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After Decades Of Comics, 'Cathy' Cartoonist Found Writing 'So Liberating'

Cathy Guisewite, the creator of the "Cathy" comic strip, didn't really want the character to be named after her. People would think that "Cathy" was based on her own life, she reasoned, and ... they would be right. Or, at least, they wouldn't be wrong.

"Cathy was kind of my heart," Guisewite says. "Other stronger characters in the strip like Andrea were more my brain. But Cathy was kind of my heart, that was me."

When "Cathy" hit the newspapers in 1976, it struck a chord with a lot of women. Fans identified with her self-deprecating humor and her relentless insecurity about her looks and love life. Detractors railed against the strip for reinforcing stereotypes of women.

Now, more than 40 years after Cathy's debut, Guisewite has published a book of essays called Fifty Things that Aren't My Fault. And in it, she responds to some of Cathy's critics.

"Some people thought my work reinforced the negative stereotype of women being obsessed with shopping, weight and love," she writes. "But it wasn't my fault we still live in a world that partly judges women by what we wear, how much we weigh, and whether or not and who or how we love. Not my fault that with every glorious new possibility for women came an extra sense of isolation when we not only couldn't keep up but were told we shouldn't talk about the things that held us back."

By her mid 20s, Guisewite had a successful career in advertising. She was eager to take advantage of all the new opportunities that were opening up for women. But being single and independent had its drawbacks. She felt caught between what she calls "the two Bettys" — the 1950s icon of the ideal homemaker Betty Crocker, and the new, vibrant, feminist voice of Betty Friedan. She wanted what both had to offer.

Cartoonist Cathy Guisewite in 1987.
Nick Ut / AP
Cartoonist Cathy Guisewite in 1987.

"I wanted a career," Guisewite says. "I wanted my independence. I wanted to put off marriage and children, and have my own success. But I also really wanted a boyfriend. You know? I was in my mid 20s. I wanted someone to love me."

Guisewite found humor in her own insecurities and an outlet for them in the comic strip. (For all the jokes Guisewite made over the years about her character's obsession with food and weight, she herself is tiny.) Clearly she was not alone in feeling unsure of her footing in the new world that had been opened by feminism.

Guisewite retired the comic strip in 2010 when she needed more time for her aging parents and her teenage daughter. As she commuted between the two, she began jotting down her thoughts, which is how the book got started.

When I started writing these essays, it was like coming home and taking off the Spanx. This was so liberating.

"When I started writing these essays, it was like coming home and taking off the Spanx," she says. "This was so liberating. I loved getting to write longer and more thoughtfully about a lot of the same things I wrote about in the strip."

Guisewite still uses humor to sift through her feelings and she still obsesses over food, and clothes, and the people she loves. But she hopes she's gained some wisdom over the years that she can share with very different generation of women.

Young women lined up recently to meet Guisewite after a book event at The Wing — a communal workspace and social club for women — in New York's SoHo neighborhood. This generation has inherited the feminism that was brand new when Guisewite was young. And Guisewite fan Stephanie Roman says they are still grappling with some of the same issues.

"I'm a body image coach, so the whole theme about food, and dieting, and trying to accept ourselves, and willpower and lack of willpower — whatever it might be — is still definitely a big thread in my life," Roman says.

A lot of these women remember reading the "Cathy" comic strip as kids. Jessica Schwartz sports a Cathy button that reads: "I don't have time for this mid-life crisis."

"Cathy was such a real-seeming woman," Schwartz explains. "I mean, screaming, and pulling her hair out, and freaking out about tiny things — literally the most relatable comic figure ever."

As Schwartz approaches Guisewite, she pulls something out of her bag ... it'sa cake pan, in the shape of Cathy's face. "Oh my God, you have the cake pan," Guisewite says, recognizing the merch. Schwartz shows Guisewite photos of the Cathy cakes (and a meatloaf) she's made over the years.

As Guisewite takes in the array of desserts made in Cathy's image, it's clear she's delighted her character means so much to these young women. Guisewite hopes this new book will feel like a friend ... the kind who knows exactly what to say when you need some reassurance.

As for Guisewite's advice to this new generation of women? Never lose your sense of humor.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.