Paper Beats World is a labor of love. If you love what we do here, please consider supporting us on Ko-fi.
The comic strip Cathy has gotten a lot of shit over the years. It’s seen as kind of sexist. Written by Cathy Guisewite and running from 1976 to 2010, it’s a strip that follows a ‘modern’ woman struggling to balance her career and social life. And yes, there are some arguments to be made there. Cathy is obsessed with shoes, chocolate, makeup, and home decor. She is annoyed by her long-term partner’s obsession with sports. She lavishes attention on her dog, Electra.
So, why am I, a modern feminist, talking about Cathy?
Well, for one thing, Cathy was a modern feminist in her time. By that I mean both the character and the creator. For another thing, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with liking shoes, chocolate, and putting effort into your appearance. I like all of those things. Lots of men also like those things. I also like the Penguins, the Steelers, Star Trek, dragons, and things that drip blood in the night. And for a third thing, the comic strip never said that all women like those things. Cathy likes those things. Cathy has an unhealthy relationship with food. Cathy spends too much on clothes and shoes. Cathy has a difficult relationship with her mother. And again, I’m talking about the creator and the character here.
So yes, we’re going to talk about what writers can learn from the comic strip Cathy. Rather than disregard it as a ‘fluffy’ or ‘girly’ comic. I want to do this because women’s interests are often treated as silly and frivolous as a way to condemn female-leaning people as also being those things and I’m sick of that. I also want to do this because the strip is, ack, good. And yes, there’s plenty that writers can learn from Cathy.
Write realistic romances
Cathy has a long-term partner in the strip named Irving. They dated, broke up, and got back together more times than Ross and Rachel.
Unlike Ross and Rachel, they had a realistic relationship. Cathy was kind of a mess, and so was Irving. He was never a knight in shining armor. Never drop-dead gorgeous. They didn’t have a meet-cute. They had a million reasons for everything not to work out.
They did work out because they made it work. Because they put in the work with each other. They put in the work on themselves. Sometimes they were both childish, selfish, and stupid. They grew up together.
Just in case you’ve never been in a real relationship, that’s how they look. Real relationships are built on mutual respect and care. Cathy tries her damndest to get into golf so they have something to do together. Irving goes shopping with her. The two of them struggle with each other’s families. They bond with each other’s dogs. They sit down and talk about money, even though it ends in a fight. They go from two rabidly independent, career-oriented individuals to being a family. That’s not something you’ll find in a Hallmark movie. But it’s honest.
Write realistic families and friends
Cathy has a difficult relationship with her mom. An even worse one with her mother-in-law. She is her daddy’s girl. She has friends who push all her buttons, but she still loves like sisters. She has a boss who’s kind of an idiot, but a well-meaning one. She has relationships that make sense.
One thing in particular that I like is that the other characters make sense in their little world. They are not only side characters in Cathy’s life. They are the main characters in their mind. Which is something I am still learning the trick of myself.
As a side note here, Cathy doesn’t have a relatable life, aside from her relationships. I will point out here that Cathy is a Boomer. She was a young, independent career woman in a time when a single person working a full-time job could buy a house and still have money for things like food, expensive shoes, and really good chocolate. Yes, she is incredibly entitled. I think it’s important that we accept this, and keep it in mind as we keep talking.
Start where you are, and get better. But start!
Looking back at the start of Cathy, way back in 1976, you might be a bit surprised. The artwork is not great. It’s pretty damn bad. If by some chance this blog post ends up in front of the eyes of Cathy Guisewite, I’m sorry. But girl, you know it’s true. The artwork and storytelling in Cathy were kind of shitty.
But by God, it was there. It was published and went out into the world. And it got better. Over the years, the comic strip got so much better.
Some people might say Guisewite should have worked at her art harder before she published. It might have killed her career to put out a subpar product.
Let me be as clear about this as I can be. Thinking like this will lead your creative career into a never-ending holding pattern. Because you will never, ever think your work is good enough.
We learn best by doing. I certainly did, and so did Cathy. When I started this blog I didn’t have any idea how to add graphics. I’d never published a book hadn’t published anything except for some poems in high school. I started this blog to provide some structure and a reason to build a writing practice.
Lines improved. Color and detail improved. Stories, characters, descriptions. All of these things got better as Cathy grew as a creator. The same can be said of me.
And the same can be said of you if you can give yourself that opportunity to grow.
Write honestly about who you are, and people will find that relatable.
Cathy is not relatable because all women love shoes and chocolate. Cathy is relatable because she’s written by a real person about her reality. And that is what makes her relatable.
Of course, we’re not all writing semi-autobiographical comic strips. I write about ghosts, dragons, and spaceships. But into each one, I place a part of myself. It’s not on purpose, it happens. I write about my experiences, and in doing so breathe a part of myself into my characters. I hope that people can relate to that. And if I come off as a bit of a cliche, I guess that’s alright. I am a broke, bisexual Millennial with a side hustle, trying to fulfill a creative dream while not starving I treat my dog and cat like children. I suffer from depression and a coffee addiction. And yes, ack, I like chocolate and shoes. I am none of these things because they’re trendy or popular. I am those things because, well because I am. Cathy was all of the things that she was because she was.
Write from who you are. You’ll be amazed how many people can relate to that.
As an aside, there will not be a post next week. I’m attending Nebula Con, and taking a long-needed staycation with my family. I’ll see you back here on May 19th.