Kate Demolder explores the origins of the 'crazy cat lady' stereotype and why we tend to other cat owners.

Ailurophiles have never had the upper hand (paw?). From The Office's Angela Martin to The Simpsons’ Eleanor Abernathy, the postmodern reproduction of hackneyed titles like 'spinster’ and ‘old maid’ that is 'crazy cat lady' has recast only slightly to fit the times.

The fundamental paradigm of this character is much the same as its antecedents: a woman who, by choice or by (mis)fortune, remains celibate through her life – so lonely and absurd that the only targets of her affection are her three-to-three-hundred feline friends. Even LEGO has cashed in.

But what does it mean, in 2021, when we talk about cat people as something ‘other’ – and why is it there in the first place?

Did you hear the one about the woman in Ohio who was arrested for training her 65 cats to steal her neighbours' stuff? Police found thousands of dollars’ worth of jewellery in the 83-year-old woman’s home, later discovering she’d taught the cats to bring back "anything that shined" from houses in the neighbourhood.

The story went viral, partly because of the woman’s appearance; disheveled hair, furrowed brow and frumpish housecoat – for all intents and purposes, a 'crazy cat lady'. Some time later, the story turned out to be a fake. But it didn’t matter, the commitment to a constructed narrative, albeit entirely in our heads, allowed people to believe it true.

A recognisable, albeit lazy, trope, the 'crazy cat lady' archetype tells us more about societal perceptions of women than anything else. A well-used pejorative term, the concept acts as a vehicle for transferring shame and judgment on women who either challenged traditional roles, or flew in the face of keeping in line.

Even before witch-hunts, where cats were believed to toe the line of crookery and deceit, cats boasted a bad reputation in the western world; associations with heretical sects and the devil among them.

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.

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.

"I felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs," Bob Kane, co-creator of Batman, infamously said, making headlines by explaining the entrenched sexism behind his creation of Cat Woman.

"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."

The concept was further stroked in Kristen Roupenian's recent New Yorker short story Cat Person, where a societal preconceived notion of cat owners was pushed, subconsciously, to the limit. It follows a 20-year-old college student Margot who gradually falls into flirtation with a man named Robert.

Robert is controlling, intense and unlikable. He is terse, conversationally brutal, responding with red flag-adjacent anger and jagged mood flips. Roupenian employs the presence of Robert’s brood of cats 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." For how else could cat people evoke, opting for cruel and manipulating pets over congenial ones, and what feline-adjacent traits could they be possibly benefitting from?

Released in June, a six-part Netflix documentary Cat People explores the lives of said ‘oddballs’; individuals in different parts of the world who have built a life around cats. The six subjects hail from different countries, creeds and backgrounds, yet all share the intensely feline experience.

The show works in part to dismantle the cliché of ‘cat person’ while also pulling back the layers of cat people themselves, showcasing them as both straightforward and multi-faceted, caring and sharp.

We open with defence; the debunking of misguided assumptions that shouldn’t need justification and yet do. In common thought, a cat person is oftentimes an aloof and ungracious older woman whose home is in disarray. An unromantic life, she is pathologised and pitied. The assumption is that she dotes on her pets to replace the love of human care.

Flipping this narrative on its head is Samantha Martin, a cat rescuer and band manager, who has taught her 24-strong brood to rock. The result is lunacy but light-hearted and joyous, celebrating the eccentricities of animal/human friendship. Despite this, the demeaning nature of the 'crazy cat lady' stereotype runs deep.

In one scene, Martin laughs off the idea of romance, citing "it’s not like I have that many gentlemen callers" and 24 cats is not "such a big turn-on", laughing to both deflect the pathos and cover it, a practice known to any woman with ‘unlovable’ traits.

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However, Cat People shows that the gender stereotypes associated with cat ownership cuts both ways. Dwayne Molock, better known to his 384,000 (at the time of writing) Instagram followers as iAmMoshow The Cat Rapper.

Molock explains that, as a teen, he preferred to stay at home and become immersed in internet life. When he first started to dabble in rapping, he felt his lyrics weren’t authentic. "I know that I’m not hard-core. You know, I’m not gangster," he says. What felt authentic was rapping about how much he loves cats. As Molock speaks, one of his songs plays on the soundtrack: "Always love your cat and never declaw; I’m so raw."

Sterling Davis, better known as the Original TrapKing, is also committing his advocacy and rescue work with cats to change cultural expectations. Not only does he want to bring greater visibility to men working in the field, but he also wants to build a bridge between communities of colour and the wider world of animal-welfare organisations, which are predominantly white.

Through his work, Davis is modeling a form of masculinity that isn’t at odds with unconditional care and tenderness. As he says in the series, he’s in it for the headbutts and slow blinks—both of which are cat behaviours that communicate affection and trust. His motto: "You don’t lose cool points for compassion.

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As well as this, science is on the cat owner’s side. According to researchers at UCLA, who analysed more than 500 pet owners in 2019, nothing scientific supports the long-held 'crazy cat lady' stereotype. The study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, observed how people reacted to distress calls from animals and also compared pet ownership with mental health-related or social difficulties.

"We found no evidence to support the 'Cat Lady' stereotype: cat-owners did not differ from others on self-reported symptoms of depression, anxiety or their experiences in close relationships," the study said.

It is these findings and more that have caused millennial ailurophiles to have enough, and fashion is following suit. According to British Vogue, the tide could be turning for the feline-adjacent as the ‘Cat Lady’ aesthetic is actually set to become cool.

Given the time we’re finding ourselves in – one that is more accepting of a woman’s right to choose – there’s been a recent humanisation of pets – cats, among them – and more of an acceptance of them as people’s "children."

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Businesses have pivoted to cat-friendly, too, thanks to a cohort of stylish companies and influencers ready to help you "catify" your life. "The modern cat person does care," cat style expert Kate Benjamin tells Vogue.

Not to mention Puss Puss magazine and books such as Cat Lady Chic which offers elegant images of cat-owners such as Audrey Hepburn, Georgia O’Keeffe, Diana Ross and Zelda Fitzgerald, which have unearthed multivalent efforts to flip the narrative on its head.

So, what does this mean for the average cat owner? Are the stereotypes and clichés going to stop? Well, not for as long as the deep-rooted fear of feminine power and female autonomy (goddesses, witches and single women) rings true.

The 'crazy cat lady' is the patriarchal prototype of ‘failed femininity’ – a woman who rejects marriage and motherhood actively imperiling the system by refusing to engage in it. Since this is not something the said ‘system’ will find profitable, these women are portrayed as hoarders, hags and witches, so little girls around the world will know not to be like them.

As the shackles of yesteryear break and allow for women to (slowly but surely) live the life they choose, so will fall the manmade tropes of our time.

In the meantime, allow science, fashion and award-winning author Roupenian soothe your rebellious mind. And never listen to Bob Kane, ever.