14 August 2010

One Woman’s Story

Pioneer Woman, Feminist Icon

In the late 1970s and much of the ’80s, I was a pink-collar worker and a hired gun, an office temp in Texas and New York. My bosses conducted important business, such as adjusting insurance claims, packaging and shipping underwear, and persuading Americans to manufacture more food in tubes, but ultimately those were just details that had no impact on my duties, which consisted of typing and filing as fast as I possibly could. In every office, my colleagues were, with only the rarest exceptions, women.* And on every desk and every cubicle wall, these women had posted Cathy cartoons.

That’s why I’ve always felt that Cathy Guisewite’s comic strip afforded me a meaningful glimpse into the day-to-day realities of American women in the workplace. Guisewite indulged in as many stereotypes as she shattered, and sometimes her observations were broadly generalized. I was more likely to learn about women’s concerns by going to lunch (or, better yet, for drinks after work) with the “girls” than by reading Cathy strips. But Guisewite clearly struck a chord with thousands of American women, and this week, as she announces her retirement after 34 years, her achievement commands our respectful acknowledgment.

It’s possible that Guisewite’s gently satirical humor overstayed its welcome. “The four basic guilt groups” (food, work, love, Mom) is a genius idea, but there are only four of them, and only so much one can say. I haven’t kept up with Cathy in recent years, but these days I hear more mockery than praise: it’s a bad sign when The Onion columnist Jean Teasdale cherishes your creation.

Yet it’s important to remember that, when Guisewite started out, she was a true revolutionary. In those days, our most prominent model of liberated womanhood on the funny pages was Lucy Van Pelt — a little girl. Lucy may have empowered women to be bossy and crabby, and her psychiatric practice may have been a thriving business, but the fantastical element of Peanuts (children who behave like anxious grownups) always intruded. And, of course, like most comic strips in those days, Peanuts was written by a man.**

I am woman, hear me “Aack”

By giving us any kind of woman’s perspective, Guisewite broke ground. Mostly Cathy shared with us the sorts of things that, give or take a piña colada, women say among themselves — when there’s a chance a man like me may overhear them. Thus readers see frustration, rather than rage. Loneliness rather than alienation. Small-scale hopes rather than world-conquering dreams. However, the concerns and anxieties that Guisewite did depict are universal enough that women were able to identify with them — and laugh.

Picking up the newspaper from time to time, I grew to feel a little frustrated, myself. It’s one thing to see Lucy pine for Schroeder for half a century, and another to see Cathy suffer Irving for even a few years: fantasy versus realism. Cathy’s reality is surprisingly gloomy, though Guisewite scrupulously kept us from falling into the dark abyss that lies just beyond the tidy squares of her strip: nevertheless, we see that men are not truly human, and a woman has a better chance of connecting on a spiritual level with her dog than with her boyfriend (to say nothing of her boss).

If she’s lucky, like Cathy’s mother, a woman will find a man who’s passive and ineffectual, who recedes into the background; yet even Cathy’s mother was so profoundly shaped by the male hegemony that her values drove her daughter to distraction. The world, like Mr. Pinkley’s office, is created by and for men, and a woman must do constant battle to make a place for herself there.

For the most part, Guisewite hinted at these things more than she spelled them out. As I say, I heard similar complaints from the working women I knew — who never forgot for a minute that I was a guy. Yet I never forgot that most other men weren’t even listening. If any of them happened to read Cathy in the morning, they probably learned a little something.

Thin, attractive, successful, empowered: Guisewite

Other women’s voices are heard on the funny pages now, and other artists have expanded the possibilities of the form far beyond anything that Guisewite achieved or attempted. That’s what it means to be a trailblazer. Sometimes, people forget that, before you came along, there never was a trail at all. But I hope Guisewite takes a moment to turn in the saddle, to look back and to see that, modest though it may seem to others now, the trail was well worth blazing.

*NOTE: My development as a Sensitive Guy of the Seventies wasn’t a matter of angling for dates, or copying Alan Alda: it was a professional necessity.

**Since Charles Schulz divorced the woman who served as inspiration for Lucy, we can detect and confirm a degree of authorial hostility toward her. She’s really not a hopeful model for anybody, and that’s a shame. Would that Schulz had retired before his strip descended into a years-long Hell of almost surreal pointlessness.

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