The “Cathy” Comic Strip Was “Sex & The City,” “Bridget Jones,” And “30 Rock” Before Their Time

By now you’ve probably read a news article with the lede: “Ack! The ‘Cathy’ comic strip is ending!” Yes, it’s true. Cartoonist Cathy Guisewite, 60, announced yesterday that she will retire the 34-year-old comic strip in October for the usual reasons: to spend more time with her family and pursue other creative projects.

It’s as good a time as any to put the old girl down. After decades as a swinging desperate single gal, the Cathy character married her cartoon beau, Irving, in 2005. Cathy’s other trials and tribulations — fending off both unwanted pounds and unwanted mothering — are neuroses she’ll apparently never get over.

As stereotypical as the “Cathy” comic strip (which I’ll admit I haven’t read regularly since high school) was regarding single ladies, I’m not about to say “Good riddance!” Yes, she was obsessed with finding a husband. Yes, she was obsessed with her scale. I’ll just say it: she was annoying. But “Cathy” was also pretty groundbreaking.When the “Cathy” comic strip started in 1976, some victories of the women’s movement were still fresh on people’s minds. The birth control pill had been around for over a decade. Yale University had begun admitting women seven years earlier. Feminist magazine Ms. had been on newsstands for five years. Abortion had been legalized three years before. All this is to underscore the point that at the time the “Cathy” strip first appeared, it was an exciting and liberating time to be a single woman.

I’m not saying the “Cathy” strip was particularly feminist, because it wasn’t: the character was obsessed with finding a husband and watching her weight. But Cathy the character and Cathy Guisewite the cartoonist totally set a precedent in pop culture: the lives of women — especially single career women — were worth exploring. “Cathy” paved the way for pop culture goodies that may seem really stereotypical now, but nevertheless are also reflecting the lives of single ladies back at them. Even though Bridget Jones’ Diary (first a book by Helen Fielding, then two successful movies) is supposedly based on a Jane Austen book, Bridget definitely has more in common with Cathy than anyone wearing a bonnet! One could even make the case that the “Sex & The City” characters (first in the book by Candace Bushnell, then on the TV show, then in the two movies) owe a debt of gratitude to the “Cathy” strip, too. Even though Cathy is nowhere near fabulous enough to hang out with the “S&TC” girls, I can easily envision the Carrie or Miranda characters having read the strips in the funnies section as they grew up.

But who owes the biggest debt to “Cathy”? One of my favorite TV shows, “30 Rock.” The character Liz Lemon is just as obsessed — if not more obsessed — with fattening foods, men, and finding a flattering pair of jeans as Cathy is. What I love about “30 Rock” is that it’s clearly satire. Tina Fey, the show’s creator, writer and star, puts a 21st century twist on what it means to be a single woman — meaning, we’re aware that we do want the same things Cathy wants, like a husband, and we’re being self-deprecating about it. The “Cathy” strip even gets lampooned on “30 Rock”:

In 2010, the “Cathy” strip does seem kinda outdated — and certainly it’s still stereotypical and annoying. But “Cathy” paved the way for lots of single lady pop culture that I love. A world without “30 Rock”? Now, that’s something to “Ack!” about. [Chicago Tribune]