Should Cat Rescuers Reject or Embrace the 'Crazy Cat Lady' Stereotype?
These days, the ‘crazy cat lady’ trope often has affectionate connotations. Thanks to cat-obsessed internet culture, it’s become something of an ‘in’-joke, with many cat-owning women happy to identify themselves - with an air of facetiousness - as ‘cat ladies’.
You can buy badges, T-shirts and even action figures jokingly brandishing the phrase.
But there are also women in the cat rescue field - arguably the biggest ‘cat ladies’ of all - who actually resent having the term applied to them. Some, because they think it conjures images of cat hoarders, and they wish to make a clear distinction between those who rescue, rather than simply collect, cats. And others, because despite its resurgence as a light-hearted trope, its roots lie in a time when unmarried women were considered quite tragic;
“Women who have cats have long been associated with the concept of spinsterhood. In more recent decades, the concept of a cat lady has been associated with "romance-challenged (often career-oriented) women.”
The underlying message of the crazy cat lady stereotype, at least at the time of its conception, is that a single, childless woman is bound to be so desperately lonely that cats present as her only source of companionship. And as a result of that, she’s liable to become disheveled, unfeminine and eccentric - the character that always springs to mind being Eleanor Abernathy in The Simpsons.
When you compare that to the idea of a male ‘bachelor’, it becomes especially egregious.
I’m not much of a subscriber of ‘offense’ culture. I’ve never favoured the blanket banning of words or terms without consideration for context, so can’t whole-heartedly agree with the spate of recent articles arguing that this expression should be shunned by women. Nevertheless, as someone who has worked and/or volunteered at a cat charity for a total of almost six years, I have to admit that there have been occasions when this trope was applied to me, or more often, to my older female colleagues, in a negative way.
I once mentioned to a friend that it was hard to meet someone whilst working in cat rescue; her response was ‘yeah, I bet you're surrounded by a bunch of middle-aged lesbians, right?’ Another time I was on a date, describing a female colleague who had chosen to stop rescuing cats. I mentioned in passing that she’d recently gotten married and had a baby, and my date smiled smugly and said ‘of course she stopped when she got a boyfriend.'
On that occasion, I wanted to smash my date’s face into his Dandelion and Burdock IPA - or whatever the fuck it was. But generally, I’d shrug such comments off. After all, I’ be happy to concede that many of the people who work with cats happen to be women, but so what?
After all, is it really that surprising that women are more comfortable with indulging in an activity - in this case, rescuing cats - commonly associated with empathy and nurturing? We know that these are traits encouraged in women, sometimes to a fault, whilst men may be considered weak or un-masculine for demonstrating them - by both genders.
That's not to say that I don't know plenty of men - heterosexual and otherwise - who rescue cats or animals, irrespective of what their gender role may or may not dictate. They're not the majority gender, but neither are they a rarity. Even more noteworthy are the large number of happily married or partnered female cat rescuers that I've encountered. Whilst women may dominate when it comes to charitable work with animals in general, in my experience, single women don't; it is, quite simply, a poor implication of someone's relationship status. And there has been some recent research that reinforces this;
"We found no evidence to support the 'cat lady' stereotype: cat-owners did not differ from others on self-reported symptoms of depression, anxiety or their experiences in close relationships," the study said.
"Our findings, therefore, do not fit with the notion of cat-owners as more depressed, anxious or alone."
That cats, in particular, were the recipient of my female-majority team's work never seemed particularly significant, either; despite the long-held association between women and cats, especially related to witchcraft. Cats are one of the world’s most commonly kept pets. And where there are pets, there are irresponsible owners, and therefore a need for rescue.
It’s also worth pointing out that in my experience, few single people, male or female, start rescuing cats as a career because they’re lonely. Conversely, the isolation and loneliness come later, when the nature of rescue work proves so emotionally, financially and physically draining, that there is no room in one's life for romance. It’s very hard to find the time for dating, and it’s very hard to find a partner who understands; who’s willing to accept the extent that rescue infringes on your personal life. The cliche, therefore, can be quite backward.
Maybe this archetype never bothered me much simply because its glaring inaccuracies - so at odds with my own experiences - made it easy to disregard; insults are most effective when they veer close to the truth. But it’s very possible that if I were older, and subject to all of the generalisations made about single, middle-aged women, I might be more sensitive to the negative connotations of the cat-lady stereotype, regardless of its veracity. Especially as I'd be of a generation that placed importance on marriage; studies show that millennials increasingly don't.
I’m also not someone who has ever possessed a great deal of interest in marriage or children. If I did yearn for such things, if they were significant life goals for me, perhaps I’d also be more wounded by a trope that draws attention to their absence. As it happens, I increasingly don't give a shit about being single and I'm utterly delighted to be childless.
However, there have been times when my gender has been related to my interest in animals in a way that has infuriated me. More generally, I sometimes feel that my rescue work and activism is disregarded as simply a woman’s preoccupation with cute, fluffy animals; the idea that my life choices are the result of rampant, illogical compassion, a mothering instinct that defies all sense.
This is far more likely to make me bristle than any aspersions about my romantic life, because, sure, animals are cute. They’re also sometimes violent, incredibly frustrating, annoying or gross and the people who work with them know that better than anyone.
To clarify, I do this not because animals are cute, but because they are vulnerable and I therefore believe it's my moral obligation to protect, rather than exploit, them. It goes beyond just what I feel for animals, it's also a logical conclusion; an evaluation of our treatment of animals, and how it does not meet the standards of ethics otherwise espoused by our species. As pillar of the AR movement Peter Singer puts it in his 1975 book, Animal Liberation;
“The portrayal of those who protest against animal cruelty as sentimental, emotional, “animal-lovers” has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of nonhumans from serious political and moral discussion. It is easy to see why we do this. If we did give the issue serious consideration, if, for instance, we looked closely at the conditions in which animals live in the modern “factory farms” that produce our meat, we might be uncomfortable about ham sandwiches, roast beef, fried chicken, and all the other items in our diet that we prefer not to think of as dead animals.”