Thursday, January 12, 2012

Crazy Cat Ladies and Man's Best Friend

This post is a part of my “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column at The Progressive Playbook in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.

My cats being generally standoffish to me.
So I have been long considering this topic, and I just decided to bite the bullet and pull together something about it. I think it's one of those gender discussions that everyone can see on a surface level, but I might lose some of you with just how much I've considered this point.

My central thesis is this: There are a plethora of sexist assumptions we make about pet ownership, specifically related to cats and dogs. And it's ridiculous.

Let me start with dogs. As I referenced in my title, one of the most popular phrases we associate with dogs is "man's best friend." Dogs are often associated with traits we ascribe to stereotypical masculinity: loyalty, bravery, rough-and-tumble play in the dirt, and an easy-going nature.

Cats on the other hand are frequently grouped with women, and sadly to a negative end. "Crazy cat lady" has become a trope. Cats are associated with stereotypical femininity: deceitfulness, cleanliness, moodiness, snobbery, and yes, even to an extent, sexiness. I think that perhaps no other figure better illustrates this point that Catwoman.

These ideas are so deep in our culture that much more frequently than not, cats are portrayed as girls and dogs are portrayed as boys. Think about Homeward Bound or The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat. This message is so strong that many of us actually used to believe as children that all cats are girls and all dogs are boys.

It's kind of amazing that the human desire to categories things is so strong that we've actually projected our culturally created notions of gender onto whole other species. But just as stereotypes hurt real humans, stereotypes projected onto animals has had negative implications for them as well. I'll get back to that in a moment.
A stock Halloween photo of a witch.
Oh and look who's there with her!

First, some groundwork. When I visited Salem, Massachusetts a few years ago, I toured The Salem Witch Museum and found it absolutely fascinating, from a feminist perspective. I had no idea that the history of witches actually evolved from the "descendants of the Celtic midwife, looking to the earth mother for healing and for spirituality." Performing the important, although exclusively female task of child delivery, these midwives became so powerful in early civilizations that the patriarchal power structures began to fear them. The male leaders then decided to associate these midwives with evil, thereby laying the foundation for the fear of witches which culminated in 1692 and the stereotype of the witch we see represented in Halloween images.

There, I also learned that the cultural mix between felines, femininity, and fear had disastrous consequences for both women and cats. Cats have long been seen as mystical. They were labeled as "familiars" for witches (which are said to be helpers from the Devil.) According to "The Magic Paw:"
Out of all the possible familiars (cats, dogs, toads, bats, and even horses) cats got the worst publicity. Pope Gregory IX denounced black cats as Satanic in his 1233 Papal Bull 'Vox in Rama' and this launched the extermination of many cats, and subsequently thousands of cats were burned alive in the cause of searching out the devil. Tales of these witches' cats turning into mice, dogs, bats and all sorts of creatures flourished during the Middle Ages.
This same destruction occurred in the early foundations of the United States during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Not only were nineteen women put to death, but many cats were also killed due to the fear of them.*

In contemporary times, there is still a connection between femininity and cats with negative connotations. As I already mentioned above, we have the "crazy cat lady" trope. But as further example, discussions about whether or not "real" men own cats still comes up. It is also very popular to disparage cats in general, at least in my anecdotal experience as a cat owner. All too often, I hear people readily say, "I don't like cats" and frequently this claim comes with an explanation about them being "evil." I'm just not hearing the same kind of emotion surrounding dogs, even though many more people suffer severe injuries due to dogs than cats. Basically, even though our Puritanical roots are in many ways long behind us, these thoughts still linger.

At the end of the day, I think that the projection of our gender roles onto dogs and cats is entirely foolish. Sure, people have pet preferences, but why must those be connected to gender? Even though I am a cat owner, I also like dogs and I see no real reason that women should be more closely associated with cats and men with dogs. It's more just about what you personally like in a pet. And maybe consider dropping the cat trash talk. If they're not for you, that's fine.  Oh! And even though it defies the "dogs are for boys" stereotype, I'll never understand women carrying tiny pooches in their handbags. I mean, come on.


*It should be noted, five men were also put to death but the root of the trials was deeply related to women. As Yevette Lessard says of Puritan society in early America,
The place of the woman was traditional, but unique. Not only were they expected to work in the home, care for children, and be submissive, they were also seen as entirely inferior. Most importantly, they were seen as inherently sinful and morally inferior, easily suspected of wrongdoing and promiscuity. While women in the time period typically had little power or rights and were expected to be submissive, Puritan ideology dictated that women could not so much as be active in the church, as they were too sinful.

In addition, European gender roles shaped notions of witchcraft, which in turn shaped the setting for the witch hunts. The witch's tools were domestic: brooms, herbs, poppets (dolls), cauldrons and other things for cooking and cleaning.


  1. Thanks for the article. It immediately reminded me of the Sociological Images post about blue-coloured dog ads with pink-coloured cat food ads (my comment here but I really liked the points you made about pop culture - Catwoman and kids movies - never thought about that!

  2. This is such a true post. I remember reading Enid Blyton's Bimbo and Topsy as a kid, and was blown away when I realized that Bimbo the cat was male and Topsy the dog was female.

    I've also just found an article in the NY Times stating that cat abuse is much more common than dog abuse...could be interesting in the context of associating 'catness' with femininity, and 'dogness' with masculinity!


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