Analyses Editorials

The Cat Lady | An Analysis of the Misogynist Trope That Transcends Genre and Format

Eleanor Abernathy, Angela Martin, Elsa Clack, Mrs. Delgado, Sherrie Scratchen-Post... all cat ladies, or something else?

The Cat Lady is as much of a pervasive trope in film and television as it is in the everyday lexicon. Often deemed as a negative turn of phrasing, the Cat Lady is often prefaced by adjectives like “crazy” and is usually directed towards women who don’t have children. It is mostly irrelevant if the lack of children is because of choice or circumstance, as that level of depth of thought is not often directed toward the Cat Lady.

The “Cat Lady” Trope

The Cat Lady trope transverses genre and format, appearing in literature, (A Clockwork OrangeJonathon Strange & Mr Norrell) anime, (Neon Genesis EvangelionYu-Gi-Oh!) television, (It’s Always Sunny in PhiladelphiaParks and Recreation), and, of course, film (Batman Returns, The End, The Lego Movie, and Free Guy).

The Cat Lady is a trope so prevalent, a distinct character need not to exist at all for her to be mentioned in on-screen conversation. However, when she is present, she is usually aged between late twenties or early thirties to old age, white, decently educated, and perceivably middle (to upper) class. She usually has at least three cats, but any single woman without children runs the risk of being labelled a Cat Lady, despite the recipient’s actual proximity to any cats.

She may appear senile and dishevelled, such as Eleanor Abernathy from The Simpsons, or prim and conservative, such as Angela Martin from The Office [US]. Although they can differ in appearance and personality, the identity relies on the characters’ singlehood and childlessness. 

The Relationship Between Humans and Cats (Pre-Christianity)

Cats have remained a popular animal species throughout history. In ancient Egypt, many female deities were depicted with as cats or with cats. Cats represented fertility and sexuality, likely because female cats are caring mothers, gestate quickly, and control mating. This made them ideal representations for goddesses such as Mut, a mother goddess, the protector goddess Bastet, and the warrior and healing goddess, Sekhmet. Cats were likely to have been held in such high regard by the ancient Egyptians because they ate the mice and rats who would spoil food stores in homes and in production.

Later, the Norse goddess Freyja would come to be associated with cats, as she rode a chariot pulled by them. Freyja is associated with love, beauty, and fertility, again connecting womanliness to felines. In the Middle Ages, cats were seen as both useful and dangerous. The former relating to their catching mice and protection of food stores, the latter referring to their association with heresy as Christianity was established and gained more traction across Europe.

Freyja by Emil Doepler (c. 1905)

Anybody found to be performing spiritual practices outside of a prevailing Christian religion were seen to be heretics. Those forging the spread and popularity of Christianity likely saw those people as threatening. This is because firstly, they were external to the new social order, and secondly, they represented an old knowledge, jeopardising the creation of a new ideology. Furthermore, older polytheistic religions like paganism, worshipped female goddesses, which did not fit the monotheistic, patriarchal structure of Christianity. 

Unfortunately, cats came to be associated with paganism and other folk customs as they were often brutally abused and killed in the name of sacrifice or tradition. Cats were also used by those within the Christian faith for sacrificial manners or celebrations and can be found to have been used across Western Europe in this way. Despite the extreme cruelty toward these animals, it was they who became vilified and maligned with wickedness. 

Witches and Cats in the Middle Ages

The image of the witch and her feline familiar is well established in popular culture – Sabrina and Salem, Hermione and Crookshanks, Kiki and Jiji, Miss Price and Cosmic Creepers, Nanny Ogg and Greebo… Yet, this is only a symptom of the iconography that grew from “witches” – or women accused as being such. In the Middle Ages, witchcraft involved the use of magical ointments with unsavoury ingredients, seducing married men, having sex with demons, and murder.

The Malleus Maleficarum [c.1486] by Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer was a demonology compendium outlining the catching, torturing, and executing of witches and their sympathisers. Texts such as the Malleus Maleficarum denigrated cats, with one inquisitor report claiming them to be demonic illusions controlled by three women in Strasbourg, Germany. But, why cats?

Illustration by Dugald Stewart Walker (1918)

Well, cats were a popular pet for older women. They were cheap to look after, easy to find, and didn’t take up much room. They provided companionship and support to poor widows, who fell at the bottom of the social pecking order. These women were seen as a social threat due to potentially needing support and/or taking food and supplies from other townspeople whilst seemingly giving nothing back. They also threatened patriarchal family units by merely managing to exist without a husband, or even children. Rather than the Christian church condemning these women for simply surviving, they decided to condemn them for devil worship.

Here, we can see why many portrayals of witches tend to be old, disabled, and blemished. This was handy indeed for witch-hunters, who decided any mark on the skin was left by the devil. Cats are independent and non-subservient to humans, which made them an ideal parallel for these independent and challenging women. The nature of cats was audacious – going out all hours of the night, refusing to follow the rules. As such, it seemed the speculation on the secretive behaviour of these animals grew in irrationality.

Instead of hunting at night to catch nocturnal creatures like mice, perhaps cats were instead attacking people and flooding houses. When women were seen to be showing compassion to their pet cats, it was taken as they were cavorting with the devil , whilst in truth their cat is likely the only companionship they had.

Cats, Women, and Art in the Modern Era

As we enter the Modern Era and move away from the Middle Ages, we begin to see an emergence of the image of cats with women in the fine arts. In the 1600s, we see the cat as a recurring image when connotating an elderly woman of a lower social class. In the two paintings below, both women are elderly with relatively humble meals (e.g. bread and soup).

In stark contrast to these two paintings, are these two below from the 1700s. They appear positively lascivious in comparison, featuring a bare shoulder here and a bare knee there, while a cat slinks around an arm or a leg. The cats now revel in plush, draped materials, and their proximity to the woman has grown much closer. There’s a move from the pious to the sensual, sure, but one thing remains constant beyond age, class, and setting; the woman.

This is consistent with the duality in the attitudes towards both women and cats. Moving into the Victorian era, in 1880 the Dundee Courier published a report claiming the following:

“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.”

Dundee Courier (1880)

What’s striking here is that the text here fits women, particularly older, unmarried women, within the same class as cats – independent, non-subservient, and sometimes audacious. By tying both the single female character with the cat in media is a way for writers and audiences to shift their conceived negative connotations of cats onto the character themselves. Furthermore, the existence of the cat lady in modern media is still a way of pointing a finger at a character to address some ill-distinguished shortcomings, usually which exist somewhere in the periphery of learned social norms and values, which is reflective of societal attitudes in the wider sense.

Today, “cat lady” is a part of the common vernacular. I have heard it said in real life to others, and by people with cats themselves who see the term as affectionate, in some sort of reclaiming practice. Usually, it’s a throwaway joke or the main trait of a minor character, but next time you see a cat lady in a film or TV show, ask yourself why such a character was necessary and what point the filmmaker is intending to make. You might find your answer surprising!


Sources

Texts:

A Table for One: A critical reading of singlehood, gender and time [2017] [x]

Spinsters, Old Maids, and Cat Ladies: A Case Study in Containment Strategies [2014] [x]

Articles:

How the ‘Crazy’ Cat Lady Became One of Pop Culture’s Most Enduring Sexist Trope [2021] [x]

Credits:

Featured image [x]

Freyja (Emil Doepler) [x]

Witch Illustration (Dugald Stewart Walker) [x]


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