How would you react if someone called you a crazy cat lady? These days, you might smile, feel a wave of pride rush through your body and consider it a compliment. After all, cats have taken over the pop culture world. They commandeer Internet content, revel in their role as sidekicks to music stars like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry and are now seen as cool rather than corny.
A brief history of the cat lady
For years, the term “crazy cat lady” — or even simply “cat lady” — was used to insult, denigrate and belittle women and their cats. Defining the archaic stereotype, the author Clea Simon wrote in Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats that it was usually applied to lonely, single, elderly women who had accumulated a clowder of kitties. (You could view this as the start of the cat hoarder problem.)
As far back as the 1800s, comic strips mocked the stereotype: Old Dame Trot And Her Comical Cat starred a hunched over woman hobbling around with a feline atop her shoulder. The jokes that ensued were on Old Dame, not with her. (If you’re curious, you can buy the kindle version on Amazon.com.) Tracing the origin of the cat lady cliche, Clea said it “runs through history.” She mentions ancient Egyptian and Nordic cultures as focusing on felines. “When cats became domesticated,” she explained, “they would often live in the kitchen because that’s where the rodents were. Cats became linked with the people who worked most in that area — women.”
Why did cat ladies get a negative reputation?
When it comes to casting the cat lady in a negative light, Clea said “you have to look at witchcraft.” With the rise of Christianity in Europe, witches were labeled as harmful characters. Jeannette Loakman, a producer on the 2009 documentary Cat Ladies, put it this way: “I think it has to do with the association between cats and women as bad women, from witches to seductresses. The cat is aloof and untrainable and independent yet enticing and sexy — a woman that doesn’t conform can be easily dismissed as a cat.”
Back in the 17th century, a women’s domestic duties included brewing beer in cauldrons while wearing a “witches” hat (a tall hat that stood out at the marketplace) as cats skittered around the kitchen. These “brewsters” were blamed when a batch of beer came out badly — sometimes with fatal consequences. “Women and cats were seen as colluding in the dark arts,” Clea said. “You could say it was an attempt by the patriarchy to put down women. In an extreme case in Massachusetts, not only were women killed as witches, but they hanged and burned cats.”
Just like the Old Dame comic strip, this damaging stereotype was propagated by pop culture over the years. Kate Benjamin, the founder of the design-conscious Hauspanther website, highlighted characters like Dr. Eleanor Abernathy from The Simpsons and the Beale ladies from the 1970s documentary Grey Gardens as supposedly unhinged women living with an overabundance of cats.
Enter: kitty culture
But around 10 years ago, something began to change in the perception of cat ladies — and it’s a shift that ties in with the Internet’s emergence as a part of daily life. Hannah Shaw, the stylishly tattooed daughter of rock star Tommy Shaw from the band Styx, fosters newborns under the guise of the “neonatal kitten warrior.” She points out that before social media, “Cat people were very much out of public view, and this made it harder for people to connect. Think of it this way: Dog people have the dog park, and cat people have social media.”
When Kate “committed publicly to being a leading cat lady,” she received some “pretty harsh comments” on her blog, but she soon discovered that she wasn’t alone in reclaiming the cat lady honorific. (She’s since had “cat lady” tattooed on her right forearm.)
Today’s cool cat lady
Kate reels off a list of factors that acted as a tipping point in turning the cat lady concept into a positive plaudit: The proliferation and popularity of cat videos on the Internet; pop stars like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry — along with hip indie musicians such as Bethany Cosentino and Shura (“I’m very much a fully fledged crazy cat lady!”) — sharing their infatuation with cats to hundreds of millions of social media followers; and large-scale events like CatCon, the Internet Cat Video Festival and the Cat Art Show.
Slickly designed furniture for felines and fashion forward cat-centric clothing and jewelry for humans also began to appear. “Being a cat lady is easier than it’s ever been,” Kate said. “These women are posting beautiful photos and videos of their cats on Facebook and Instagram, buying designer cat furniture and wearing hip cat fashions with pride.”
Crucially, while the original conception of the crazy cat lady alluded to mental health issues and suggested these were women who accumulated cats to remedy emotional and psychological gaps in their life, the reclaimed cat lady is all about pawing it forward and getting involved in rescue, fostering and TNR programs.
As one of the many leaders of this new cool club, Hannah said her path to becoming a cat lady began with animal welfare concerns: “I discovered how vulnerable cats and kittens are in U.S. shelters and became driven to change that.”
“Now we’re taking it as a badge of pride,” said Clea, summing up the modern image of the cat lady. “We’re saying, yes, we love these beautiful animals, we’ve domesticated them, so we have a responsibility toward their welfare. We are remaking what cat lady means.” There’s nothing crazy about that.
Thumbnail: Photography by Andrew Marttila/The Great Went.
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