On the Demonization of Women and Cats

My cat is sitting on my lap right now. He is unaware that I am in a battle for his soul. 

I have had cats all of my life. I have nothing against other animals, cats just happen to be the animal for me. 

This nonchalant attitude towards other pets is pretty common among “cat people”. The general consensus is that dogs and guinea pigs and parakeets are fine, just not preferable. This is not the case for non-cat people. 

People who dislike cats seem to have a special hatred in their hearts for the poor animals. I have had people come to my house and straight-up refuse to let my cat sit on their lap, not because of a phobia or allergies, but just because of pure hate. 

So why do we demonize cats? The reason may be their femininity.

Consider: the main gripe people have with cats is that they are too independent and uncaring, that they are selfish and only love themselves. Sounds a little bit like a scorned man, huh? In fact, most of the unpleasant tendencies we attribute to cats have historically been attributed to ill-behaved women: cold, heartless, deceitful, untrustworthy, scheming and self-sufficient. 

In fact, most of the unpleasant tendencies we attribute to cats have historically been attributed to ill-behaved women.

The connection between cats and women is an old one. In medieval Europe, it was widely believed that witches (read: reclusive, single women) would turn into cats in order to sneak into the homes of good Christians and torture them. People feared the schemes of the independent woman, and so they feared the schemes of the independent cat, as well as seeing both of this figures as inherently anti-Christian. A cat almost seemed to take the place of a child in a childless woman’s life. This naturally seemed very suspect to the local clergy.

The connection with witchcraft can also explain the “Crazy Cat Lady” trope. A woman who lived with cats instead of a husband was suspected of witchcraft, but over the years that fear distilled into the idea that a woman who chooses pets over children must be crazy, or at least eccentric. The association of cats with single women meant that cats came to be the marker of an unmarried status. 

The idea that cats are uncaring probably stems from their self-sufficiency. Like the witch or the cat lady, they seek an equal companionship over a dependent relationship. People who demonize cats or women feel entitled to their unconditional love and attention. When they don’t get that love, they feel as though they have been wronged.

Dogs are, of course, man’s best friend. There’s nothing wrong with this, dogs are wonderful. However, the historical power dynamic that created a male preference for dogs is worrying. Dogs are characterized as friendly, high-spirited, passive, loving, and dependent. They act essentially how men wished women would act—for what is that dog who brings you your newspaper and your slippers but a wife who can’t talk back?

Pets and wives historically held a similar place. They were meant to serve the men of the house, to be always pleasant and subservient. Essentially, the two main types of pets represent the two stereotypical types of wives: dogs are the “Angel in the House”, and cats are the “Madwoman in the Attic”

for what is that dog who brings you your newspaper and your slippers but a wife who can’t talk back?

This is why these two types of pets are constantly portrayed as being natural enemies. The cat person vs. dog person debate is representative of the patriarchal false dichotomy that a woman can be either good or independent, never both. Setting up cats and dogs as being at odds mirrors the way history set the witch and the wife at odds.

This blanket vilification continued until the 1960s, when the Batman TV show brought us Catwoman. Catwoman, played by the inimitable Eartha Kitt (sorry, Julie Newmar), was still securely a villain. A combination of the treacherous woman and the heartless cat, the character didn’t really subvert any narratives. But, in her black spandex bodysuit, she did add something new to women with cats. She sexualized them. 

Suddenly, women and girls everywhere were donning the ubiquitous black cat ears. Men who would drown a kitten any day began fetishizing a collar and tail. Cats, like women, were a symbol of both evil and sexuality. Like the witch, the siren, the sorceress, and the sphinxes, the cat woman was attractive because of her danger. She was irresistible because she resisted advances, she was sexy because she was taboo. Sexualization is not quite liberation, though. Independent women were still feared, and they were still classed with cats. 

Cats, like women, were a symbol of both evil and sexuality.

When we look at cats and women in pop culture, these two tropes dominate. If cats are the marker of an unmarried woman, then the message is that an unmarried woman is either sexy and evil (Catwoman) or crazy and pathetic (“Crazy Cat Lady”). While the race is on to reclaim these tropes, they are inherently misogynistic and it is that misogyny that makes us subconsciously hate cats. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with preferring dogs to cats. You may even genuinely dislike cats, and that’s okay provided you keep those thoughts securely in your own head and, obviously, don’t harm animals. It just does to be aware of the cultural ramifications of any prejudice, even if it’s only against cats. Some stereotypes and fears can be so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we don’t realize what they really mean. 

And for the love of god, stop calling men with cats gay.