Brow Beat

When Cathy Met the Coronavirus

“Scenes From Isolation” brings a frazzled comic strip icon into a world where everyone is as stressed out as she’s always been.

A comic strip in which Cathy freaks out, pointing at her reflection in a mirror, with the caption "Solitary social distancing: Stay six feet away from the mirror"
From Cathy’s “Scenes From Isolation.” Cathy Guisewite

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What’s the difference between a Cathy comic from before the coronavirus crisis and one from after? As far as I can tell, it mostly comes down to the types of food that our waist-size-obsessed heroine is agonizing over. Before all this, it was usually, as anyone who knows the first thing about Cathy could tell you, chocolate, or else some other sweet. But now, the snacks that bedevil her have started to nod to life under lockdown: instant mashed potatoes, boxed mac ’n’ cheese, homemade baked goods.

Otherwise, Cathy remains remarkably unchanged by quarantine. Cathy’s response to everything has always been to go a little nuts, and now we know that it makes no difference whether the thing is how unnecessarily difficult it is to transfer shampoo from its original receptacle into those little travel-size bottles or an actual global crisis the likes of which history has never seen. Cathy was already living in a world where push notifications from news outlets were driving her crazy, she felt guilty about her paltry step count, and she spent vast expanses of her life worrying about what she ate. Now, the rest of the world has caught up to her. Like the subset of anxious and depressed people who have been surprised to find that their mental health has actually improved as of late, Cathy was ready for this. She no longer seems as ridiculous as she used to. Is Cathy, in all her overzealous, frizzy, cat-lady glory, the consistent (and consistently distressed) presence this moment needs?

Though the syndicated newspaper comic strip she starred in ended in 2010, these days you can find Cathy on Instagram, where her creator and namesake, Cathy Guisewite, has been posting original one-panel strips for the past couple of years. (I suppose technically these posts might not count as canon, but let’s just assume they do.) Each one is drawn on a little white paper, neatly torn into a square and charmingly, fastidiously mounted on a piece of colorful construction paper. Perhaps sensing our neediness, Guisewite has gone from putting out new panels sporadically to regularly posting a few a week. It will be months or years before we find out if the coronavirus existed in other fictional characters like the Simpsons’ or James Bond’s universes, but the comic strip, unlike other art or story forms, has the rare ability to reflect this crisis as it’s happening. So when self-isolation began for most of us, it began for Cathy, too. Since mid-March, all of the strips have dealt with life in quarantine and carried the label “Scenes From Isolation.”

We see Cathy come up against many of the minor hardships that have characterized quarantine life for the white-collar class, those of us lucky enough to be healthy and able to stay at home: the anxiety of videoconferencing, her roots growing out, the urge to eat junk. But what used to seem cartoonish (figuratively as well as literally) now makes a kind of perfect sense: We are all wide-eyed, wearing pajamas all the time, feeling compulsive about cleaning products.

Where it used to be conventional wisdom to look down on Cathy’s “I’m a mess” shtick, not only for being tedious but for its depiction of women, I can’t be alone in feeling more charitably toward her lately. Never before has Cathy’s nervous-wreck brand so closely aligned with the national mood: also nervous wreck. Who has the energy anymore to get worked up over a cute, and undeniably accurate, sketch of life in lockdown? When I look at a comic from a few weeks ago wherein Cathy is busy working from her home office, but instead of a desk she’s sitting in front of her open refrigerator, I have no other reaction than “Wow, this is so me.” I’m not chewing on my cellphone or barking at my dog, but I can see why a person would.

The most salient criticism of Cathy has always been the charge that she perpetuated negative stereotypes about women, although more recent feminist reconsiderations of the character have recognized that it was more complicated than that. This is all pretty academic considering we’re talking about a person who only sometimes has a nose—but either way, during the coronavirus crisis, Cathy’s struggles read as so much less gendered than before. It’s not just women who empathize with trying not to overeat, missing the outside world, and being afraid of everything. (I’ll concede that men may identify less with the fatphobia and the gray roots.) And so we are freed of much of the guilt we may have once felt furthering harmful clichés in relating to Cathy.

One could say that Cathy trivializes the crisis. It’s grim out there, and we’re all grieving; how can Cathy freak out about her dog making off with one of her coveted rolls of toilet paper at a time like this? But you can also choose to see Cathy’s unwavering mania as soothing, reliable. Banality can be reassuring. Perhaps the apt analogy is: Chocolate is to Cathy as comfort and stability are to us. In a time when we can count on little, we know for sure that Cathy will continue to catastrophize and will probably give off a bunch of cartoon sweat droplets while doing so. In fact, when Cathy does have a moment of pure positivity—such as in finding a new appreciation of the outside or wishing us a happy Easter—it feels actively disconcerting. It is Cathy’s whole job and most pure state to be a basket case, and at that she is an essential worker. It reminds me of Mr. Rogers’ famous (now clichéd) advice for reassuring children in scary times, telling them to “look for the helpers.” A similar principle applies with Cathy: look for the AACK!s. You will always find AACK!s. Whatever happens tomorrow, maybe this certainty will keep us going: Cathy will live to have another cow.