation and regeneration.
When I was a kid, Cathy taught me about adulthood, showing me an inner world shared in many respects by the women who raised me. I’m now an adult, and Guisewite is still teaching me about her generation’s experiences. As I continue to, let’s say, grow up, I expect that I’ll continue to appreciate both the specific and the universal truths that Cathy, and Cathy, have illuminated. Aack!