Look What the Cat Lady Dragged in

[10 December 2008]

By Jennifer Byrne

In a recent conversation with a good friend, I deployed a familiar maneuver in response to her endless, self-satisfied talk of babies and children: I talked about my cats.

Granted, I realize that tales of my inherently potty-trained felines pale in comparison to the endlessly intriguing vagaries of the diapering adventure, but it was frankly all I had. I wanted to be a participant in the conversation, to relate in some small way to her experience. Plus, I was hoping to shift the discussion away from the texture and consistency of baby feces.

So I told her about my difficulties with the more “high maintenance” of my two cats, who had taken to meowing obsessively starting at about 5AM, often waking me repeatedly. This behavior, I had read, was apparently a biologically-programmed hunting instinct, since a cat’s crepuscular prey is often out and about at this hour.

It was in the midst of this anecdote that my dear friend cut me off and let fly what I later realized was one of the few socially acceptable sexist stereotypes in existence. She said it with utter affection, and without the least concern as to its appropriateness.

“You’re becoming the crazy cat lady,” she said, and resumed her discourse on the nuanced color palate of acceptable shades of baby poop and how they’re indicators of baby’s health.

The crazy cat lady. I wasn’t offended; as I said, this is a good friend whose love and respect for me is not in question. Besides, perhaps her remark may have been only logical in response to my proposed solution of buying a “Cat TV” video of woodland critters for my insomniac cat’s viewing pleasure.
And yet, I couldn’t help turning that phrase over in my mind. The crazy cat lady. I doubt it would have been equally acceptable for me to call her the crazy baby lady, would it?

The lady part struck me as particularly interesting; this was a gender-specific pejorative, something I’m always on the lookout for. I thought about all of the other negative female classifications that my friend couldn’t have said. Imagine, for example, if she’d called me a bimbo, or a bitch, or any of the myriad “taboo” female slurs. I wouldn’t have simply chuckled and reluctantly agreed to those categorizations.

But the phrase crazy cat lady is still lobbed to and fro with regularity; I’ve used it myself on various occasions. Cat ownership, or what it represents, seems to be legitimate grounds on which to innocuously attack femaleness, to gently mock female emotions gone haywire. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that within the ever-narrowing strictures of political correctness, the crazy cat lady has become the receptacle of all of our inappropriate notions, our dismissals about what it is to be female. It’s practically the only thing we’re still allowed to say.

According to my nascent theory, there’s a crucial reason why it’s perfectly OK for a woman to prattle on endlessly about baby shit without being labeled a crazy baby lady; she’s upholding the status quo, repopulating the earth with humans. Whereas the crazy cat lady, from what I’ve gleaned of the stereotype, is either voluntarily opposed to or physically incapable of species propagation. The Urban Dictionary.com defines the Crazy Cat Lady as “A woman, usually middle-aged or older, who lives alone with no husband or boyfriend, and fills the empty lonely void in her life with as many cats as she can collect in one place.”

I should note that I’m not talking about cat hoarding here; this is a distinct pathology that warrants better exploration than I’m offering. But I found it interesting that in its strictest classification, the status of “crazy cat lady” is contingent on being without a sexual partner, and specifically without a male, reproduction-viable sexual partner. Young single women who own cats are not yet branded thus; perhaps because it is assumed that they will eventually pair off and reproduce.

As a married yet still childless heterosexual, I find that I’m still a candidate for this particular stigma, and more so with each year that I advance toward barrenness. I therefore postulate that the crazy cat lady is a veiled expression of a patriarchal suspicion toward uncoupled, non-breeding, or otherwise rogue human females.

But why cats, and not dogs or rabbits or goldfish?  Surely, cats never asked to be the symbol of feminine eccentricity. They never asked to be affiliated with anything; they just want to do their own thing.

That, from what I can tell, is part of the answer. Cats are famously associated with traits which are threatening to a patriarchy: independence, disobedience, aloofness. Conversely, dogs are known for their doting natures, their desire to please, their trainability. Interestingly enough, cats are often associated with femininity, and dogs with masculinity.

It seems that after centuries of men subjugating women, feminine traits are ascribed to the “untrustworthy” species, the mercurial, unpredictable pet that is apt to betray its owner at any time.  Sure, they’re domesticated, but are they really loyal? They might just suck the breath out of the baby.

Just think of the countless ways in which cats and women are linked – a dispute between two women is called a catfight; gossipy women are catty; the female genitalia is labeled pussy. An aging woman who predatorily seeks much younger sexual partners is called a cougar.

Cats, it seems, are the so-called “spirit animal” of women. The crazy cat lady, therefore, seems to be yet another extension of our society’s continued circumspection toward women who don’t conform to heteronormative standards. They are made into a caricature, a figure of fun, because we don’t know what else to do with them.

Men who love cats don’t fare much better; the virility of male ailurophiles seems to be immediately called into question, regardless of marital status, reproductive performance, or any other independent factor. When my husband and I were married, my father-in-law gave a toast that I consider very telling.

In discussing the ways in which our relationship had changed my husband, my father- in-law said, “And I never thought I’d see the day when my son would have a cat.” This mild teasing evinced the expected laughter, and a sheepish grin from my husband.

Certainly, if he’d said the same thing, but substituted the word dog, the joke would have fallen flat. “I never thought I’d see the day when my son would have a dog.” Not funny. Why is this?

Part of the answer lies in a study conducted by Robert W. Mitchell at Eastern Kentucky University, “Gender-related Stereotypes of Male ‘Cat People’ and ‘Dog People’”.  This study concluded that “a man’s being a dog person makes him appear more masculine than being a cat person.” This is especially true in uber-masculine “alpha males”. So it was funny that my football-obsessed husband had come to love cats, because cats are “girly”. In men, cat ownership seems to denote a lack of masculinity, an unsettling comfort with the “feminine side,” a suspicious alliance with the opposite sex.

It doesn’t matter that my husband trained “his” cat to sit on her hind legs in pursuit of a bloody cut of steak, or that the image of him sitting with a purring cat on his lap is marred by his Don Draperesque chain smoking. He is, to paraphrase his dad in much coarser terms, “pussy-whipped”. The funny thing is, so am I.

As the dismantling of stereotypical gender roles continues to advance, I’m hoping that the “crazy cat lady” stigma will diminish apace. Ideally, this tolerance will be just in time for me to put on my ratty old muumuu, conclude that my hair doesn’t need brushing after all, and summon my whiskered friends into my lap for a nice, long conversation.

Jennifer Byrne does not actively seek out pop culture, but instead absorbs it involuntarily, as if through a semipermeable membrane (actually, she gets it from her computer and TV). In Pop Osmosis she explores her own deeply conflicted reactions to will explore my own deeply conflicted reactions to many high and low pop culture phenomena to which she is exposed, from the genuinely intriguing to the stuff that might involve accessory dogs. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The National Ledger, and in various clever emails.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/66747-look-what-the-cat-lady-dragged-in/