Cat Lady

One might expect a silly dichotomy like “cat person vs. dog person” to be uselessly hazy, but I have found great utility in it.  There are a whole series of patterns I have come to appreciate that follow that distinction, and some interesting social things happening that enforce them all.

Most Anglophones code dogs as masculine and cats as feminine.  We’re all well aware that dogs and cats alike have at least two reproductive morphs, and some of us even understand that analogizing those morphs to human binary genders is awkward at best.  Yet, this cultural coding persists.  Men are likened to dogs in both positive and negative ways: playful, strong, easy to please, eager, prone to roughhousing, wont to make frequent sexualized dominance displays toward one another, unable to handle being around attractive women without lecherously attacking them, pointlessly destructive when bored.  Women, then, get more catlike traits assigned to us unbidden: soft, tidy, aloof, difficult to read, likely to utilize claws instead of gentler means of persuasion, determined to receive and give physical affection entirely on our own terms (which is apparently a bad thing in this system), and so on.  That many of the items on both of these lists are not consistently accurate statements about these two animals, and that gendered socialization actively opposes many of the qualities attributed to men and women this way, is immaterial.  These ideas are out there, influencing how men and women are portrayed in the media and stereotypes of who owns and is fond of which animal.  There is a reason that “cat lady” is a trope, but “cat gentleman” is a nonsense phrase.

The part that most gets under my skin about this particular gendered pattern, aside from its prima facie ridiculousness, is that violence against dogs in entertainment is almost universally seen as a sign that a character is irredeemably evil.  Harming a dog is a moral event horizon that villains cross when they are done being comical and need to be terrifying.  Films with body counts in the dozens will have the same character who nonchalantly mows down dozens of armed assailants knock out or evade attacking dogs.  Cats, on the other hand, get flung across rooms, tormented by children, depilated by hot asphalt, and dropped down elevator shafts for our amusement.  Direct, graphic injuries are rare in either case, but the subtext is clear.  Where most media stick to a gentlemanly patriarchal standard in which violence against women is usually seen as a worse, “grittier” offense than equivalent violence against men, dogs and cats are where media works out its id, showing off violence against symbolic women that would be immediately horrific against the symbolized, and presenting it as something its objects deserve.

There’s another reason cats have my unending sympathy even as they make sure I can never, ever leave food unattended in my own home.  They’re…familiar.

Animal emotions have different signs than human emotions.  Many people misread dogs, cats, and everything else because they expect them to emote as humans do, but humans are downright bizarre in how we show our mental states.  Dogs are not quite as mysterious as most other animals in this respect.  There are more positive examples of emoting dogs in our media than for most other animals, including cats, and dogs mirror many human displays while having others that are uniquely theirs.  Most people still labor under the impression that purring cats are always contented, or that cats are innately uncaring and unapproachable.

It’s dogs I find confusing.  Cats, I can innately understand.

Two cats at different heights on a shelf that also holds a television set, a desktop computer, and a sound system. The shelves underneath hold DVDs and books.
My Watson (left) and Agora (right) being curious all over our entertainment center.

My affection is catlike, felt in slow blinks and resting heads, napping on laps and handling skin.  Cats bond with me before I know it, recognizing me as someone they, too, understand.  I don’t have to be told to avoid eye contact, or not to chase them if they run off, or which swats are playful and which are the step before biting.  They don’t have to learn that I’ll be ready to host them on my lap or next to my water glass at any time, cuddles aplenty, but I might wander off shortly thereafter for reasons that have nothing to do with them.  In me, they see, or learn to recognize, a kindred spirit.

It didn’t take much for me to start nuzzling Agora with my nose, vibrating my throat, to let her know that she’s safe and loved and everything’s going to be okay no matter how scared she is of waiting outside, clawed into my sweater, for the fire alarm to stop.

Cats are stealthy by nature, easily quiet.  They hide in small crevices and array themselves in boxes.  They nap in sunlight and are curious about new objects.  They are content to sit quietly near me while I do my own thing, my very presence reassuring but not required.  We have a formerly feral cat who refuses to be touched, but she will nap within a meter of me for hours and eat with me practically hovering over her.  Cats’ enthusiasm is insistent, but it feels, from here, like the joy I carefully package and contain for new people when a topic of great interest to me arises.  It feels like gently, determinedly telling me, “This.  I like this.”  It is soft, it is warm, and it is familiar.

My cat knows me well enough that she knows if I’m in bed outside my usual sleep hours, by even 20 minutes, it’s because something is wrong, and she will lie on my chest and purr for as long as it takes for me to feel better.  We understand each other.

Dogs are wet and loud and jittery and dig in our trash out of boredom and need to be convinced to use a litterbox and shriek for hours when left alone or when some random creature moves in their vicinity.  Their excitement is exhausting.  Just being around them is mildly unnerving.  I tolerate and then enjoy them more the more catlike they behave.

People tell me that cats are aloof and distant and they don’t like them because they’re not up for whatever humans want to do with them 100% of the time the way dogs supposedly but not actually are, and I hear a number of very different messages.

“I don’t like having to acknowledge others’ boundaries.”

“I prefer my ladies to be empty vessels into which I can pour my own desires.”

And most of all:

“I don’t see you.”

 

It’s been the stuff of unbearable joy that the Internet has had a love affair for all things feline for the past two decades.  The world needed that.  I needed that.

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Cat Lady
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7 thoughts on “Cat Lady

  1. 1

    I mildly disagree. It sometimes seems people treat both dogs and cats as feminine. And it shows in the sorts of relationships pet owners have with other people.

    Earning the loyalty of a dog requires little effort. They are easy animals to control, sometimes with as little as food, shelter, play and a pat on the head. Cats, on the other hand, are very difficult to control. Earning their trust and building a relationship takes a lot of time and effort, as much as with a human being . I have no evidence to back it up, but I would bet nearly all MRAs and abusive people prefer dogs. Those who want to control women or others would almost certainly not want a cat that they can’t easily control.

    As much as I love cats, this has to be one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. It’s funny because the cat is doing it to itself, not someone hurting it.

  2. 2

    You can of course flip some aspects:
    Both cats and dogs have boundaries, but dogs’ boundaries get easily ignored because dogs are raised to be obedient and please their owners, which is female coded, while cats are allowed to enforce their boundaries and you’ll get blamed if you come away bleeding.

  3. 3

    I have an easier explanation: people fear what they don’t understand, and nocturnal or even crepuscular animals are therefore mistrusted, since they are harder for people to understand. Same for rats, mice, bats and what not.
    I have no idea where the idea that cats are feminine and dogs are masculine comes from, but I know for a fact that it’s not true for the middle east (all pets except birds and fish are mistrusted, stray cats are tolerated, dogs are feared and despised) and not true for Russia where cats are ubiquitous.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if this idea had been invented by some dude in Victorian England. Or at least codified, since black cats were considered witches’ familiars since the middle ages.

  4. 4

    I grew up with dogs, and liked them, especially the doberman-shepherd of my teenage years who really, really wanted to be a lap dog. Then I went off to college pet-free, and at the end of that adventure I took a man, his cat, and his motorcycle to be my lawful wedded family. And I started learning about cats.

    Ms. Odetta took pains to point out that nobody had asked for HER signature on the marriage contract, and she wasn’t thrilled about the new arrangement. Husband was hers, and I was an annoyance. She spent about a year trying to push me out of the bed at night, and nearly succeeded on occasion. But eventually I won her over as purveyor of tasty treats and good scritches. On my part, I enjoyed having a critter with a mind of her own about; it somehow felt better than my relationship with the dogs. I fell deeply in love, and it crushed me when we lost her to old age.

    The motorcycle was sold somewhere along the line, but I kept the man — 36 years this summer — and for most of that time we’ve had cats. After Odetta we tended to have them in twos or threes. Boris, Natasha, Rocky, Paddy, and Maria have all been our masters over the years, with Paddy and Maria the current cats-in-residence. They are a constant source of interest and joy to me; we cuddle, we argue, we play, we hang out together. We are family.

  5. 5

    I am owned by & love both cats and dogs.

    Got a black tortoiseshell feline and a Jack Russell x fox terrier and have just got my brother’s old kelpie which he couldn’t take with him when he moved house.

    All great living creatures in their own different ways. I love them all.

    But the cat is always top pet. 😉

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