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What is the difference between a Kathy comic before the coronavirus crisis and one after? As far as I can tell, it mostly boils down to the types of food our size-obsessed heroine agonizes over. Before all that, it was usually, as anyone who knows the first thing about Cathy would tell you, chocolate, or some other sweet treat. But now the snacks that torment her have begun to wink at life under lockdown: instant mashed potatoes, boxed macaroni and cheese, homemade pastries.
Otherwise, Kathy remains remarkably unchanged by quarantine. Cathy’s response to everything has always been to go a little crazy, and now we know it makes no difference whatsoever how unnecessarily difficult it is to transfer shampoo from its original container into those little bottles of trip or a real world crisis of tastes the likes of which history has never seen. Cathy already lived in a world where push notifications from the media drove her crazy, she felt guilty for her paltry step count, and she spent vast swaths of her life worrying about what she ate. Now the rest of the world has caught up with her. Like the subset of anxious and depressed people who were surprised to find that their mental health had actually improved lately, Cathy was ready for it. She doesn’t look as ridiculous as she used to. Is Cathy, in all her overzealous, curly-haired catwoman glory, the constant (and constantly grieving) presence this moment needs?
Although the syndicated newspaper comic she starred in ended in 2010, these days you can find Cathy on Instagram, where her creator and namesake, Cathy Guisewite, has been posting one-panel soundtracks for two years. . (I guess technically these messages might not count as canon, but let’s just assume they do.) Each is drawn on small white paper, neatly torn into a square and nicely, meticulously mounted on a piece of paper colored building. Perhaps sensing our need, Guisewite went from posting new panels sporadically to posting a few a week on a regular basis. It will be months or years before we find out if the coronavirus existed in other fictional characters like the Simpsons or James Bond universes, but comics, unlike other forms of art or history, have the rare ability to reflect this crisis as it unfolds. . So when the self-isolation started for most of us, it started for Cathy too. Since mid-March, all tapes deal with life in quarantine and bear the label “Scenes From Isolation”.
We see Cathy grapple with many of the minor difficulties that have characterized quarantine life for the white-collar class, those of us who are blessed with good health and the ability to stay home: anxiety of videoconferencing, its growing roots, the desire to eat junk food. But what once seemed cartoonish (both figuratively and literally) now has a kind of perfect meaning: we’re all wide-eyed, we wear pajamas all the time, and we feel compulsive about cleaning products.
Where it once was common sense to despise Cathy’s “I’m a mess” shtick, not just for being boring but for its portrayal of women, I can’t be the only one feeling more charitably towards her lately . Never before has Cathy’s Nervous Wreck brand been so closely aligned with the national vibe: Nervous Wreck too. Who still has the energy to get excited over a cute and undeniably accurate sketch of life in lockdown? When I watch a comic from a few weeks ago where Cathy is busy working from her home office, but instead of a desk she’s sitting in front of her open fridge, I have no other reaction that “Wow, that’s so me.” I don’t chew on my cell phone or bark at my dog, but I can see why a person would.
Cathy’s most salient criticism has always been the accusation that she perpetuates negative stereotypes about women, although more recent feminist reviews of the character have acknowledged that it is more complicated than that. This is all pretty academic considering we’re talking about someone who only occasionally has a nose – but anyway, during the coronavirus crisis, Cathy’s struggles read as so much less gendered than before. It’s not just women who enjoy trying not to overeat, missing the outside world, and being scared of everything. (I will concede that men perhaps identify less with fatphobia and gray roots.) And so we are freed from much of the guilt we may have once felt for promoting harmful clichés about Cathy.
You could say that Kathy trivializes the crisis. It’s grim there, and we’re all in mourning; how can Cathy freak out about her dog running off with one of her coveted toilet paper rolls at a time like this? But you can also choose to see Cathy’s unwavering mania as soothing and reliable. Banality can be reassuring. Perhaps the most apt analogy is this: chocolate is to Cathy what comfort and stability are to us. In a time when we can count on few, we know for sure that Cathy will continue to catastrophize and will likely release a bunch of cartoon sweat droplets while doing so. In fact, when Cathy has a moment of pure positivity, like finding new appreciation from the outside or wishing us a happy Easter, it feels actively unnerving. It’s all Cathy’s job and her purest state of being a basket case, and in that, she’s an essential worker. It reminds me of Mr. Rogers’ famous (now cliché) advice to reassure children in scary times, telling them to “seek the helpers”. A similar principle applies with Kathy: Look for AACK!s. You will always find AACK!s. Whatever happens tomorrow, maybe this certainty will carry us forward: Cathy will live to have another cow.