Monday, May 5, 2008

Because of the Cathy Women

If I were doing one of those little-known fact memes, I'd have to confess to being an inveterate reader of comics. I remember spreading out newspaper comics and giggling over them when I was quite young, and as I got older some of the best comics in recent decades appeared in the paper: Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Foxtrot, and others like that. As I got older I started buying and collecting some of my favorites, and have a pretty good collection of random comic books--though I have the complete collection of Bill Amend's Foxtrot comic strips, as the family dynamic is so well captured there that it never ceases to make me smile.

These days, I've been following a few newer comics online: Pearls Before Swine, for one, and the odd but fascinating Lio for another. I like so many aspects of newspaper comic art: the condensed but compelling story lines, the unique and dynamic drawings within such confined spaces, and the capacity to make pithy social comments within the created world of the characters.

For all that, though, some of the comics I've never much liked have fallen into the overtly political category--chiefly the quintessential political comic, Doonesbury. I skipped over this comic as a kid and didn't miss it when it got moved to the editorial pages later in its history. For all of its erudition and complexity, it's a pretty one-sided view of the world that seldom seems to matter much to anyone who isn't a left-leaning baby boomer. Such a narrow perspective seems to lack the universality required of art, and eventually becomes rather tiresome.

One other comic has been a source of similar frustration to me: Cathy by Cathy Guisewite. On the one hand, what woman out there can't relate to the strips about perpetual dieting, bathing suit shopping, and the proportional relationship between stress and chocolate? But on the other hand, the few recent strips I've read have made it painfully obvious that the title character is little more than a self-centered liberated boomerette, who, having arrived very late to the marriage party, is completely and unbelievably devoid of any consequences from her years of thoughtless and selfish promiscuity to a degree that is only possible in the fantasy world of fiction and comic books.

But reading through some earlier collections of the strip, I was surprised at how familiar many of the attitudes of Cathy's generation, in particular their scorn for traditional morality coupled with their utter rejection of any negative thoughts or consequences for their own immoral behavior, really are to me. The boomer women went on, some of them, to raise boomer progeny who parrot their parents' views; they also went on to reshape some critical areas of scholarship, and are the ones responsible for the travesty known as 'women's studies' which has been foisted on all too many a university under the pretense that it has anything to do with legitimate disciplines of study.

It is because of the women of the Cathy generation (the strip was first published in 1976, which would make the character well into her fifties at the earliest by this point) that we now exist in a reality in which it's considered more of a social sin to accuse a woman of loose behavior than it is for her to live loosely in the first place. In other words, saying that a woman is behaving like a tramp is rude, but only because it's rude to notice that she is.

The Cathy comic strip isn't to blame, of course, but its decades-spanning record of the total demolition of traditional morality and traditional roles for women can be instructive to look at, if ultimately very depressing. What is most instructive to me is the sheer level of self-absorption on display by the characters, but especially by the female characters--none of the men, Cathy's longtime sex partner and eventual husband included, has any more dimension than a paper doll. I wish I could believe that this self-focus was fictional, too, but in the end it's a matter of history. Those women of the baby-boomer generation who most identified with the era's zeitgeist, who most bought into the fantasy that they could have it all and that they were worth the ceaseless attention they demanded from everyone in their lives, who were most likely to postpone marriage and motherhood for careers, and then most likely to treat husbands and children as trendy accessories instead of people in their own rights, are still out there today, teaching in women's studies programs, working for newspapers or television, immersing themselves in a toxic materialism which is all the more ironic given the hippie past of many of them, and generally still embodying the paradox of the woman who will burn her bras on Monday, shop to replace them at an exploitive shop like Victoria's Secret on Tuesday, and then model her purchases without shame to her latest boyfriend on Wednesday night.

It is because of these women, the Cathy women, that girls who want to remain chaste until marriage grow up now in a world that thinks them strange and oppressed for making that choice. It is because of the Cathy women that those of us with daughters have to comb through the stores looking for modest outfits, because the world thinks it's fine to dress your baby girl like a Bratz doll. It is because of the Cathy women that those of us who stay at home with our children are as isolated, sometimes, as we are--because even mothers who don't particularly want to work outside the home find themselves with fewer, not more, choices in this age of supposed liberation. It is because of the Cathy women that so many young women grow up to participate thoughtlessly in the culture of random hookups, physical favors exchanged with no emotional component whatsoever; it is because of the Cathy women that these younger women think there won't be any consequences for behaving this way, when the physical, emotional, and spiritual wreckage of women who did behave this way is all around them.

In the fictional world of the Cathy comic strip, it's possible for the aging Cathy to continue to look about thirty, to have succeeded in getting her boyfriend to, as an earlier generation would have put it, make an honest woman of her, and to be all but unscathed by her years of selfishness and immorality; only her disordered eating habits cause her any trouble. But in the real world, the emotional eating Cathy indulges in would be the least of her problems. The societal destruction left in the wake of the Cathy women surrounds our lives and impacts all of us, and the repercussions promise to infect the next couple of generations, too, with the selfish hedonism and rampant immorality these women exemplified.

Don't get me wrong: the men of the Cathy generation are far from blameless, and bear their share of the responsibility for the societal breakdowns we're still witnessing. If I'm focusing more on the women, here, it's for one reason: because I am a woman, and I reject this twisted and ugly example of womanhood unequivocally.