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AACK!

Cathy Guisewite made a wildly successful comic strip by and for women. But to her critics, she’s just another example of compromised feminism.

Cathy and Cathy. Photo: Ryan Pfluger
Cathy and Cathy. Photo: Ryan Pfluger

The pastries felt like a dare. They sat there between us: four rugelach; four miniature chocolate scones; and three glossy, heart-shaped palmiers on a teal ceramic plate, like adorable buttered Valentines. And neither of us touched them. Sitting across from Cathy Guisewite, the 68-year-old creator of “Cathy,” the wildly successful comic strip that ran in newspapers every day from late 1976 to 2010, I felt strangely incapable of knowing how to handle myself around baked goods.

You see, Cathy, the character, had a notoriously tortured relationship with delicious treats. She wanted them all the time, a cookie monster in shoulder pads whose saucer eyes were always bigger than her stomach, a worker-bee drudge who trudged around her office in sensible heels looking for stray brownies, a brunette with a sixth sense for rooting out caramel truffles. But for all her hunger, Cathy never eased into her appetite; she never approached her cravings with anything but shame, followed by nervous one-liners that made herself the punch line.

In one strip from 1990, Cathy, forever vaguely 30-something, enters into a rhetorical tussle with her mother (a perpetual sexagenarian in wire spectacles and a frilly kitchen apron, a loose analogue of Guisewite’s own mother, Anna, who is 97 and still spry) about the logic of eating pie. “I’m sure your stomach wants more pie, but what is your brain telling you, Cathy?” the mother asks. “My brain wants the pie, too,” Cathy answers. Her body and her brain and her heart are all crying out for pie! Pie! Pie! Pie! But, licking her plate clean by the fourth frame, Cathy looks miserable. “Mother made me eat a pie,” she tells her father, glumly shifting the caloric blame. And that’s the whole joke: Cathy ate an entire pie because someone told her she couldn’t. It’s a tangled web of mindfuckery all packed into a few inches of squiggly line drawing: food issues, mother issues, control issues, self-love and self-punishment, the desire to please authority, the gumption to rebel.

I didn’t eat the pastry, and neither did Guisewite. Later, I called her from New York and joked about how we had allowed a perfectly good plate of sweets to go to waste. She told me she had felt anxious about that. “After you left,” she said, “I saw them sitting there, and I thought, Did I not offer Rachel any?” I assured her that she had been a consummate hostess.

I also told her that, as we sat in her country-chic breakfast nook in Studio City, California, discussing the legacy of “Cathy” and the world Guisewite created, I could not stop thinking about my own mother, a highly functional and accomplished professional who nevertheless spent most of the 1980s yo-yo dieting and Jazzercising, seesawing between omnivorous ambitions and rigid self-control. When I was a child, my mother mainlined her morning coffee out of a chipped Cathy mug, and I came to associate that object with the kitchen as a contested space, where desserts were never just desserts. They were vessels of cacophonous mixed messages: Be powerful. Be smaller. Enlarge your dreams. Decrease your appetite. Indulge. Refuse. Stay ravenous. Don’t touch the cake.

“Oh, no,” Guisewite said, sighing into the receiver, after I finished what I now realize was a very Cathy-esque spiel. “What have I done?”

In April, Guisewite will publish Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault: Essays From the Grown-up Years. The book, a collection of observations about aging, is her first book of essays and her first major project since ending “Cathy.” The first “Cathy” comic strip ran on November 22, 1976. Guisewite remembers the day well; she hid in the bathroom at work for most of it. She was 26 years old and working at an advertising agency in Detroit as a copywriter, and she was terrified that she would be laughed out of the office if anyone saw the strip. For one thing: She didn’t really know how to draw, and she fretted that the artists in her office would pick apart her crude illustrations. But she also worried that her colleagues  would discover that she was weak. “I had worked so hard to develop myself as a professional person,” she said, “and this comic strip was coming out about my most vulnerable moments.” She was concerned they would never see her again without thinking of her cartoonish avatar, a lonesome woman waiting for a man to call.

And that was what the debut strip was about: In the first frame, Guisewite drew a woman, named Cathy Andrews, standing next to a telephone. “Cathy, he’s hurt you too many times!” she tells herself via thought bubble. “Next time he calls just bite your tongue and give him your answer!!” Then the phone rings. She picks it up and answers, “Yeth!” It’s a gentle gag: Cathy has no chill and no willpower, and now her tongue hurts. Her neediness dribbled off the page like a runny egg.

Guisewite is still hiding from those early strips. “It’s like reading your diary when you were young,” she said. “Who would want to do that?” Over time, she expanded Cathy’s world, adding her principled feminist friend, Andrea; her lackluster boyfriend (and eventual husband), Irving; her work wife, Charlene; her lecherous boss, Mr. Pinkley; her doting but passive-aggressive parents, Anne and Bill. She started focusing the strip on what she called the “four basic guilt groups: food, love, mom, and career.” The comedy in the strip grew out of the tension of attempting to balance these mounting pressures; when one or two areas of Cathy’s life are going well, the others are invariably falling apart.

A strip from November 24, 1990. Photo: Courtesy of the subject

This depiction of (mostly middle-class, mostly white) femininity may have been melodramatic, but it was honest, or at least it was an honest depiction of Guisewite’s preoccupations: Will I ever get married? Have children? Meet my mother’s impossible standards? Feel good in a swimsuit? In committing these nagging questions to the page, Guisewite found a loyal fan base. At its height, “Cathy” ran in 1,400 newspapers around the world. She published the strips in book collections and won the Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program for the first of three “Cathy” television specials. Her self-deprecating humor during her acceptance speech caught the attention of Johnny Carson, who invited her on The Tonight Show to discuss the perils of modern dating.

And then there was the licensing empire. In the 1980s, she created Guisewite Studio, a company dedicated to slapping Cathy’s image on every product under the sun. In her house, where she currently lives alone with her cowboy corgi, Leo, Guisewite keeps a “ ‘Cathy’ shrine” (her words), an entire room commemorating the strip. There is a CVS-style spinning rack of Cathy greeting cards, a bookshelf crammed with Cathy mugs, and a poster board advertising low-fat Cathy salad dressings. There is a Cathy-branded “Kitchen Calorie Chart,” which tells you how many calories you burn for “Discovering Rotten Milk” (700/hr.) and “Burning Breakfast” (20/hr.). There are Cathy checkbooks, a Cathy ironing board, and a suction-cup “Stick to Your Diet” Cathy, which encourages the purchaser to “Stick me to cupboards, your microwave — all your diet danger zones.” Everywhere you turn, a set of owl-like eyes stares out at you, unblinking, desperate.

Guisewite told me that most of the demand was for greeting cards; the decorative items didn’t really sell so well. She realizes now that women might have been embarrassed to display their love for Cathy on their desks or vanities. “I thought all those working women, surely all my stuff should be on every desk,” she told me, glancing around the graveyard of Cathy merchandise. “But what woman at that time who’s trying so hard to present herself as a proud, serious businesswoman wants bright-red office accessories on her desk with these cartoon characters screaming “AACK!” on them?”

Guisewite quit drawing “Cathy” in 2010. She was 60 years old, divorced, and financially secure as a result of Cathy-mania. She wanted to spend time with her parents, who were getting older, and her then-teenage daughter, and after 34 years of cramming her thoughts into word bubbles, she was feeling stifled by the form.

“Cathy,” as Guisewite told me several times, was extremely, almost parodically, of its time, those transitional years of American feminism when women were barreling into the workforce in power suits but hadn’t quite reconciled how that decision might tear up every other aspect of their lives. They still used the term “women’s libbers” (Guisewite drops this phrase often), but they were not always aware of how to balance that external liberation with their interior lives. They delayed or diverted marriage or child-rearing while they climbed the career ladder; they craved romantic partnerships but struggled not to be viewed sexually in the workplace. “Cathy,” Guisewite said, was her way of processing what it felt like to be sandwiched into an impossible generation. “I grew up with Betty Crocker as my model and who I thought I’d be,” she said. “And then there was Betty Friedan with The Feminine Mystique, which opened up this universe! After college, I literally gained a lot of weight on one of Betty’s triple-fudge layer cakes while trying to digest the other Betty’s liberation manifesto. I graduated [college] in 1972 with subscriptions from my mother to both Brides magazine and Ms. magazine. That’s why I was unhappy.”

Guisewite still has boxes of letters piled high in her office from devoted “Cathy”-ites. But on the internet, a younger generation of women readers seemed delighted by the end of what they saw as a retrograde era, when women learned to internalize misogyny for laughs. Meredith Blake, writing for The New Yorker, highlighted the Twitter hashtag #WaysCathyShouldEnd, which people used to mock the cartoon’s demise. “[The comedian] Julie Klausner suggests ‘Hoarding experts arrive too late to find Cathy flattened under a heap of diet aids, cats and dating books,’ ” Blake wrote. Another suggestion? “Cathy performs at-home liposuction with a carving knife and a dustbuster; dies of sepsis.”

In 2018, the writer and illustrator Juliet Kahn wrote a brilliant reappraisal for The Comics Journal called “On Hating Cathy,” in which she defended the strip against the vitriol that she called “the bubbling magma of Cathy anger.” The voices crowing loudest about “Cathy” ’s end, Kahn observed, tended to be young women, who saw the finale as a curtain lowering on a lily-livered portrayal of womanhood. “There is a certain reproach in the tones of Cathy’s female critics,” Kahn writes. “A frustration: why couldn’t you do better? How could you fail so visibly?”

Herein lies the paradox of “Cathy”: Guisewite herself was a pioneer. There were hardly any nationally syndicated comic strips that even hinted at women’s interiority before “Cathy” came bounding into papers. And yet Guisewite broke through the glass ceiling by creating a character for whom disempowerment was a way of life. “I just love writing about the small things in life that cripple us,” Guisewite once told a reporter. “Like 500,000 brands of cereals.” Comic strips, especially those from the “Cathy” era, are repetitive by nature; every joke is a slight variation on a theme. But what was the net result of repeating “I hate my thighs” thousands and thousands of times?

Guisewite is girlish and full of energy, with long, straight, tawny hair. The day we met, she was wearing straight-leg jeans, a dusty-blue open sweater, and, as she told me, “brand-new ivory sneakers in the hopes that I’d be more coherent if I had on new shoes.” She is also slender, much more so than her avatar’s fretting would suggest, though she said to me more than once that she gained the “freshman 30 to 35” in college. The experience of trying to lose the weight fueled many of her later jokes about Cathy’s calorie-counting. Dieting, and the pressure to always be dieting, was simply a part of the 1970s working-girl mind-set. There was already so little leeway in the corporate world that women felt they were ceding crucial ground if they didn’t conform to a certain image.

“I did all the diets: the grapefruit diet, the cabbage diet,” Guisewite said. “But when the strip came out? Women were relieved. I heard from a lot of people who were constantly battling those exact same battles.”

Guisewite was born in Dayton, Ohio, and grew up in Midland, Michigan. Her mother had a master’s degree but never went into the workforce. Guisewite and her two sisters all worked — one is an artist and the other runs a nonprofit — but it was Guisewite who really gunned for success straight out of college. By the time she was 25, she was already a VP but felt increasingly empty. So she began to doodle, idly, about her vexations, externalizing her loneliness onto an alter ego on a notepad. Eventually, Guisewite sent a few drawings to her mother, perhaps as a subtle way to open up a new line of communication about what she was going through. Instead, her mother saw a business opportunity.

“My mother went to the library; she researched comic-strip syndicates,” Guisewite said. “She typed me out a list of who she thought I should approach in the order that I should approach them, and then she just nagged me to send them in to somebody.” Her mother’s first choice was the Universal Press Syndicate in Kansas City. “A man named Jim Andrews had been looking for a strip about how the world was changing for women,” said Guisewite. “All of the previous submissions had been by men, so mine had a little more emotional honesty.”

Andrews told her to draw six weeks’ worth of columns and send them back. Guisewite bought a book called Backstage at the Strips, by Mort Walker, and used it to teach herself how to draw. “Forget writing it,” she said. “Just the process of drawing one comic strip would take sometimes seven hours.” To learn to draw Cathy’s hands, Guisewite spent an entire week tracing fingers.

Guisewite did not want to name the comic “Cathy,” concerned that people might confuse her with her creation. It was a battle she lost with Universal Press, which thought it would be more sellable if women could connect the strip to the voice behind it. And they did, but it didn’t make her feel less alone in the industry. At one national comics conference early in her career at the Plaza hotel in New York, Guisewite told me, she and a few other women cartoonists had to participate in a mock beauty pageant. Someone draped a red sash across her chest that read cartoonist. She remembers that Garry Trudeau, the creator of “Doonesbury,” walked out in protest,” she said. “But the women weren’t that bothered.”

During the second year of drawing “Cathy,” Guisewite flew to San Francisco to give a talk at a gathering of the Northern California Cartoon and Humor Association. She heard a rumor that Charles Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” who lived nearby in Santa Rosa, was a fan of her work and might attend. He rarely appeared at industry events, however, and she didn’t get her hopes up. Before her speech, she remembered, “The sea of people kind of parted and he walked through the crowd.” They became friends, and early on Guisewite asked Schulz how long a cartoonist has to work “before you can feel confident that they’re not just gonna call up tomorrow and say, ‘Everybody canceled your strip, go find a job.’ And he said, ‘Ten years.’ ”

She promised him she would give it that long. In 1980, she left Detroit to house-sit for one of Schulz’s friends for five weeks, and eventually she moved to L.A., where she has lived ever since. When Guisewite bought her first house with money she had made from the comic strip, she felt electrified by her ability to do so. “I remember a quote, I think Gloria Steinem said it, but I kind of lived it,” she said. “Where I got so tired of lusting after these men with the good houses and I went, Wait a minute, I could buy a house.”

Guisewite doesn’t really remember the first time she used the word “AACK!” in “Cathy,” only that one day it wasn’t there, and the next it was a catchphrase she could never live down. Tina Fey used it on 30 Rock, when Tracy Jordan told Liz Lemon, “I can’t believe they put what you said in the paper!” and he just turned out to be reading a “Cathy” cartoon. Andy Samberg used it on SNL when he appeared on “Weekend Update” in a frizzy wig and a rumpled sweater and spat out lines like “Ladies, age is just a number, and mine’s plus-size brownies!” (Of that parody Guisewite said, “It was honest, I’ll say that.”)

When I asked Guisewite about the deeper significance of AACK!, she told me she honestly did not know. “It’s just how you feel, isn’t it?” For her, it’s all the confusion of being a woman, all the compounding pressures and expectations and hopes and thwarted desires rolled up into a nonsense word. In Guisewite’s studio, she hung the word on the wall in oversize silver letters, the kind sororities use to mark their territory.

Guisewite got married in 1997 to the screenwriter Christopher Wilkinson, from whom she is now divorced. Seven years later, Cathy married Irving, much to the disappointment of her loyalists, who wanted her to be the Ur–single woman in perpetuity. “I had promised I wouldn’t get married,” Guisewite said — meaning the character, she later clarified. “I had said in public, on television, ‘I’m standing by single women.’ Look, when I was growing up, there was great pride in singleness for a long time. I don’t know that I was so independent really as much as I was just obedient. I mean, the deal at the time, in the late ’70s, was establish your career, then think about it. Not that I didn’t lust after having a boyfriend and a relationship, but I wanted to be on my own, because they said we should.”

In her 40s, Guisewite started to second-guess her ambition. She worked so hard for two decades that she didn’t have a baby, then she realized she desperately wanted one. She adopted her daughter, Ivy, in 1992. She met Wilkinson through a toddler playgroup: “I really wanted my daughter to have a father. I thought it was cheating her to not have one.”

She also said she liked Wilkinson because he had never heard of “Cathy” when they met. Guisewite admitted that writing a daily comic about how bad she was at dating did not have a net positive effect on her romantic life. “I wouldn’t have gone out with me knowing that the date was going to wind up in the comic strip,” she said. “But I don’t think that the men I tended to date would be men who recognized themselves in a strip. I was not usually attracted to men who were that aware of their … chauvinistic characteristics.”

When Wilkinson moved out of the house in 2008, Guisewite put up the AACK! sign as a form of owning her accomplishments: a pristine home that would make filmmaker Nancy Meyers jealous, with its swimming pool and private tennis court and a room just for holding all her fan letters; her more than 10,000 nationally syndicated illustrations drawn despite never having taken a studio-art class, and her success in a male-dominated industry, achieved by making something for women. And now she’s written a memoir.

Guisewite’s book is a series of humorous vignettes about those middle years, when a person is stuck between caring for their aging children and their aging parents. Ivy is now 26 and trying to find a job at an aquarium. (“My daughter has gotten two degrees now,” Guisewite said. “The first one was in psychology, and when she graduated, she said, ‘You know, Mom, I don’t really like people; could I study fish?’ But now she’s moved to the desert with her boyfriend where there are no fish. So she’s unemployed.”) Guisewite’s mother, who became a widow in 2015, putters around in Florida, though for a while she was a regular squatter in Guisewite’s guesthouse.

Fifty Things falls into the genre of “Postmenopausal Musings,” as popularized by Nora Ephron in her later years. Guisewite writes essays like “Meditations on a Sweat Sock,” about how organizing her sock drawer brought her endless serenity, or “Diary of a Bubble Wrap Scrap,” in which she debates for an entire day whether to throw out a piece of packing material. There is a gentle humor to these essays but also something a bit melancholy about them. The primary joy of growing older, at least in an ideal world, is the ability to stop caring what other people think. But what if, instead of the joyous zero fucks we were promised, we just kept on worrying? And yet there’s still something brave in Guisewite’s aggressive vulnerability. “My voice is never going to change the world,” she told me. “My voice will help women get through the next five minutes, and I’m fine with that.”

After we met, Guisewite sent me a series of her favorite “Cathy” strips. In one, called “Generations,” from 2002, she puts Cathy, dressed in a blue power suit, in conversation with a young woman wearing a leopard-print crop top and thigh-high boots. There is a sneering mutual disdain between them. “My generation worked from dawn until midnight to prove women are equals in the workplace!” Cathy yells. The young woman yells back: “Of course I am equal, and I don’t have to dress like one of the boys to prove it!” After several frames of spirited debate, Cathy marches into a returns department and asks for the last 25 years of her life back.

I asked Guisewite if the sweeping changes of the past few years have softened her feelings about young women and what they, too, have to endure. “I feel the exact same way,” she admitted. “I feel that way every time I see the freedom that my generation fought for to be, for women to be free to express sexuality. Those freedoms can make women more powerful, but they can also make them more naked.”

It would be easy to dismiss Guisewite from across the generational chasm, as simply a by-product of her time, but Cathy’s struggles aren’t quite as far from our own as we’d often like to think. Women may have more nuanced language for how they talk about the distance between what they choose to project and how they feel on the inside, but two minutes on Instagram is enough to prove that generating authentic confidence is still a confounding process.

“Women were doubly disappointed that the strip was created by a woman,” Guisewite said when I asked about her critics. “And that I had this platform in which I could present a much more liberated, stronger female point of view than the strip often did. Personally, I wished that I were the person who could march in to the boss and say the speech that I practiced in the bathroom. I wished that I had been the woman who could drive to the man’s house when he said he was gonna show up and then he didn’t and it turned out he was with somebody else. I wished that I could have said no to a box of Oreos as much as I wished I could have said no to being demeaned in the office this way or that way. But the truth is, I wasn’t that woman, that wasn’t the truth of my experience.”

There are other parts of “Cathy” that unequivocally still hold up, that seem almost prescient. Cathy often gossiped about her boss, who was handsy in the office, and she took workplace sexual harassers to task. She even created a whisper network. She had big aspirations, when she wasn’t focused on fitting into her pants. She wanted so much for her life, and she was willing to say so, even when she didn’t yet believe that she deserved it. “She kept trying,” Guisewite told me. “I think that’s her relevance today. She was a very resilient character.”

*This article appears in the March 18, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!