For years, women with cats have been portrayed as lonely, sexless and eccentric but why does this stereotype endure? And can millennial ailurophiles reclaim the purr-jorative?

Did you hear the story about the old woman from Ohio who was arrested for training her 65 cats to steal her neighbours stuff? The Columbus police department found thousands of dollars worth of jewellery in the 83-year-old ladys house and discovered she taught the cats to bring back anything that shined.

The news story went viral at the end of last year. How do you picture her? Unkempt hair, dressing gown and slippers, living alone, rarely leaving the house? The crazy cat lady, in other words. In fact, the story was fiction on a satirical website, but people bought it and shared the story thinking it was real.

The crazy cat lady is a common, recognisable trope in contemporary culture: think of Eleanor Abernathy in The Simpsons. After a promising career in medicine and law, she experiences burnout, starts drinking and gets a cat. Next minute, shes talking gibberish, looking dishevelled and throwing her army of felines around. Then theres Robert De Niros predictably bonkers elderly Christmas cat lady in a 2004 Saturday Night Live skit: she had dreams and then she was kicked by a horse and now she has cats. The end!

The younger version of the stereotype is usually associated with being single, kooky and weird; after her relationship with Carol Burnett comes to a head, 30 Rocks Liz Lemon acquires a cat. I can fit Emily Dickinsons whole head in my mouth, she tells a concerned Jack Donaghy. You can even buy a Crazy Cat Lady action figure online, complete with deranged, staring eyes.

Robert
Robert De Niros Christmas with the Cat Lady sketch on Saturday Night Live.
Photograph: NBC/NBC via Getty Images

To understand why this trope exists and why it may be on its last legs lets scoot back to the middle ages and the earliest perceptions of women and their cats. Even before witch-hunts, cats had a bad rep in the western world with associations with heretical sects and the devil. 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. Too sexy, not sexy enough: cant please em.

An
An illustration showing hostile treatment of a suspected witch with a walking stick and a black cat. Photograph: Interim Archives/Getty Images

The earliest cat ladies in the west were, of course, witches. In Malleus Maleficarum, the landmark medieval treatise on witchcraft, a 13th-century folk story is recounted, whereby three witches turned themselves into cats, attacked a man on the street and accused him of assault in court, showing the marks on their bodies. From then on, witches were believed to have cats as familiars, or to change into felines at night.

Upper
Upper portion of a bronze figure of Bastet holding a cat aegis. From the late period. Dated 600 BC. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Why would cats get such a satanic rep? We can only guess. Cats are mysterious. They come and go. Unlike dogs, they refuse to obey and be domesticated. Theyre nocturnal. The Ancient Egyptians worshipped Bastet, a woman with a head of a cat. Although the Bible does not specifically mention cats, early Christian pilgrims were highly suspicious of other religions, and they deemed the black cat to be so demonic that being seen with one could be punishable by death.

Although the 18th century saw people beginning to question superstitions such as the belief that a womans wart was a teat suckled by Satan negative connotations of the relationship between cats and women remained. The Victorians switched witches for old-maid stereotypes for single women without children: Old maids and cats have long been proverbially associated together, and, rightly or wrongly, these creatures have been looked upon with a certain degree of suspicion and aversion by a large proportion of the human race, wrote a journalist in the Dundee Courier in 1880. The Old Maid card game was often illustrated with a dour woman and her cat, the friend of the friendless, as it was described at the time. In the 1900s, anti-suffragette propaganda used images of cats to portray women as silly, useless, catty and ridiculous in their attempt to enter political life.

Vintage
Vintage illustration of a witch and her black cat on a broom on Halloween. Photograph: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

The inception of the crazy moniker is harder to pin down, but its connotations of hysteria are an old gender stereotype. Added to this, the extreme end of the modern crazy cat lady stereotype has more than a few cats, which is unusual. Eleanor Abernathy, for example, has cats dripping off her: she is, essentially, portrayed as a mentally ill, alcoholic, compulsive hoarder.

There may be some truth in the idea that animal hoarding is more common in women. A study in Brazil found that, while generalised hoarding disorder affects men and women equally, nearly three-quarters of animal hoarders were women. Since 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies compulsive hoarding as a psychiatric disorder, with animal hoarding as a subtype.

Another recent theory is to do with a parasite called toxoplasma gondii. This tiny critter infects rats and mice and changes their behaviour by, scientists believe, creating an attraction to cat urine, so it can wind up in the stomach of a cat, where it reproduces. It also infects between 30% and 60% cent of people. Scientists are exploring evidence that toxoplasmosis could create behavioural changes in people, leading to lots of excited articles wondering if the parasite is a clue to explaining the phenomenon of crazy cat lady. The parasite contains an enzyme that creates dopamine, which is associated with risky and impulsive behaviour, among other things, but so far the data is inconclusive.

But, really, the concept of the crazy cat lady tells us more about societal perceptions of women than anything else. It has long been a pejorative term and a device for transferring shame and judgment on women who challenged traditional roles, or were hard to domesticate and keep in line. Here is the co-creator of Batman, Bob Kane, explaining his creation of Cat Woman: I felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs. 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 arms length. We dont want anyone taking over our souls, and women have a habit of doing that.

Katy
Katy Perry in the 2012 documentary film Katy Perry: Part of Me. Photograph: Allstar/MTV Films

But millennial ailurophiles have had enough. Over the last few years, there have been multivalent efforts to debunk the crazy cat lady stereotype and project a positive view of women and their cats. Pussy is striking back.

Taylor
Taylor Swift out with her cat in New York. Photograph: Broadimage/Rex/Shutterstock

From glossy fashion magazines celebrating the feline-human relationship Cat People, Puss Puss to Taylor Swift and Katy Perrys unashamed adoration of their feline pets, the stereotype is being recalibrated. CatCon Worldwide, a new conference celebrating cat culture, has, as its core value, the desire to change the negative perception of the crazy cat lady and prove that it is possible to be hip, stylish, and have a cat.

The book Cat Lady Chic (2012) offered elegant images of cat-owners Audrey Hepburn, Georgia OKeeffe, Diana Ross and Zelda Fitzgerald as an antidote to the Eleanor Abernathy archetype. And Girls & Their Cats, a sophisticated series of photographs of women and their feline companions, was created by Brooklyn-based fashion photographer BriAnne Wills to help dismantle the stereotype.It just wasnt representative of any of the cat ladies I personally knew, who are all independent, cool, career-driven women who really love their cats, she said. Also, there are more than a million cats euthanised each year so if women (and men) are afraid to adopt because of negative stereotypes it definitely hurts cats in the long run.

Audrey
Audrey Hepburn with Cat in Breakfast At Tiffanys. Photograph: Howell Conant/Paramount/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

In the memorable short story Cat Person (2017), Kristen Roupenian inverts the cat lady trope by giving her male protagonist, Robert, a couple of pet cats. She employs the presence of Roberts felines 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. So what is it about pretending to have cats that might endear Margot to him in a sexual setting? Is he using his cats to lure her in?

But perhaps the moment the crazy cat lady motif truly jumped the shark was with the song Buttload of Cats on an episode of the television series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend earlier this year. Rebecca Bunch walks herself down to the Lonely Lady Cat Store. The smell is overwhelming inside / This is the future smell of my house / Its the smell of my dreams that have died, she sings. When youre a permanent bachelorette / Its mandatory that you go out and get / A buttload of cats / Oh, yeah!

The song made a mockery of the hysteria projected on women who own cats. So is the notion of the crazy cat lady over? Wills believes there is still work to be done to change perceptions, but she hopes that her photography project will help. It is 2018, she says, and women are tired of defending themselves. And their love for their cats.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/apr/16/claws-pop-culture-crazy-cat-lady-lonely-sexless-eccentric-stereotype-millennial-ailurophiles

Christmas with the Cat Lady - SNL

On Christmas with the Cat Lady, Margie (Robert DeNiro) speaks to some of her 80 cats. Margie reveals her origins by telling a Christmas story about a woman named Margie who had dreams until she was kicked by a horse. [Season 30, 2004]

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