The Cathy comic strip, created and produced by Cathy Guisewite from 1976 until 2010, is one of those artifacts that’s preserved in the cultural ephemera more for its broad strokes than its full complexity. And those broad strokes tend to be… shall we say, less than flattering. The Cathy character, an upwardly mobile white woman in her 30s attending to modernity with perpetual exasperation (“Aack!”), a perennial joke. She’s a caricature, perhaps, of a certain kind of Boomer woman with a certain kind of Boomer relationship to feminism, a symbol adjacent to what might be called the Cheugy aesthetic pre-TikTok glorification.
Or at least that’s how she’s remembered by most people today, whether that memory is conceived by youthful osmotic consumption or through short-hand cureference, like that one scene in 30 Rock. But what if that interpretation of Cathy is, by and large, one that’s worth re-interrogating? What if Cathy, the character, isn’t just a mere “product of its time,” but a reflection of the very human complexities involved in adequately navigating the fluid and shifting politics of an accelerating culture?
This is the endeavor of Aack Cast, the latest audio series from the comedian and podcaster (in that order, in her words) Jamie Loftus. The show is Loftus’s second audio release in under a year, following the exceptional Lolita Podcast that dropped over the winter. The two projects share a lot in common: First and foremost, both are sharp efforts of literary criticism, albeit using a form that isn’t typically associated with that function. Second, both podcasts grapple with works that are intimately connected to the notion of women and womanhood: the Cathy comic strip for reasons discussed above, and Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita for, among other things, its portrayal of the sordid sexualization of a young woman and how the cultural memory of that portrayal has evolved over time. Finally, both audio projects are very, very good, at least based on the first episode of Aack Cast alone.
Of course, Aack Cast is far from the first effort to reexamine the legacy and significance of the comic series, specifically in terms of its relationship to feminism. The last round of revisitations took place in 2019, pegged to Guisewite’s essay collection, Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, that was published at the time. One such effort included the journalist and cultural critic Rachel Syme’s piece in the Cut, “The Feminist Paradox of Cathy Guisewite,” where she argued:
It would be easy to dismiss Guisewite from across the generational chasm, as simply a by-product of her time, but Cathy’s struggles aren’t quite as far from our own as we’d often like to think. Women may have more nuanced language for how they talk about the distance between what they choose to project and how they feel on the inside, but two minutes on Instagram is enough to prove that generating authentic confidence is still a confounding process.
In many ways, Loftus builds upon this line of recontextualization, but she does so in customarily Loftusian fashion: vociferously, and with sly, charismatic, swashbuckling energy. She seems intent on pushing the argument further, perhaps going beyond an understanding of the Cathy character as a feminist paradox and interpreting her more as a figure that is, in fact, quite cool. “While it’s never shown in the comics, obviously, Cathy fucks,” she emphasizes, listing off a list of the men who appear in the strip as Cathy’s boyfriends. “She fucks, and to think that she only dreams of fucking but never does is to fundamentally misunderstand Cathy.”
At least, that’s what I think Loftus is doing. I’m looking forward to learning more over the rest of the show’s run.
Ah, sweet, sweet Decoder Ring.
Since its launch in April 2018, Slate’s truly excellent culture deep-dive podcast, hosted by Willa Paskin, has built out an impressive backlog of episodes that is distinct for the sheer interestingness of its story selection. Ever wondered about the history of laugh tracks? Or the mechanics and origins of Baby Shark (doo doo doo doo doo)? Or where the concept of metrosexuals came from?
The basic architecture of each Decoder Ring excursion is relatively simple — take a phenomenon that’s broadly in the cultural air, dig in, and trace it back to its origins. It almost always has to do with capitalism in some shape or form (because what doesn’t, really), but the rabbit holes are infinite in where they can lead. One of these days, I’d love to work on a deep dive on the ideology grounding Decoder Ring, which I suspect involves some mix of Gen-X energy and healthy eyebrow-furrowing, generally embodied in the show itself by Paskin’s narration style, full of wry gusto.
Anyway, I’m saying all this to flag that Decoder Ring has returned with a new batch of episodes, and even more, it’s adopting a seasonal approach with weekly drops moving forward. At this writing, three installments of the new season are widely available: a dive into a legendary plotline from the daily soap opera One Life to Live that seriously examined sexual assault; the invention of hydration, or, put differently, why we buy bottled water and seltzer these days (again, capitalism); and the misunderstood history of Muzak, i.e. elevator music.
Man, I love this show.
• Ever wanted celebrated theater icon Wallace Shawn orate long monologues into your ears? You’re in luck, friend. His 1996 play, The Designated Mourner, has been adapted into a six-part podcast, directed by André Gregory(!). Also stars Deborah Eisenberg and Larry Pine.
• For fans of Dissect, Cole Cuchna’s podcast diving deep, deep, deep into albums, take note that he has launched a new spinoff using Spotify’s mixed music-talk format feature. It’s called Key Notes, and keep in mind: It’s exclusive to the Swedish audio streaming platform.
And that’s a wrap for 1.5x Speed! Hope you enjoyed it. We’re back next week, but in the meantime: Send podcast recommendations, feedback, or just say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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