A Pox on "Cathy"

I have never been a huge fan of the comic strip "Cathy". In the comic strip office world, I had Dilbert on one hand, as exemplar for engineers, and Cathy on the other hand, as the model for professional working women. Neither was particularly appealing to me. Dilbert personifies all the negative geekoid engineering stereotypes, but seems to be taken by the masses as a hipsterish anti-hero. Cathy, much of the time, seems to be a blithering idiot who is way too fixated on her appearance, the need to cram the body she doesn't love into the latest skinny-minny fashions, and the desire to eat the food she is denying herself on her latest diet. In other words, she personifies all the negative stereotypes of women in general.

It is true that the Cathy strips are often attempting to satirize women's obssession with dieting, fashion, and appearance, but the satire doesn't cut very deeply.

But today's strip really hacked me off. In today's strip, Cathy committed what I will call the Barbie "Math is Hard!" Offense. (Look for the April 24, 2007 strip if you are reading this post on a later date.)

Cathy is at a cosmetics counter where a saleslady or esthetician in a white lab coat points at a chart explicating some beauty product, and reads ingredients from the list to Cathy. Cathy has a stupefied expression on her face and replies "Huh?" to each mention of an ingredient or property of the product. Finally the saleslady says

By paralyzing the brain with scientific mumbo-jumbo, we reduce the muscle contractions that help create wrinkles...and TA DA! Who needs Botox?

This is evil in so many ways I can't even begin to describe it. Women's brains will be paralyzed by the contemplation of a list of chemical ingredients in makeup products? Because, you know, it's all science-y and everything. But hey! It's all good, because it prevents wrinkles! Which is all we really care about anyway!

A pox on you, Cathy.

More like this


I've just bought a book about the prejudices women face that keeps the out of science (Athena Unbound - the Advancement of Women in Science and Technology by Eztkowitz, Kemelgor & Uzzi), and that strip sounds like an excellent symptom of such rejudices
I haven't read the book yet, so I can't say anything about it's quality.

And yet isn't that what a lot of these cosmetics and supplement companies try to do? They prey on people's insecurities and illiteracies to sell a product, and in the process get a few extra sales because they have one more useless molecule than the competitor.

The software industry does the same thing -- lots of features that go so far above the original mandate of the program that the sales process becomes a process of promoting "bullet point features" that very few to no people actually need. Even free software suffers from this -- a lot of old-line Unix people deeply dislike GNU software because of its feature bloat. It's not a gender-related thing at all, Guisewite is just highlighting its implementation at the cosmetics counter.

Marketers do use mumbo jumbo to create false impressions. On the guy side, the Enzyte packaging is an exemplar of this. I read the cathy strip, and it didn't seem to be sexist towards women. It was just directed at Cathy because uh, did you notice she's the lead character?

Stop being shrill. Every few weeks when I check this blog you're giving feminists a bad name overreacting to something. I'm guessing this isn't one of the more popular Scienceblogs.

Why don't they even attempt to teach science here?

Maybe the strip should've said "scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo". If you read those packages, what they are saying usually doesn't reveal anything from a scientific perspective, they are just using scientific words--which is what I thought the strip was getting at.
You're free to disagree, of course, especially on your own blog! I think Erica's comment is a little ironic--if overreacting is such a horrible thing to do, then why does she seem to be overreacting so much to your post?

Erica: Meow! (How's that for sexist?) But it would be great to see the secret report the scibloggers get that shows all the numbers.

Be as "shrill" as you want, Zuska. If you weren't so opinionated, I wouldn't be as interested. I rarely agree with you, but I have learned a thing or two and had fun while doing so. I don't know how popular you are, but you're one my 4 regular stops when I visit scienceblogs.

Stop being shrill.

Be quiet, be accomodating, be nice, be a "good girl". How's that working out for you, Erica?

With all of the chemical names thrown out, wouldn't it be more likely to induce wrinkles with squinting and other facial contortions?

Or do the chemical names induce zombiefication?

Any psychologists want to study some body language?

By natural cynic (not verified) on 24 Apr 2007 #permalink

Ehhh... I don't think it's sexist at all.

I don't think the point is that women can't understand chemical names and what they do. I think it's more that pretty much no one can unless they have a degree in chemistry, and the chemical companies that manufacture these products take advantage of it in order to market their products. The only concession I will make is that they do tend to target women with those chemically names in what seems to be a bid to impress them with how high tech they are.

I'm a reasonably educated guy and I don't even know what half of the ingredients in a bottle of shampoo are.

I agree with Erica that this is probably something of an overreaction, although I also agree with those who would say that Erica could have been a little more civil in saying so. If you have a beef with anyone, it should be the advertising agencies that say things like "here comes the science..."

Maybe Lawrence Summers is subbing for Cathy Guisewite this week...

But in all seriousness, what depresses me about Cathy (and this panel in particular) is the way in which the title character embodies so many negative female stereotypes herself. We're never asked to pity her or laugh at her foolishness; the tone of the strip seems to demand a "I laugh because that's SO TRUE!" response. Thanks, but some of us don't freak out at the sound of polysyllabic words or feel the need to wear micro-minis.

By ChunHyang72 (not verified) on 25 Apr 2007 #permalink

There's an incredible amount of inertia on the mainstream comics pages. This "Cathy" strip sounds exactly like those that I remember seeing when I last bothered to read the strip back in the early '80s.

Anyway, like Russell Miller said above, I don't know how specifically sexist it was, because I think that cosmetics manufacturers do concoct a bunch of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to try to justify the huge mark-up on their wares. (I just read perfume chemist Luca Turin's book "The Secret of Scent" about his theory of the science behind smell, and he talks about how huge the profit on perfumes is.) I think the mumbo-jumbo is mostly targeted at women because keeping us insecure about our appearance is a huge economic driver. What would keep most of the traditional women's magazines afloat if not for cosmetics ads?

Case in point: facial moisturizers. I've been reading a lot about nanotechnology in cosmetics recently for an article I'm finishing writing. There are moisturizers that claim to have the nano advantage, but I don't find any scientific justification as to why I should abandon my moisturizer, which I pay $10 for at the local drugstore and one bottle lasts me a whole year. The ordinary product I use has SPF 15, doesn't clog pores, was recommended to me by a dermatologist, and I've been using it for 17 years with fine results. I'm still young enough that I haven't noticed changes in my skin yet, and maybe I won't pooh-pooh some of these more expensive cosmetics so much in ten years if there's real evidence to suggest that their ingredients make a positive difference. I'd trust my dermatologist over an advertising copywriter, that's for sure. But maybe we get the pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo because not everyone feels that way.

Well, I generally know I've hit a nerve somewhere when I begin receiving the demands to stop being so shrill (or to be nice, or whatever the phrasing of the day is.) The snipe about TSZ not being popular is also amusing - reminds me of the guy awhile back who threatened to quit reading if I didn't start being nicer. People who leave comments like that must assume that blogging, for me, is like some high school popularity contest -- ooh, pick me, pick me, I wanna be the homecoming queen! Anyone is free to dislike what I write here, and to spend their blog-reading time elsewhere. But why waste your breath telling me I need to write differently?

Ahhh....because women aren't supposed to notice, let alone comment on, manifestations of gender bias when they occur, be they large or small. If we DO notice, then our attention has to be redirected, and if we insist on noticing, then we need to be told to shut up.

Sometimes we will be told "this isn't really about gender at all". This isn't about women! No one can understand those goofy long chemical names! Except that it's a woman in the comic strip, and we have a cultural stereotype that women can't do science, and we have the woman being told that science will paralyze her brain - which plays right into that stereotype, whether Cathy Guisewite intended to or not.

Sometimes we'll just be told to shut up - "stop being shrill". Sometimes, as in the present case, it's even a woman who does the chastising (which is why one of my post Categories is "Apologists for the Oppressors").

The Cathy comic strip is not the worst thing I've ever seen, nor is it, on its own, going to keep young women from becoming scientists. But it is just one more cultural manifestation of the stereotype that women don't "get" science, that women are easily flustered, confused, even stupefied by any science-y sounding stuff. That strip doesn't create the stereotype, but it reinforces it. And this is how gender stereotyping is maintained - not by big, grandiose gestures, but by thousands and thousands of tiny little acts and events, day after day after day. Even a tiny drip of water can wear away a stone if it just keeps drip, drip, dripping long enough.

So, Zuska, would you have been as upset if it were a man in the comic strip in place of Cathy, but everything else were exactly the same?

After all, sexist is sexist.

(Salicylic acid is aspirin, btw. That amused me)

Russell: It wouldn't 'make sense' with a man in the place. Men don't buy cosmetics, and men aren't 'confused by science'. Without stereotypes to take advantage of, it loses its 'humor' and sense. There's no overarching message to men that they 'can't understand science', and all you have to do is say enough confusing stuff to get their pretty little head all in a tizzy. There's a difference. Dominant social messages are dominant social messages.

A man in the same comic doesn't say the same thing. If it did, then it truly would be a sex irrelevant joke. It's clearly not. If the author meant it to be a general statement about marketing, they messed it up pretty clearly. What messages do _you_ think that a direct substitution would send, if you think it would mean something.

Of course, if you replaced 'cosmetics' with 'tech gadget/truck/stereo with lots of bass' and 'woman' with 'geek/redneck/black person', with the goal of 'buying shit you don't need' instead of 'making you dumb and pretty', you'd have a different stereotype! And some people would think it was funny. After all, racist is racist.

(And as another possible analysis, since you brought up that one of the terms used was easily recognizable, let's assume that at least one woman reader also recognized that it was asprin. Then you have an identification conflict: Cathy's the main character representation of an everywoman, but she's not that reader. That reader knows too much to be normal and pretty and to identify with 'women'. Another fine message to read.)


I still think the part about random "scientific" words being used on packages would've been funny with a man in the comic (if men bought cosmetics, or the cosmetics were replaced with sunscreen or something). It's just silly, the way ads put in random chemical names or big words (many times clearly misrepresenting the point of the science) in order to make the consumer confused enough to think that their product is scientifically proven to work.
The part about women needing cosmetics to look pretty is a pervasive idea in our culture, and it annoys me, but I think Cathy is more often than not being sarcastic about it.

this discussion, by another comic artist, perfectly summarizes everything that is wrong with Cathy. And he is a guy by the way.


fave quote:
" You see, everyone alive today has problems. Of every sort. Some of us figure out how to get past them and not let them take over our lives. For the rest of the world, I suppose, there's always Cathy."

By ilikeathechemicals (not verified) on 25 Apr 2007 #permalink

"Men aren't confused by science"? Have you read the comics pages lately, Mecha? Let's see:

* Roger Fox can't even teach a class how to turn on a computer without breaking something
* Every single Drabble, bar Patrick, can barely pronounce "science"
* Frank and Ernest-- 'nuff said.
* Monty can barely dress himself in the morning.
* The Born Loser, well, the name says it all.
* Dilbert's boss wouldn't know an enzyme if it dressed in a pink tutu, stood on a desk, and started singing "enzymes are here again"

Those are just off the top of my head; the "man too important (or beaten down by life) to understand anything about science or technology" theme is far from unusual.

By Eric the Read (not verified) on 25 Apr 2007 #permalink

Lisa: Rephrased, maybe a joke would have occurred. I can't really deny that. But it wouldn't have been about 'shrinking the guy's brain to make him beautiful'. It woulda been about 'buzzwords is foolish' or 'people are easy marks.' It wouldn't have been _about men_. It would have been about everyone. Because men are default. (Huge side discussion there.) I do think there is a little mocking of cosmetics there, but... well, who's offering the cosmetics there? (I expand on this more later.)

Eric: Okay, fair enough. Bringing up some examples. However, none of those examples you brought up play into an overall cultural stereotype of 'men can't do science' (there's some other stereotypes in them, though, that's for sure!) Let's walk through a few of the ones I recognize, and then talk about the last paragraph you wrote.

Dilbert's boss is playing into the idea that _managers_ are incompetent, not men (as evidenced by at least some of the male engineers getting it.) Naming characters that are the concept of the 'eternal loser' doesn't figure in, because those don't represent men, they represent the comedic 'can't do anything right' guy who isn't quite real. The fact that you can say "'nuff said" about Frank and Ernest points out pretty clearly that their entire schtick is 'Hur hur boy these two guys are simple" (you could make an argument for them being a stereotype of 'country idiot', though, which is definitely a classic 'humor' stereotype. Different argument.) Oh, and I think 'Roger Fox' is referring to Foxtrot, where he's the dumb dad who doesn't 'get it' because he's old and a perpetual loser (compared to the kids, who have at least one male in them, who gets it.) See above about 'eternal loser.' (More general stereotype of 'old people don't get computers' here!)

None of those key into a general stereotype that 'men can't do science.' _Some_ men can't understand, usually the 'stupid' or 'drunk' or 'important' or 'loser' or 'old' ones. (To stop a counterargument, there is a stereotype hiding about men and science, but it's more the masculine jock-style stereotype that not knowing much about science/not being obviously book smart make you more masculine. It isn't general, and it isn't applied to everyone, being more common in grade school/high school. It absolutely does not exist _inside science labs_, from teacher to student, colleague to colleague. The stereotype about women not being able to do science _does_ (and outside it as well.) That specific stereotype is a side discussion as well, other than to note that it exists, I can think of numerous examples, and is not as dominant as the 'women can't do science' idea.)

Back to the point. The telling part is how you phrased the last part. 'Man too important (or beaten down by life) to understand anything about science or technology.' None of that is 'Men _are completely incapable of understanding science_.' These men _trained_ themselves to not knowing about science. It's not that they couldn't. They don't _have_ to. Some of them even take pride in it! And we all understand that. Because those examples are not about _men_. They're about specific men, or specific classes of people. (Due to men being the default gender, saying that Fox ties into 'old people don't get computers' makes sense, for example.)

Read the comic again. It's not 'Just Cathy' that won't get the confusing words and be made beautiful. It's _all women_. It's the overall marketing technique. The message isn't about just one person. It's about all women. That makes a difference.

Now for two thoughts to expand upon this stuff. People might notice I brought up 'men are default'. For people more interested in the general analysis, the difference seems similar to the 'token' problem to me, where a single woman/racial minority in a place ends up representing the entire wonan/racial minority. Being good (IE: doing stuff you'd expect people in that role to do) is a 'credit to your sex/race.' Being 'bad' is a mark against your sex/race. Men are the 'default', so their characteristics represent them. Women/race are usually _not_ default, so there's often a tinge of 'whatever they do reflects on women/race.' Just a thought.

Also, those of us that recognize that the people in labcoats are saying stuff that's junk? Who are the ones in labcoats? Women! Yes, _women are both the perpetrator of the joke, and the one it's done upon_. It could be a positive message, having women in labcoats, but instead they are both too stupid to understand science, and too stupid/opportunistic to actually use it for real, so instead they just try to 'look like it'. Fake it. Because women can't _do_ science. A negative stereotype about scientists, and women scientists, comes to the fore once more. Seriously. It really is everywhere in that particular strip, if you bother to look at the messages.


"So, Zuska, would you have been as upset if it were a man in the comic strip in place of Cathy, but everything else were exactly the same?

After all, sexist is sexist."

The question you should actually be asking is, if it WERE a man in the comic strip, would you still think it was funny?

The mark of a 'sexist' joke is that the joke WOULDN'T be considered funny if you changed the gender.

Russell, thank you for illustrating male privilege to the class. Those of us who are female and can't quite break free of the message that beauty is everything and that age and acne both preclude beauty know that salicylic acid is a common ingredient in anti-wrinkle creams. It is also the main active ingredient in many OTC acne treatments.

By Frumious B (not verified) on 27 Apr 2007 #permalink

Men don't buy cosmetics, it's true. But most men get that same "the AM radio is tuned between stations" look in their face.

What do i mean by most? I mean 'most'. Do you know any below average people? It's possible you don't. I didn't for a long time.

I handed a funny comic to a coworker at the metal products forming plant (a sweat shop). There was nothing tricky in it. His reading level wasn't up to getting the joke and having it be funny.

Well, I'm starting to think that maybe we just have to agree with all these guys who are telling us "no, really, men are dense, too!" Because they are clearly demonstrating that they are way too dense to understand even the simplest and most obvious examples of sexism, even when they are painstakingly pointed out, explained, and deconstructed. Or is it the case that they are just sitting there with fingers in their ears saying "la la la la la, I can't hear you, I won't hear you!"

Zuska, are you absolutely sure you're not engaging in a bit of overzealous pattern recognition here? The basic joke would work fine in many contexts (car parts stores, auto dealerships, electronics stores, holistic "pharmacies" come to mind as places notorious for bafflegab) that have nothing to do with female stereotypes; this example just happened to be at a cosmetics counter (as I said, a field notorious for stuffing random ingredients into their products to make a bit of extra profit), in a mediocre comic strip about a terminally frazzled woman. I think it's more the juxtaposition of situations that comes off as offensive than the joke itself.

Cathy is not a great comic, just a long-lived one. The particular strip in question is incredibly unoriginal. But it does seem that any sexist overtones to the strip are a matter of context more than the content of the joke itself.

The basic joke would work fine in many contexts (car parts stores, auto dealerships, electronics stores, holistic "pharmacies" come to mind as places notorious for bafflegab) that have nothing to do with female stereotypes;

Brian, what universe do you live in where car parts stores, auto dealers, electronics stores, and holistic pharmacies have nothing to do with female stereotypes?

By Frumious B (not verified) on 30 Apr 2007 #permalink

Frumious B:

You're sort of missing my point. I'm saying that the comic in question was about getting steamrollered by sciency mumbo-jumbo, not about how women can't handle science. Perhaps my choice of examples was not terribly good in terms of stereotype removal, but that misstep aside, I still hold them up as places where sounding impressive is treated as more important than actual functionality.

I got your point, all right. I wonder how you manage to miss that all the places you can think of where sounding impressive is treated as more important than actual functionality are all places fraught with female stereotypes.

By Frumious B (not verified) on 02 May 2007 #permalink

Brian: Being confused by mumbo-jumbo is only half the story. In short:

1) Cathy is not just 'confused', her 'confusion' is _good_. It helps her lose weight! You don't need to be smart, just pretty. (Note that she didn't actually 'buy' the product in the strip. For a message to be sent in the situations you're talking about, generally the product would have to be bought (consumers are stupid!) or the consumer would have to call them on it (marketers are liars!) Neither of these things happened.)

2) Cathy is every woman. Her 'confusion' is normal. If you were smart, and got that it was a snow job... you're an outsider. You don't need to be smart. Just pretty. (Aside from her description AS everywoman, see the conversations in this blog and other places about how minorities represent their entire minority in the media.)

3) (And this one is weaker, but there.) The women doing the scamming are also not smart. They're cons. Now, this has two messages. Beauty products are more con than reality. Women aren't real scientists.

You are asserting 'but it would be the same joke if you put a guy in there', but it wouldn't. The guy would be 'confused', but the joke wouldn't be 'And thusly he is made beautiful! Confusion is good, thinking is bad, women are pretty!' Your assertion is half right, but the half that's wrong is really problematic.