We all know about the crazy cat lady. The woman who has no life, no relationship, no friends – well, no two-legged friends. She sits at home grooming her herd of feline companions, dressing them in little outfits, fussing over their every need, inventing soap opera like stories about their interactions, their loves and their hates. Despite her apparent solitude, she’s extremely well-known.
You can buy her coffee mug.
Or her board game.
Or her birthday cake.
Or even her action figure
The image of the crazy cat lady is all around, and it gives us a good laugh. For Halloween a couple of years ago, I put together my own cat lady costume – ugly outfit, cardigan sweater, ratty gray hair and a ridiculous hat, and about a dozen stuffed cats hot glued all over my outfit. Throw in an issue of Cat Fancy and smear a little fuchsia lipstick on my teeth and I was ready to go. That costume even won me a bottle of Smirnoff caramel vodka at the Long Haul Saloon’s costume contest. It was a lot of fun, especially the caramel vodka. But the more I think about the crazy cat lady, the more I feel like becoming one wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Here’s where I lay out my super liberal, radical queer thoughts on what the image of the cat lady really is: it’s a trope about women that exists to punish them if they don’t adhere to hegemonic femininity and marginalizes women who don’t play along with a sexist, heteronormative culture that says women only have value if they are sexually available to men and focused on procreation. Did I lose you? That last statement doesn’t sound quite as fun as playing the Crazy Cat Lady Board Game, does it? It might have even sounded a little pretentious – I have an MA in English, and we English majors do love our high-falutin’ language and colorful turns-of-phrase. So let’s break it down.
Hegemonic femininity is all about the “status quo” and how women are told they are supposed to look, act, and often think. Women in our culture have to deal with some pretty problematic expectations about femininity. They are told that they are supposed to look sexy and attractive to men, but if they are sexually active then they’re whores. If they actually dare to enjoy or celebrate their sexuality, then they are mega-whores, the sleaziest of the sleazy, a sort of Sharknado of skankiness. If women do play along and look sexy, that has its own problems: if they get raped, there is an assumption that they were “asking for it,” that clearly the dress must be a yes. Women should know better than to dress like sluts, shouldn’t they? They should be smart enough to never drink alcohol (spirits are for the menfolk) or get roofied. After all, men can’t be held responsible for their actions because they are clearly overwhelmed by the unfair pressures of making more money than women for the same work or building up the football program at Stupidville High.
This is the point where you’re probably starting to wonder, “But what does all of this have to do with the crazy cat lady?” I’m glad you asked…or at least read far enough to get here instead of just logging off my site to go check out the hookers you can run over with cars in the newest Grand Theft Auto game. The crazy cat lady is an idea about women who don’t play along with all of that hegemonic femininity bullshit. Because what do we know about this mythical cat lady?
1. She’s alone, except for her cats. Women in our culture are supposed to be constantly trying to snare a man. They are husband hunters, and those that don’t make finding love their first and only priority are clearly lonely and desperate.
2. Her “furbabies” are her substitute for children. All women are supposed to be looking for husbands. And clearly they are trying to find those husbands so that they can procreate, because that is pretty much all women are thought to be good for. Since our cat lady friend can’t find a husband, she can’t procreate so she focuses her maternal instincts onto her little fluffy balls of parental regret.
3. She’s probably batshit crazy. Career? Over-rated! Hobbies? Who needs ’em? I mean, why wouldn’t you want to spend every moment of every day trying to land yourself a man or pop out a legion of babies to rival the softball team Brangelina has been steadily recruiting from around the globe? There must be something a little bit off upstairs, if you know what I mean…
4. Did someone say lesbian? That’s one way to explain why a woman wouldn’t focus all of her time and attention on finding the perfect penis to mate with. Although I’m not really buying it. Everyone knows lesbians tend to be dog lovers – they are much better travelers when it’s time to throw on your Crocs, jump in the Subaru, and go camping for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Hey, we’re talking about stereotypes here; besides, it’s not mean if it’s true). But what do I know?
All of these ideas about who and what the crazy cat lady is are meant to police behavior and make women feel bad if they aren’t playing the culturally-determined, sexist, heteronormative, and personally limiting roles that have been assigned to them. Now, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with wanting to find love and get married and have a bunch of kids, if that’s what you want to do. The problem comes in because society wants to say that option is the only legitimate option; it’s the only “right” way to be. If you don’t buy into that, if you put off finding love to pursue other interests, or maybe you just haven’t found the right person (or persons, since some people live perfectly happy non-monogamous lives), if you happen to be a lesbian or bisexual woman whose very existence aggravates the heteronormative impulse, or maybe you are a rugged individualist who doesn’t put finding a mate at the top of the list (or even on the list at all), then society says there must be something wrong with you. You must have been damaged by previous relationships; you could be somehow unbalanced or maybe just a little tragic.
“Crazy cat ladies” are women who don’t fit into a specific story about what women should be. Think I’m reaching a bit? Then why don’t we have crazy cat people? Because men who stay single are bachelors, ladies men, players, lone wolves, Marlboro men. Being a man alone with his dogs carries a very different message than a woman alone with her cats. The assumption is that men can live and function and be complete without women, but women can’t live and function and be complete without men. It’s a story that perpetuates the idea that women are less than men, and it erases all kinds of things like trans identity, non-monogamy, gay and lesbian people, bisexuals, pansexual, asexuals, and all kinds of other people who just don’t fit easily into this boy + girl mode.
I think cat ladies are fantastic, and I don’t think they’re crazy at all. They’re unconventional. They push boundaries, and they push buttons. And we need to remember that most of them are just “cat ladies” because “We” (whoever that vague universal “We” is that represents society or culture or religion or whatever it happens to be in whatever particular situation) say they are. All of these women that are called cat ladies or thought of as cat ladies are just women who are living their lives, and making the choices based on what feels right or is presented to them at the time. They all come from different backgrounds and experiences; there is no “magic formula” for becoming one. I have great respect for anyone whose very existence causes a disruption to the status quo, whose life and choices are an annoyance to the powers that be. We need more people who aren’t afraid of being thought of as a little bit weird, whether or not that weirdness has anything to do with catnip and tiny sweaters.
Plus it was an excuse to post the picture above, which for some inexplicable reason just makes me laugh. Perhaps I’m on my way to becoming a crazy cat lady myself. That would be fine with me…I’ve always been a little unconventional. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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