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In Praise Of "Cathy"

“My voice is never going to change the world. My voice will help women get through the next five minutes, and I’m fine with that.” - Cathy Guisewite, creator of Cathy, as told to The Cut

For the younger readers who may not have been raised on a steady diet of Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, Garfield, and the Far Side, the comic strip “Cathy” might not be especially resonant. But in the 80s and 90s, the titular Cathy--a working woman in a male-dominated business world, searching for love and respect--was a ubiquitous presence on the funny pages of newspapers worldwide.

She agelessly spent most of her years: single and pining for her on-again off-again boyfriend Irving; obsessing about food and her weight; performing her white-collar job thanklessly but successfully; and butting heads with her mom over their generational differences.

Cathy was intended by her creator, Cathy Guisewite, to be a representation of these four sources of guilt for women--love, food, work, and family. And Cathy was very popular in the 80s and 90s--apparently these struggles were quite relatable to the point of being universal.

Still, the “cool kids” dismissed Cathy as being the patron saint of sad, lonely women. Look how she uses food to feel better instead of addressing the problems! Look how she feels guilty about it afterwards! Ugh, why does she NEED to find a man, can’t she just be happy in who she is? And what’s so special about this dork Irving, anyway? And so on.

Andy Samberg as Cathy on Saturday Night Live in 2010, when Guisewite announced she was ending the strip's run.

But here’s the thing: Cathy wasn’t for the cool kids. Guisewite wasn’t trying to write the Great American Comic Strip. She set out to create something that she herself could relate to; and as it turns out, millions of other people related to it as well. A comic strip doesn’t have a 35-year-long run if people can’t relate to it.

I started this post with a quotation from Guisewite herself, where she claims that her voice isn’t going to change the world. And sure, no single joke in a single comic strip of Cathy is going to make a huge difference to the world. But millions of people, five minutes at a time, over 35 years? How much of an aggregate change does THAT make? And isn’t it an incredibly laudable thing to have done, to have made five minutes of difference to people, billions of times over?


So what does this have to do with dataviz? When we put our work out there in public, it can be frustrating to see the effort we’ve made generate a level of engagement in our finished product that is far below what we had expected, hoped for, and thought it deserved. It’s natural to feel discouraged, to feel that there’s no point to putting in the effort, because none of it will ever change the world.

But I say, look to Cathy.

Guisewite set out to help people get through the next five minutes. Her very goal was to create something ephemeral and small. It was in the aggregation of all of these efforts that change happened.

When we publish works of our own, most of them get very little attention--but the attention they do get can affect how people get through the next five minutes. It can inspire or educate, amuse or distract.

And that impact can often be invisible to us, because not everybody reaches out to say whatever the viz equivalent is of, “Just wanted to say thanks for writing Tuesday’s Cathy cartoon, I smiled a little at it, and I’ll probably read Wednesday’s too.”

To me, Guisewite’s five-minute goal is eye-opening and inspiring. We want all of our efforts to result in major positive impacts, possibly acclaim, and certainly acknowledgement and appreciation. In rare cases, this comes to pass; but mostly, the impacts are hidden, minor, and silent--but still very real.

As a community, when we individually commit to continuing to create, and analyze, and publish, and promote--both ourselves and one another--we have the opportunity to effect that large-scale change we yearn for, through an accumulation of five-minute moments.

Collectively, our voices can change the world. Collectively, we are Cathy.


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