With her never-ending stream of worry sweat and longstanding neuroses over shedding cellulite and getting married, “Cathy” never really seemed like a good representation of the confident modern woman. Here’s some bad news for comics readers: She’s a hell of a lot better than the other ladies who call the funny pages their home.
When “Cathy” signs off in early October, comics readers will largely be left with a collection of female characters who may as well live in 1950. For all the efforts made to keep Blondie Bumstead or Lois Flagston relevant to today’s readers, the characters still act as if they wear petticoats and dream of men who keep them married, wealthy, with children and safe from harm.
Sure, Blondie joined the workforce and runs her own catering business. And Lois Flagston dabbles in real estate. Olive Oyl will scream at Popeye once in a while. But these women would feel at sea if they didn’t have a bumbling husband and needy kids to tend to. We’re not even going to try to explain the burdens endured by Loweezy Smith over in “Snuffy Smith,” or the horrible treatment accorded Mark Trail’s stubbornly loyal but forlorn wife Cherry.
“Cathy” is to Alice Mitchell (Dennis the Menace’s mother) or Thel Keane (the matriarch of the strangely beatific “Family Circus”) as “Ally McBeal” is to June Cleaver. She may fret about bathing suits and worry over every last calorie, but at least Cathy’s keeping it together -and wants more than just to be kept happy and pregnant. Can you imagine what Marylou of “Momma” might do if cut off from her pushy parent? What asexual Luann DeGroot might face if she was told to go out in the world and fend for herself? The results wouldn’t be pretty.
Don’t take our word for it. There’s new evidence. An analysis by a University of Florida graduate student of six of the most popular nationally syndicated comic strips over a year revealed that female characters appeared less than half the time. When they did appear, they were made fun of or were the butt of the daily gag, according to Daniel Fernandez-Baca, the researcher.
In the study, Fernandez-Baca analyzed the top syndicated comic strips in 2008 – those appearing in at least 1,500 media outlets. The comics included: “Blondie,” “Beetle Bailey,” “Family Circus,” “Hagar the Horrible,” “Garfield” and “Dilbert.” Except for “Blondie” and “The Family Circus,” women showed up in less than half of the comic strips, he said.
We’re taking the study with a grain of salt. We think Hagar’s wife appears pretty frequently in “Hagar the Horrible” and we’re almost certain Ms. Buxley and Ms. Blips do more than make the occasional cameo in “Beetle Bailey.” And isn’t Jon Arbuckle dating Garfield’s vet in that comic?
And are we really to believe that no female character has ever acted against this prevailing stereotype? Margo Magee from “Apartment 3-G’ takes guff from no one. Peppermint Patty tried to be one of the gang in “Peanuts” without being too bossy (maybe a little passive-aggressive).
Still, there is an impression that female characters in some of the nation’s best-known comics are little more than followers in the tradition of “The Heart of Juliet Jones,” the weepy soap-comic whose hapless central character was often put upon and not too often victorious, or “Bringing Up Father,” whose Maggie was a holy terror, a harridan ruling everyday-man Jiggs with an iron fist.
We think there’s room for a new standard-bearer in the world of female comics characters. In case you haven’t noticed, the comics are filled with any number of independent gals who just won’t tolerate being addressed as “baby,” “sweetheart’ or “doll.”
So who do we think are likely candidates for the funny pages’ next Modern Woman? Our thoughts, below.
*Alex Doonesbury: Mike Doonesbury’s daughter is neurotic, loyal, clever, skeptical, and, yes, even a little hopeful. With her ratty hairdo and injured-vet boyfriend, she is fast becoming emblematic of a this nation’s new generation, a group of people who try to move forward despite any number of recent developments that tell them to move back in with their parents and hide under the covers.
*Sally Forth: She makes more money than her feckless husband, Ted, has a career that her self-hating sister can only dream of, and still has to keep tabs on her daydreaming daughter. Sally has been around for years, sure, but she could do wonders if she captured the fancy of a wider audience.
*Ms. Buxley: What th-! For decades, Ms. Buxley has widely been treated as eye candy by the many residents of Camp Swampy in “Beetle Bailey.” She’s been the put-upon office girl who got leers, not respect. And of course, she’s drawn in a way that makes her a little difficult to take seriously. Yet in recent years, creator Mort Walker and his joke-writing cronies have given this lady a little more substance, including a hushed relatonship with Beetle himself. She’s become a valuable aide to the incompetent General Halftrack and seems to command more respect from the troops who once probably (and likely still do) dreamed of her in less-than-gentlemanly fashion
*Marla Masters: This put-upon assistant manager of the fictional Grumbel’s department store in Norm Feuti’s comic strip, “Retail,” has loads of potential. Every day, Marla navigates around bureaucratic bosses, grumpy employees, obnoxious customers, and still finds time to carve out a life for herself. In recent weeks, she’s even gotten engaged, offering readers the potential to examine work-life balance and other emotional developments.
*Tina: The waitress without a surname who is the central character of Rina Piccolo’s “Tina’s Groove” is just trying to get by, hoofing it daily towards another paycheck and another short relationship with some strange guy. Where Cathy obsesses about chocolate and pantyhose, Tina must deal with a strange cast of co-workers, including Monica, who really ought to be locked up in a home for the mentally challenged.
*Pigita: We rarely see this female pig in the panels of “Pearls Before Swine,” but whenever she shows up naive and luckless Pig drops everything and does anything he can to please her. Pals like Goat, Rat and Zebra also seem to find her off-putting, even frightening. With a little more screen time, we think she might have what it takes to make everyone go “ACCCCK” yet again.