Bikinis And Binging: What Was So Wrong With “Cathy?”

This cartoon called “Zombie Cathy” popped up on The Awl yesterday. Five different friends sent it to me immediately, always with messages which read “You’ll love this! You love zombies! And you hate “Cathy”!” And they were right. But I don’t think they realized the extent to which I think zombies and Cathy go together.

As a kid, George Romero could never have frightened me as much as “Cathy” cartoons. I loved the comics, but “Cathy” was always the one I read first to get it out of the way, before getting to Calvin and Hobbes and Brenda Starr (the good stuff). Even then, I tried to skim over “Cathy” pretty quickly. While reading “Brenda Starr” promised a world where I’d swan around in ballgowns while getting great scoops for a major newspaper, Cathy promised an adulthood that was nothing if not nightmarish.

To live in the world of “Cathy” was to live in an endless cycle of failure and panic. Every strip seemed to focus on some aspect of Cathy’s desires that was unfulfilled. That wasn’t the problem though. We all have unfulfilled desires. But Cathy had no more ability to bring to those desires to fulfillment than a zombie can sate its hunger – and in her case, I think it’s just because she lacked brainpower.

Consider this. Every year, Cathy bemoaned looking bad in a bikini. While I always pitied Charlie Brown’s failure to kick the football, which seemed to indicate his eternal hopefulness and incapacity for pattern recognition, I could never shake the feeling that Cathy could have handled things better. First off, she could have stopped swimsuit shopping every spring. But if she didn’t want to do that, since this was a yearly event, why didn’t she, say, start hitting them gym twice a week in March to help get ready? Why didn’t she try cutting back a bit on junk food beforehand? These are things that people do. These are not outrageous thoughts to have. But Cathy never seemed to realize that hard work plays a petty substantial role in getting what you want, and that upset me.

I loved Brenda Starr partly because she was so glamorous, but, I think, though I may not have recognized it as a kid, mostly because she was so darn dogged. If Brenda’s editor assigned her a story, she might have to cross a moat filled with alligators to get to the source, but, hey, she would do that without hesitation. The polar opposite of that seems to be the “Cathy” comic taped to one of my teacher’s walls which read “wake me up when I’m a size five” – well, that’s not how it works. That’s just shoddy planning, there.

I remember at 9 mentioning that this was the dumbest comic in the world to one of my mother’s friends and having her say “you’ll understand it when you grow up” with some sort of wink to my mother, which my mother replied to be staring quizzically, and presumably, later, privately, wondering if her friend had an eating disorder. ‘Gee,’ I thought to myself, ‘I sure hope not.’

I still feel that way, despite the fact that Cathy is apparently a feminist trailblazer. According to Salon:

Empowerment is for [Cathy] usually a fleeting state in an otherwise self-doubting existence. She may be that nightmare, neurotic gal pal whose calls you screen, but girlfriend, admit it; sometimes she’s also your own dark side.

I think that’s possible, but why should she be? Most of us are just plain better than that.

Lady, you want to eat some chocolates? Go eat some damn chocolates. Eat a moderate amount, don’t eat the whole box. It will be fine. And if you ate the whole box, well, focus on making better choices tomorrow. There is never any need to begin squawking “ack, ack, ack” over and over. Guttural undead-type noises are not a productive way to handle things.

Basically, I just think Sisyphean incompetence is some scary shit. Adulthood is mostly about reconciling your baser desires with your idea of what constitutes a successful life. And I actually think that most women – most people – are really good at doing that. Notice how all your friends aren’t drunk off their asses right now? Only like, half of them (us) are? That’s because they thought to themselves, “yes, I would have more fun right now, if I’d drunk a ton of champagne, but I also feel like working and being productive is necessary for my standard of life”. I kept waiting for a strip – any strip – where Cathy seemed like she was moving in the direction of being able to do that. Like, I don’t know, eating a few chocolates as a reward for going on a long run or work-out class like just about everyone else. To be fair, I stopped reading the strip regularly years ago, but I’m willing to bet it never happened.

It may just be me, but I don’t think someone can be considered a feminist trailblazer who never seems capable of taking action to get what they want. That seems like the definition of “someone it is impossible to respect.” You know. Someone like a zombie.

Share This Post:
    • Jen Dziura

      You had me at “Sisyphean incompetence is some scary shit.”

    • M

      I think almost everyone has had a friend like Cathy. And basically everyone, after awhile, stops being friends with that person. There is good reason for this.

    • Jamie Peck

      I just read this for the first time. Your point is solid, but your example is not. Failing to lose weight is just about the least important failure anyone will ever engage in. And for many people, it’s simply not possible to lose weight without living in a perpetual state of starvation. I will never judge a fictional character (or by extension, an actual person) on that. Failure to do something important, like, idk, be good at your job? Sure. Failure to get as skinny as the magazines tell us we should be? Nope, nope, I’m pretty sure that’s bullshit.

    • Miss C

      Every. Single. MALE comical character, be it sitcoms, comics or movies, has massive failings along the lines of repeating the same dysfunctional behaviour (“with hilarious results” ™) and it’s usually around self-esteem, bad habits, and failure to find love – yet so every female comical character who does the exact same things (ref Bridget Jones, now this column about Cathy) gets slammed by other women for being feeble.

      Can’t we just lighten up?

      Silly people making silly choices are funny, not all of us share a sense of humour but attacking the underlying precepts just plays to the “women don’t have a sense of humour” brigade.

      I wasn’t raised with Cathy, being British, but surely it’s obvious she’s not an aspirational guide to go-get-’em lifestyles for women: it’s like some people think any representation of women anywhere, ever, should show us as self-possessed overachievers, no weaknesses on display in front of the menfolk!