Cool for cats: why mil­len­ni­als are em­brac­ing their in­ner cat lady

Why does the stereo­type of women with cats be­ing lonely, sex­less and ec­cen­tric en­dure? Lucy Jones on the ail­urophiles re­claim­ing the purr-jo­ra­tive

The Guardian - G2 - - Women -

Did you hear the story about the old woman from Ohio who was ar­rested for train­ing her 65 cats to steal her neigh­bour’s stuff ? The Columbus po­lice depart­ment found thou­sands of dol­lars’ worth of jew­ellery in the 83-year-old lady’s house and dis­cov­ered she taught the cats to bring back “any­thing that shined”.

The news story went vi­ral at the end of last year. How do you pic­ture her? Un­kempt hair, dress­ing gown and slip­pers, liv­ing alone, rarely leav­ing the house? The “crazy cat lady”, in other words. In fact, the story was fiction on a satir­i­cal web­site, but peo­ple bought it and shared the story think­ing it was real.

The crazy cat lady is a com­mon, recog­nis­able trope in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture: think of Eleanor Aber­nathy in The Simp­sons. Af­ter a promis­ing ca­reer in medicine and law, she ex­pe­ri­ences burnout, starts drinking and gets a cat. Next minute, she’s talk­ing gib­ber­ish, look­ing di­shev­elled and throw­ing her army of fe­lines around. Then there’s Robert De Niro’s pre­dictably bonkers el­derly Christ­mas cat lady in a 2004 Satur­day Night Live skit: she “had dreams and then she was kicked by a horse and now she has cats. The end!”

The younger ver­sion of the stereo­type is usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with be­ing sin­gle, kooky and weird; af­ter one of her re­la­tion­ships comes to a head, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon ac­quires a cat. “I can fit Emily Dick­in­son’s whole head in my mouth,” she tells a con­cerned Jack Don­aghy. You can even buy a Crazy Cat Lady ac­tion fig­ure on­line, com­plete with de­ranged, star­ing eyes.

To un­der­stand why this trope ex­ists – and why it may be on its last legs – let’s scoot back to the mid­dle ages and the ear­li­est per­cep­tions of women and their cats. Even be­fore witch-hunts, cats had a bad rep in the western world – with as­so­ci­a­tions with hereti­cal sects and the devil. Medieval types con­flated fe­line sex lives with lust­ful, sin­ful, fe­male sex­u­al­ity: cats were seen as “lech­er­ous an­i­mals that ac­tively whee­dled the males on to sex­ual congress”, ac­cord­ing to the his­to­rian James Ser­pell. Al­though, in re­cent pop cul­ture, cat lady has evolved into short­hand for a lonely, sad, sex­less woman. Too sexy, not sexy enough: can’t please ’em.

The ear­li­est cat ladies in the west were, of course, witches. In Malleus Malefi­carum, the landmark medieval trea­tise on witch­craft, a 13th-cen­tury folk story is re­counted, whereby three witches turned them­selves into cats, at­tacked a man on the street and ac­cused him of as­sault in court, show­ing the marks on their bod­ies. From then on, witches were be­lieved to have cats as fa­mil­iars, or to change into fe­lines at night.

Why would cats get such a sa­tanic rep? We can only guess. Cats are mys­te­ri­ous. They come and go. Un­like dogs, they refuse to obey and be do­mes­ti­cated. They’re noc­tur­nal. The An­cient Egyp­tians wor­shipped Bastet, a woman with a head of a cat. Al­though the Bi­ble does not specif­i­cally men­tion cats, early Chris­tian pil­grims were highly sus­pi­cious of other re­li­gions, and they deemed the black cat to be so de­monic that be­ing seen with one could be pun­ish­able by death.

Al­though the 18th cen­tury saw peo­ple beginning to ques­tion su­per­sti­tions – such as the be­lief that a woman’s wart was a teat suck­led by Satan – neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween cats and women re­mained. The Vic­to­ri­ans switched witches for old-maid stereo­types – for sin­gle women with­out chil­dren: “Old maids and cats have long been prover­bially as­so­ci­ated to­gether, and, rightly or wrongly, these crea­tures have been looked upon with a cer­tain de­gree of sus­pi­cion and aver­sion by a large pro­por­tion of the hu­man race,” wrote a jour­nal­ist in the Dundee Courier in 1880. The Old Maid card game was of­ten il­lus­trated with a dour woman and her cat, the “friend of the friend­less”, as it was de­scribed at the time. In the 1900s, anti-suf­fragette pro­pa­ganda used images of cats to por­tray women as silly, use­less, catty and ridicu­lous in their at­tempt to en­ter po­lit­i­cal life.

The in­cep­tion of the “crazy” moniker is harder to pin down, but its con­no­ta­tions of hys­te­ria are an old gen­der stereo­type. Added to this, the ex­treme end of the mod­ern “crazy cat lady” stereo­type has more than a few cats, which is un­usual. Eleanor Aber­nathy, for ex­am­ple, has cats drip­ping off her: she is,

‘The CCL con­cept has long been used to trans­fer shame on women who chal­lenge tra­di­tional roles ’

es­sen­tially, por­trayed as a men­tally ill, al­co­holic, com­pul­sive hoarder.

There may be some truth in the idea that an­i­mal hoard­ing is more com­mon in women. A study in Brazil found that, while gen­er­alised hoard­ing dis­or­der af­fects men and women equally, nearly three­quar­ters of an­i­mal hoarders were women. Since 2013, the Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders clas­si­fies com­pul­sive hoard­ing as a psy­chi­atric dis­or­der, with an­i­mal hoard­ing as a sub­type.

An­other re­cent the­ory is to do with a par­a­site called tox­o­plasma

gondii. This tiny crit­ter in­fects rats and mice and changes their be­hav­iour by, sci­en­tists be­lieve, cre­at­ing an at­trac­tion to cat urine, so it can wind up in the stom­ach of a cat, where it re­pro­duces. It also in­fects be­tween 30% and 60% cent of peo­ple. Sci­en­tists are ex­plor­ing ev­i­dence that tox­o­plas­mo­sis could cre­ate be­havioural changes in peo­ple, lead­ing to lots of ex­cited ar­ti­cles won­der­ing if the par­a­site is a clue to ex­plain­ing the phe­nom­e­non of “crazy cat lady”. The par­a­site con­tains an en­zyme that creates dopamine, which is as­so­ci­ated with risky and im­pul­sive be­hav­iour, among other things, but so far the data is in­con­clu­sive.

But, re­ally, the con­cept of the crazy cat lady tells us more about so­ci­etal per­cep­tions of women than any­thing else. It has long been a pe­jo­ra­tive term and a device for trans­fer­ring shame and judg­ment on women who chal­lenged tra­di­tional roles, or were hard to do­mes­ti­cate and keep in line. Here is the co-cre­ator of Bat­man, Bob Kane, ex­plain­ing his cre­ation of Cat Woman: “I felt that women were fe­line crea­tures and men were more like dogs. While dogs are faithful and friendly, cats are cool, de­tached and un­re­li­able … cats are as hard to un­der­stand as women are,” he said. “You al­ways need to keep women at arm’s length. We don’t want any­one tak­ing over our souls, and women have a habit of do­ing that.”

But millennial ail­urophiles have had enough. Over the last few years, there have been mul­ti­va­lent ef­forts to de­bunk the crazy cat lady stereo­type and project a pos­i­tive view of women and their cats. Pussy is strik­ing back.

From glossy fash­ion mag­a­zines celebrating the fe­line-hu­man re­la­tion­ship – Cat Peo­ple, Puss Puss – to Taylor Swift and Katy Perry’s unashamed ado­ra­tion of their fe­line pets, the stereo­type is be­ing re­cal­i­brated. CatCon World­wide, a new con­fer­ence celebrating cat cul­ture, has, as its core value, the de­sire to “change the neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of the crazy cat lady and prove that it is pos­si­ble to be hip, stylish, and have a cat”.

The book Cat Lady Chic (2012) of­fered el­e­gant images of cat-own­ers Au­drey Hep­burn, Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe, Diana Ross and Zelda Fitzger­ald as an an­ti­dote to the Eleanor Aber­nathy archetype. And Girls & Their Cats, a so­phis­ti­cated se­ries of pho­to­graphs of women and their fe­line com­pan­ions, was cre­ated by Brook­lyn-based fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher Bri­Anne Wills to help dis­man­tle the stereo­type. “It just wasn’t rep­re­sen­ta­tive of any of the cat ladies I per­son­ally knew, who are all in­de­pen­dent, cool, ca­reer-driven women who re­ally love their cats,” she said. “Also, there are more than a mil­lion cats eu­thanised each year so if women (and men) are afraid to adopt be­cause of neg­a­tive stereo­types it def­i­nitely hurts cats in the long run.”

In the mem­o­rable short story Cat Per­son (2017), Kris­ten Roupe­nian in­verts the cat lady trope by giv­ing her male pro­tag­o­nist, Robert, a cou­ple of pet cats. She em­ploys the pres­ence of Robert’s fe­lines as a sym­bol that Margot uses to con­struct her im­age of him. “We de­cide that it means some­thing that a per­son likes cats in­stead of dogs,” said Roupe­nian in an in­ter­view. But there is some­thing sin­is­ter go­ing on. Margot never sees the cats, and won­ders if Robert has lied about them. So what is it about pre­tend­ing to have cats that might en­dear Margot to him in a sex­ual set­ting? Is he us­ing his cats to lure her in?

But per­haps the mo­ment the crazy cat lady mo­tif truly jumped the shark was with the song But­t­load of Cats on an episode of the tele­vi­sion se­ries Crazy Ex-Girl­friend ear­lier this year. Re­becca Bunch walks her­self down to the Lonely

Lady Cat Store. “The smell is over­whelm­ing in­side / This is the fu­ture smell of my house / It’s the smell of my dreams that have died,” she sings. “When you’re a per­ma­nent bach­e­lorette / It’s manda­tory that you go out and get / A but­t­load of cats / Oh, yeah!”

The song made a mock­ery of the hys­te­ria pro­jected on women who own cats. So is the no­tion of the crazy cat lady over? Wills be­lieves there is still work to be done to change per­cep­tions, but she hopes that her pho­tog­ra­phy project will help. “It is 2018,” she says, “and women are tired of de­fend­ing them­selves.”

And their love for their cats.

‘Over the past few years, there have been many ef­forts to de­bunk the stereo­types’

Au­drey Hep­burn and ‘Cat’ in Break­fast at Tif­fany’s

Katy Perry in the 2012 doc­u­men­tary film Katy Perry: Part of Me

Drip­ping cats … Eleanor Aber­nathy in The Simp­sons

Taylor Swift with her cat in New York. Be­low: Robert de Niro on Satur­day Night Live

Vin­tage illustration of a witch and her black cat on a broom at Hal­loween

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