Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'

The Internet has hit fever pitch with the crazy cat lady stereotype – it’s spiralling out of control; fed by cat haters, insecure bloggers, tired journalists and even cat ladies themselves - it’s impossible to browse information about cats on the internet without coming across a reference. The idea of crazy cat lady has morphed into a symbol; an identifier for a woman who does not fit into what society deems normal. A single lady, of a certain age, that lives alone with her cat/cats. And yes - I myself am 25, I don’t have a boyfriend and I love cats so much that I quit my job to set up a cat products company. I am a cat lady – but I’m not crazy.

I’m going to delve into this troupe to find out where it came from, how it’s evolved and how we can hope to quash it once and for all. It’s going to take a lot to debunk this popular culture favourite but here it goes!


Men and wild-cat spirits

Cat symbolism began with big cats being associated with power, mystery, hunting and magic. The nocturnal hunting habits of wild cats stalking their prey under cover of darkness and with eyes that shone like mirrors was deemed supernatural and superhuman. They were revered, feared and often associated with high-standing male figures in society: warriors, chiefs, shamans and royalty. As far back as 32,000 years ago a Stone Age sculptor carved a lion-headed anthropomorphic figure from a mammoth tusk showing that this human/feline relationship goes a long way back! In an ancient world without science, individuals believed strongly in the power of spirits and the importance of sorcery. Shamans were powerful figures said to be in tune with the naturalistic world, able to converse with spirits and even transform into spirits themselves. Shamans of the North American Prairie believed in an underwater panther called Nampe’shiu who resided in the third tier of the underworld and advised great warriors during battle, Amazonian warriors were referred to as ‘jaguars’, the Dayaks of Sarawak went into battle wearing leopard pelts and spearman of the Maasi wore lion manes. There are countless myths across ancient cultures which bear the association between big cats and men. It’s not until Egyptian times that feline association shifts from the masculine to the feminine with the cat goddess Bastet. The domestic cat; a meeker version of the wild cats they come from saw the association between cats and females made for the first time.


The Cat Goddess

Bastet had the head of a domestic cat and the body of a woman. She protected females and was a symbol of fertility and maternity. There were no negative connotations attributed to this association and both men and women left offerings to her at the cat temple of Bubastis. In a cemetery in Upper Egypt a 4,000 year old tomb was excavated along with 17 cat skeletons. Alongside the cats were 17 small pots – probably once containing food or milk for the afterlife; these cats must’ve been pets and I hardly imagine that burying cats in this way was seen as the behaviour of unhinged crazy cat men and women.


Cats and witchcraft

The next popular reference to cats and women is the association with felines and witchcraft (a topic I touched on here in an article about the 16th century witch craze). It was not just women that kept cats - they were also very popular with monks as companions whilst they wrote long manuscripts. Often these texts featured little tableaus of cats chasing mice across the page.


Hatred of hoarders

It’s no secret that cats have fallen in and out of favour throughout history: from high points of being worshipped to low points of being burnt alive! At present cats are for the most part, in favour; dominating the Internet in videos and cute pictures but the hatred of cats is far from dead and buried. Even in this day and age some sick individuals target cats, poisoning, hurting and sometimes even killing them. But it isn’t just the cats who have a hard time – so do their owners.

Extreme animal hoarding can be a serious problem that can affect the immediate community as well as be detrimental to the cats’ and the hoarder’s health. But true cases where hoarding has gone out of control to become a real problem are rare. Cases are often exaggerated for the sake of a story or blown out of proportion by cynical neighbours who find the hoarder’s behaviour strange and unacceptable. It is absurd to assume that cat hoarding is a condition that only befalls women. It is symbolism and cultural reference that has made the crazy cat lady troupe stick - crazy cat men are rarely referenced. People assume that a female cat-owner who has been single for a long time is somehow destined to turn into a crazy cat lady with a real and serious hoarding problem. But why is this the case?


The dog/cat gender divide

I think that part of the association between women and cats comes from society’s need to force gender ideas onto our pets. With the 2 most popular domesticated animals being cats and dogs – it seemed sensible to dub dogs – “Man’s best friend” outside helping with manly things such as...being outside, hunting and killing food, and cats are seen as the opposite; companions for women, women that are indoors, being domesticated and cooking food. With this split even the animals themselves are assigned a gender – cats are seen as feminine, dogs are seen as masculine. I’m hoping that in 2013 people shouldn’t be drawing these types of associations anyway, let alone onto pets! This crazy cat lady idea is the product of 20th century, outdated gender ideas and it’s something we should be moving on from now.


Cats and the Odd Woman  

Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Ella Mason and her Eleven Cats’ sheds some light on why women who keep cats are seen by society as odd. We learn that once:

Ella flounced about, minx-thin and haughty,

A fashionable beauty,

Slaying the dandies with her emerald eyes;

Now, run to fat, she's a spinster whose door shuts

On all but cats.

Some children make fun of her pointing and laughing as she feeds “her dearies” alone in her ramshackle house. “Miss Ella’s gone loony” and Plath has painted a picture of the crazy cat lady which has become so ingrained in popular culture today. The final stanza of the poem warns of the reason for Miss Ella’s misfortune driven to madness and alone because she did not get married:

But now turned kinder with time, we mark Miss Mason

Blinking green-eyed and solitary

At girls who marry—

Demure ones, lithe ones, needing no lesson

That vain jades sulk single down bridal nights,

Accurst as wild-cats.

Plath’s poem, written in 1957 explores themes still lingering from Victorian ideals of women’s place and role in society and herein lies the problem. At the turn of the 20th century women were seen as ‘odd’ if they were unmarried, they were seen as ‘hysteric’ if they went against their maternal role by rejecting a child as a result of post-natal depression. But it's been over 100 years since the Victorians  - who's beliefs are now so horrendously outdated and irrelevant. So please tell me why are single women of a certain age who have cats, automatically labelled crazy cat ladies?! I’m not talking about hoarders here, but regular woman who don’t fit into what our society considers normal. 

“Why would a woman want the companionship of a cat over a man?? I bet she will never get married, I bet she will keep rescuing cats and shut herself away from the world - she must be crazy.” - It's time we quashed this kind of labelling, the modern cat lady needs redefining. 

Thank you for reading.