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‘Cathy’ comic strip creator looks to the next chapter
Hari Sreenivasan: The popular comic strip "Cathy" chronicled one single woman's struggles with love, food and her mother for more than three decades. It was based loosely on the life of its creator, Cathy Guisewite, who's out with a new book -- a collection of funny essays about the struggles of the next chapter of life. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson has more.
Megan Thompson: In 1976, Cathy Guisewite was 26 years old and already a Vice President at a Detroit ad agency. But she secretly felt miserable about not achieving some more traditional goals ...like finding a boyfriend.
Cathy Guisewite: My generation was right in between the two Betty's, Betty Crocker and Betty Friedan. And I wanted to be both of 'em. Be-- and a lot of women did at that time. It was-- and I literally gained 40 pounds on one Betty's chocolate fudge layer cake mix while reading the other Betty's Feminine Mystique. And a lot of women I think found themselves like the place I was in.
Megan Thompson: How did Cathy start?
Cathy Guisewite: After college I was working in an advertising agency. I was very successful and I was feeling the full success-- full frustration of the success of my job and the failure of my relationships. So I wrote about it in my journals. And one night it looked-- I felt so pathetic writing and eating everything in the kitchen waiting for the wrong-- Mr. Wrong to call that I drew a picture of what I looked like. I sent that drawing home to Mom. And Mom, who had told me to never share anything publicly, said, "Oh, this could be a comic strip for millions of people to enjoy." So Mom went to the library, researched comic strip syndicates, sent me a list of who to approach. And just to get Mom off my back I sent some scribbles not in comic strip form to the name at the top of her list.
Megan Thompson: The scribbles worked. Universal Press Syndicate - a national syndicator of comics and newspaper columns- offered Guisewite a contract.
Had you had any training in drawing or cartooning?
Cathy Guisewite: I had zero training in-- in art. I-- when I received the contract back to do a comic strip for the rest of my life I-- it came with a note saying they were sure I would learn how to draw if I had to do it 365 days a year.
Megan Thompson: And you did.
Cathy Guisewite: And I did.
Megan Thompson: "Cathy"' was brutally honest about the life of a real woman. And it was a hit. It debuted in 1976, and at peak distribution, appeared in 1400 newspapers around the country.
Cathy Guisewite: Cathy-- is a hopeful character who dealt with-- I used to say she dealt with the four basic guilt groups, food, love, mom, and career. And trying to juggle them all and find her way; navigate life through those things.
Megan Thompson: The comic chronicled the cartoon character's quests to find a flattering swimsuit ... and find a husband ... all while negotiating her beloved and badgering fictional mother.
Cathy was wildly popular. I mean why do you think it resonated so much with so many people?
Cathy Guisewite: Life is a balance between, you know, our dreams, and our fantasies, and our hopes for ourselves and the reality of what happens in the day. I think that for a lot of us a lot of things stack up on us and in us that we don't even know, things that work on us that chip away at our time, our-- our-- sense of ourself, our sense of competence so that the-- even the days that start triumphant kind of end, you know, with a box of frozen coo-- Girl Scout cookies.
I think that a lot of women went through the same things and are still going through the same things today. And that the comic strip character is a friend to them. That's the most common thing I ever heard from people is, "I feel like you know me. You know, I feel like Cathy is my friend. I feel like we're soul sisters." And I loved getting to be that for people.
Megan Thompson: But it wasn't all popularity. Cathy had more than its share of critics.
Some people said-- "You know, this is a character who's-- just obsessed with her weight, and dating, and relationships, and maybe not the most feminist-- in that respect."
Cathy Guisewite: I was surprised by the criticism a bit because I felt like when I was writing about shopping-- and I wrote about shopping a lot-- I wrote about it because it was a microcosm of the extra expectations and the extra stuff that comes on women. Just the simple act of buying a white shirt for a woman is like a 15 department, you know, styles, cuts, fabric, manufacturers. You have to try everything on. A man just goes in and buys a white shirt off the rack. So it wasn't me writing about shopping, it was writing about what shopping did to women
Megan Thompson: Guisewite's Cathy comic strip ran for 34 years before she retired, in part to spend more time with her aging parents.
But now Guisewite is back, with a new book of humorous essays: 'Fifty Things That Aren't My Fault.' It chronicles what happened after Guisewite's retirement.
Megan Thompson: You write-- about sort of, again, being caught in the middle now in this-- in this stage of life.
Cathy Guisewite: Well, people call this the sandwich generation. And it feels so much more squashed than that. I feel-- I call it the panini generation. 'Cause on one hand I'm caring for aging parents who don't listen to me and on the other hand an aging daughter who doesn't listen to me. And I'm squashed in the middle in an aging body that definitely does not listen to me. And aware, like, so many of my generation are that we're running out of time to do all the things that we thought we still wanna do.
Megan Thompson: In the book, Guisewite tries to convince her 90-year-old parents to wear emergency alert pendants. And then there's trying to understand the world of her daughter, now in her 20's.
Cathy Guisewite: Back in the '70s, our big dream was to be able to have a career and have a family at once. That was having it all. For my daughter's generation, having it all is having a career, having a family, having-- a social media presence, having a YouTube channel, having a blog, having-- being a community activist, being a global enligh-- you know, a force for global change. And she has, like, 10,000 more things to feel like that she can do but to feel like she should be doing to keep up with everybody. And I think at the end, way less freedom to say that she's overstressed or can't handle it or feels bad about herself.
My dream for 'Fifty Things that Aren't My Fault' it will-- is that it will be a friend to women the same way that the comic strip was a friend to women; that it will help women feel like they're not alone; that it will help women laugh at the little things so we can all kind of have the strength and energy to get onto the big things; and that it will also help women look backward with a little bit of grace and forgiveness and look-- and look forward, face the future knowing there are a lot of things that aren't our fault.