Re­claim­ing “Cat Lady”

Modern Cat - - Contents - BY NOA NICHOL

Just don’t call them crazy… How an army of kitty cru­saders is spin­ning a neg­a­tive stereo­type on its whiskered head.

Ac­cord­ing to one on­line ur­ban dic­tio­nary, the term “crazy cat lady” refers to “an el­derly sub­ur­ban widow who lives alone and keeps dozens or more pet cats—usu­ally many more than mu­nic­i­pal code al­lows—in a small house, and re­fuses to give away or sell them even for the sake of the safety of the cats or her­self.” Another def­i­ni­tion reads, “Some­one who can’t seem to get a date … or any­thing. It’s like [be­ing] for­ever alone—ex­cept you get cats.” From gifs to memes to ac­tion fig­ures to Hal­loween cos­tumes to char­ac­ters on pop­u­lar TV shows, the so-called “crazy cat lady” has re­ceived a pretty bad rap.

Un­til now. A move­ment of sorts, led by cat lovers across North Amer­ica and around the world, seems to be un­der­way to take the term back. They’re turn­ing the stereo­type—that peo­ple, women and men alike, who love cats are crazy—on its head. One such kitty cru­sader is BriAnne Wills—a fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher and cre­ator of an orig­i­nal photo se­ries called Girls and Their Cats that shines a spot­light on, in BriAnne’s own words, “the cutest cat ladies and their furry com­pan­ions.”

“I moved to Brook­lyn in 2014 with my hus­band and two res­cue cats [and] started Girls and Their Cats shortly af­ter as a way to show­case cat ladies in a pos­i­tive light,” she says. “I've pho­tographed 184 cat ladies so far. I've also been com­mis­sioned by Fresh Step and Meow Mix to cre­ate so­cial me­dia con­tent for them, and by Teen Vogue to shoot a Cats and Cat Eyes beauty editorial be­cause they had seen the se­ries.”

Her project, she adds, is “de­voted to smash­ing the crazy cat lady stereo­type” by fea­tur­ing strong, in­de­pen­dent, cool, stylish women of all va­ri­eties. “Th­ese women share their sto­ries about how own­ing a cat or cats has changed their lives for the bet­ter and the por­traits are beau­ti­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tions of what liv­ing with a cat re­ally looks like.”

She agrees that, in the past, the term “crazy cat lady” has tended to re­fer to “the lit­tle old lady down the street who lived alone and had an un­healthy amount of cats.” Though the la­bel is, today, of­ten used in a hu­mor­ous way, she says there’s still ground to cover when it comes to erad­i­cat­ing all associated neg­a­tives—in par­tic­u­lar, those that point to some sort of men­tal or emo­tional im­bal­ance. “Men­tal ill­ness is not a friv­o­lous sub­ject mat­ter and ‘crazy’ is not a term we should project on some­one just be­cause they own cats and maybe post a lot of cat videos,” BriAnne says, adding that her per­sonal def­i­ni­tion points to “some­one who cares a lot about our furry friends and en­joys shar­ing their life and space with them.” A sec­ond pho­tog­ra­pher with a sim­i­lar aim is David Wil­liams, who, in 2016, au­thored a New York Times best­selling photo book en­ti­tled Men With Cats: In­ti­mate Por­traits of Fe­line Friend­ship, the aim of which, ac­cord­ing to his pub­lisher’s web­site, is to cel­e­brate “cat-own­ing men and the pre­cious kit­ties who have stolen their hearts,” with sub­jects rang­ing from mu­si­cians to artists, sol­diers, CEOs, truck drivers, and tat­too artists.

Just don't call them crazy... How an army of kitty cru­saders is spin­ning a neg­a­tive stereo­type on its whiskered head By Noa Nichol | Il­lus­tra­tion by Ryan Gar­cia

I've heard from a few cat ladies that they were un­sure about adopt­ing at first for fear of be­ing judged or teased. There are more than a mil­lion cats eu­th­a­nized each year so if women—and men—are afraid to adopt be­cause of neg­a­tive stereo­types, it def­i­nitely hurts cats in the long run.

Speak­ing di­rectly to the “crazy cat lady” archetype, David says that, while it may have orig­i­nated from the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween witches and their black cats, he per­son­ally be­came aware of the term af­ter see­ing it por­trayed in pop­u­lar cul­ture and on tele­vi­sion shows like The Simp­sons. “It never had any deep im­pact on me be­sides light teas­ing about be­ing more in­ter­ested in cats over dogs,” he ex­plains. “Our cul­ture has a weird habit of as­sign­ing gen­der to pretty much ev­ery­thing—colours, cars, toys—and it’s no dif­fer­ent for an­i­mals. Cats are for girls and dogs are for boys. When talk­ing about cats and dogs, we even as­sign them a gen­der: cats are girls and dogs are boys. Pre­sum­ably we do this be­cause we just as­so­ciate their stereo­typ­i­cal be­hav­iour with hu­man stereo­typ­i­cal be­hav­iour. Cats are seen as more ‘fem­i­nine’ be­cause they are pas­sive and in­tro­verted, dogs are “mas­cu­line” be­cause they are high en­ergy and in­de­pen­dent.” As a man who loves cats—and who has met and col­lab­o­rated with many other fe­line-lov­ing males—David, like BriAnne, is in­ter­ested in see­ing the word “crazy” dis­as­so­ci­ated from those who con­sider them­selves as “cat peo­ple.”

“I think that the word ‘crazy’ gets thrown around too of­ten,” he says, echo­ing his fel­low pho­tog­ra­pher’s sen­ti­ments. “There are peo­ple who live with men­tal ill­ness ev­ery day and I think any­one who is in­ter­ested in bet­ter­ing the lives of cats is far from crazy. I think that dis­man­tling the as­so­ci­a­tion of the word ‘crazy’ with any­one who is pas­sion­ate about some­thing, whether it’s cats, dogs, plants or rocks, is a shift in the right di­rec­tion.”

Cel­e­brat­ing and em­brac­ing a love of cats is cer­tainly a shift in the right di­rec­tion for the cats crowd­ing an­i­mal shel­ters across the U.S. and Canada—and, in­deed, around the world. As the Kit­ten Lady, a.k.a. Han­nah Shaw—a res­cuer, humane ed­u­ca­tor and un­wa­ver­ing ad­vo­cate who has ded­i­cated her life to find­ing in­no­va­tive ways to pro­tect an­i­mals—says in a YouTube video posted late last year, not only is the stereo­type of the crazy cat lady un­true—it’s ac­tu­ally dam­ag­ing to cats. “It dis­cour­ages our par­tic­i­pa­tion in their pro­tec­tion,” she tells an au­di­ence of, thus far, nearly 17,500 view­ers. “I think the lan­guage we use is re­ally im­por­tant be­cause it frames not only our own self con­cept but also how other peo­ple per­ceive us, and I cer­tainly don’t iden­tify as crazy. “It doesn’t have to be crazy to save lives,” she adds. “We know that a young gen­er­a­tion is in­flu­enced by the images they see around them, so when we de­pict cat peo­ple as crazy, it dis­cour­ages their in­volve­ment in a re­ally im­por­tant cause. When seven out of 10 cats who en­ter United States shel­ters are be­ing held there, we need smart and so­phis­ti­cated peo­ple of all back­grounds to be in­volved in help­ing to change that.”

BriAnne agrees, say­ing, “I've heard from a few cat ladies that they were un­sure about adopt­ing at first for fear of be­ing judged or teased. There are more than a mil­lion cats eu­th­a­nized each year so if women—and men—are afraid to

adopt be­cause of neg­a­tive stereo­types, it def­i­nitely hurts cats in the long run.” Diane Love­joy is a long­time cat res­cuer who has writ­ten two books— Cat Lady Chron­i­cles and Cat Lady Chic— in an ef­fort to paint a new por­trait of just who a cat lady re­ally is. As she ex­plains it, “Seven­teen years ago I started res­cu­ing cats who had been aban­doned in the Hous­ton neigh­bor­hood where my hus­band, Michael, and I live. He also loves cats, and we em­barked on this jour­ney to­gether, ev­ery step of the way. When I look back to res­cu­ing our first cat, Lu­cius, I now be­lieve it was des­tiny that I would be­come a cat lady.” Hap­pily, in her own work and ob­ser­va­tions, Diane be­lieves the

stereo­type is chang­ing, the la­bel loos­en­ing. Rather then “crazy” pre­ced­ing “cat lady,” she’s start­ing to see words like “awe­some” and other up­beat ad­jec­tives be­ing used. This change, she says, is “long over­due,” and “there are plenty of sane peo­ple who rec­og­nized this need. There may not be an or­ga­nized po­lit­i­cal move­ment afloat, but there are mil­lions of women across the world who en­joy talk­ing about their cats, post­ing pics of them, and spread­ing the love for all things fe­line.” And, though the stigma that’s been cre­ated by the “crazy cat lady” la­bel is largely neg­a­tive, Diane be­lieves the char­ac­ter­is­tics of be­ing crazy for and about cats are 100 per­cent pos­i­tive. “Be­ing a cat per­son means that I am fully in tune with my cat’s per­son­al­ity—or, in the case of Lu­cius, with his mul­ti­ple per­son­al­i­ties!—health is­sues, habits, likes, and dis­likes,” she says. “I am ex­tremely proud to be a cat per­son, and I hope it is ob­vi­ous that I never ob­ject to be­ing called a cat lady. Just leave out the ‘crazy,’ please!”

Back on YouTube, Kit­ten Lady Han­nah, too, dis­misses the no­tion of a lonely old woman with a mil­lion cats, a bathrobe, and frizzy hair. “To me what it means to be a ‘cat per­son’ is to be a so­cially con­scious ad­vo­cate who’s striv­ing to find in­no­va­tive ways to pro­tect a re­ally vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion,” she states. “And the peo­ple who pro­tect cats come in so many shapes and sizes—it’s women, men, young peo­ple, work­ing pro­fes­sion­als, lawyers, pho­tog­ra­phers—even tat­tooed res­cuers like me. “We need a shift in con­scious­ness in the way we think about cats—and the peo­ple who pro­tect them,” she con­tin­ues. “So let’s get out the lint roller, take off the cat ears, and dis­man­tle this stereo­type. I want ev­ery per­son to feel em­pow­ered to get in­volved in what­ever ca­pac­ity they can, be­cause it takes all of us to make the world a safer place for cats.”.

Chang­ing stereo­types: pho­tos from BriAnne Will's photo se­ries, "Girls and Their Cats."

Pho­tos from David Wil­liam's New York Times best­selling photo book, Men With Cats: In­ti­mate Por­traits of Fe­line Friend­ships.

BriAnne Wills, cre­ator of the photo se­ries Girls and Their Cats, pho­tos from which are shown on left. Find her on In­sta­gram @girl­sandtheir­cats.

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