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In defense of cat ladies
When people are grossed out by cats, is it entrenched misogyny?
We were filming an upcoming video series for Diem the other week, and a woman we interviewed brought this question up. While I initially laughed at the remark, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. So, yes, today’s newsletter goes out to the cat ladies. An important note: I love cats.
Cats and femininity usually fall into one of two camps: the hyper-sexualized “sexy cat” or the highly desexualized “crazy cat lady.” I can’t think of any other animal that’s so frequently used to describe female sexuality or anatomy (i.e. “pussy,” “sex kitten,” “cougar,” or even “cat eyes” in makeup). There are also so many instances of women and cats being intertwined throughout history and in pop culture, with the most obvious example being Catwoman of course. As writer Akanksha Singh explained in her exploration of Catwoman, “The character was initially modeled on 1930s sex symbols and was designed to be Batman's alluring but baffling adversary – her sexual attractiveness closely intertwined with her mysterious ambivalence.” Singh goes on to quote Bob Kane, Catwoman’s co-creator, who once said, “Cats are hard to understand, they are erratic, as women are.”
In ancient times, cats and feminine deities went hand in hand. Egypt’s half-cat, half-woman Bastet was the goddess of domesticity, childbirth, and women’s secrets (mood). Chinese cat goddess Li Shou was a symbol of fertility. And in Norse mythology, Freya, the goddess of beauty and strength, rode a chariot led by cats (a vibe). But, sadly, as the Roman Catholic church rose to more prominence in the Middle Ages, it sought to remove all deities outside of “God,” so cats quickly developed a negative reputation as Satan’s little helpers.
"Cats conveniently represent what men have long and bitterly complained of in women: they do not obey and they do not love enough. Men who cannot control women as they would like to, associate them with animals that cannot be controlled.” — Katharine M Rogers, The Cat and the Human Imagination
As ever, we can’t talk about cat ladies and misogyny without also discussing witches. Simply put: the witch hunts of the Middle Ages did not help the cat lady brand. We’ve talked about the first incel, Heinrich Kramer, and his now-infamous 1486 book, Malleus Maleficarum (’Witch Hammer’) before, but this book helped solidify the popular perception that cats were as evil as the witches who owned them. In fact, the first witch that was executed in England in 1566, Agnes Waterhouse, allegedly owned a cat called ‘Sathan’ (Satan) that could turn into a frog—which sounds totally not made up at all.
In the Victorian era, cats became more and more associated with the trope of the single woman. In 1880, the Dundee Courier reported: “There is nothing at all surprising in the old maid choosing a cat as a household pet or companion. Solitude is not congenial to human nature, and a poor forlorn female, shut up in a cheerless ‘garret,’ brooding all alone over her blighted hopes, would naturally center her affections on some of the lower animals.” Oh boy.
As we reconsider the cat lady, I’d like to leave you with this quote:
"[Cats] are independent and often intelligent – things that in the past if people were trying to control women they would not want them to be.” — Alice Maddicott, author of Cat Women
So…what do you think? Is hating cats tied to entrenched misogyny? Will you judge your friends if they don’t like cats? Shall we start a petition to leave the cat ladies alone? Share your thoughts with me here.
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