What is an unwed older woman in the eyes of the world today?
Nothing unusual, we should hope?
Cool? Empowered? Sweet? Ordinary? A woman?
Perfectly articulated by Hart Ayrault (Potter’s American Monthly, 1881), “Given a happy or desirable marriage as the goal of every woman’s life, if she fails in attaining it, she is looked upon, especially in the eyes of every other woman who is married, as having failed in the prime object of existence… Tradition associates her with cats and parrots, on which she is supposed to lavish all that is left of affection in her withered heart, while she loathes babies, those curled darlings in conjugal love, and doles out but sparingly the milk of human kindness that every breast is supposed to hold for ties of blood and kindred.”
You would think that in the last 140 years, the world would have done away with a dirty trope like that: it has not.
Take Gilmore Girls, season four: Lorelai has just broken up with Jason when she finds two stray cats on her doorstep. After fretting over the phone about how the cats ‘know’ she is newly single and that it is time for her to become a ‘Crazy Cat Lady’, she disconnects in a huff, peers into the doorway and says crossly to the strays, “Hey! I am a young, desirable woman”.
Take That 70s Show, season one: Donna’s mother tries to convince her she should let her almost-boyfriend Eric win at basketball because “Women have to pretend to be weak and fragile so that men can feel superior!” When Donna protests, citing the Equal Rights Amendment, her mother responds with, “That’s good, dear. You stick to your principles. And 40 years from now, you can tell all your cats how you won a basketball game.” The studio audience roars with laughter and the scene shifts.
Disdainful references to the Cat Lady motif (and why women should fear it above all) plague the premises of popular TV – from The Office’s Angela Martin to The Simpsons’ Eleanor Abernathy (better known, of course, as the Crazy Cat Lady). Even LEGO has produced a Cat Lady Minifigure – a Mrs Scratchen-Post, who also appeared in The Lego Movie. Mrs Scratchen-Post is a grey-haired, fanny-pack-sporting lady in a cat sweater, whose clothes are perpetually bestrewn with cat hair. So chic!
View this post on Instagram
“Sherry and Jeff” Mrs Sherry Scratchenpost sits down in an arm chair while Jeff waits patiently for her to get comfortable before he jumps on her lap 🐱 • [Lego Minifigures Series The Lego Movie Mrs Sratchenpost] • #lego #legophotography #legofan #legominifigures #legophotographer #littlelegophotographer #thelittlelegophotographer #photography #legoadventures #legostagram #legominifig #legominifigs #legominifigureadventures #product #csfphotography #thelegomovie #legomovie #thelegomovieminifigures #sherryscratchenpost #mrsscratchenpost #catlady #jeff #jeffthecat #legocats #portraitphotography #portrait #toyphotography #afol #legolife @lego
In essence, the Cat Lady trope is a postmodern reproduction of hackneyed titles like ‘spinster’ and ‘old maid’, recast only slightly to fit the times. The fundamental paradigm of this character is much the same as its antecedents: a woman who, by choice or by (mis)fortune, remains celibate through her life – so lonely and absurd that the only targets of her affection are her three-to-three-hundred feline friends.
For men, the closest equivalent term is ‘Confirmed Bachelor’. While this expression also holds some condescending connotations (as a homophobic euphemism for gay men in particular), it is often rebranded as a designation of pride. Attractive, middle-aged single men are frequently deemed ‘Confirmed Bachelors by choice’ and applauded for their suave spontaneity.
“Elusive, ungettable, a real catch”, says Frances McDormand in Something’s Gotta Give, on the public notion of Jack Nicholson’s character – the archetype of such boastful bachelorism. Needless to say, this is a clear-cut specimen of an abhorrent double standard – one that most people are acquainted with, at that. Yet, lo and behold – the Cat Lady motif thrives.
In case the idiosyncrasies of the Crazy Cat Lady are not yet abundantly clear, here is a synopsis: The Crazy Cat Lady, above all, is the fictional embodiment of patriarchal values that suggest that a childless, spouseless woman of middle age or older is a neurotic deviant. She is either too bizarre and unorthodox to attract respectable men or too deranged to see the desirability of a traditional family.
View this post on Instagram
(NOT my art, don’t know the artist) There’s a new Orange and white cat outside, this makes 4 now, I named them Creamer and now there’s a pile of cat food on the porche that I didn’t put there😕 There a Fairy Catlady I don’t know about😅 #catsoninstagram #catsofinstagram #catladies #catlovers #catlady #catcomic #catladyforlife #fairycatlady #catladycomic
She is the patriarchal prototype of ‘failed femininity’. Women who reject marriage and motherhood actively imperil the system by refusing to engage in it. Since this is not something the said ‘System’ will find profitable, these women are portrayed as hoarders, hags and witches, so little girls around the world will know not to be like them.
No audience is spared from the pigeonholing of this sort. We are raised on calculated diets of lonely, hostile female villains, from Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent to the spiteful, sadistic Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians. When added to the repercussions of the Cat Lady motif, these depictions present one decidedly frightening message to women and girls universally – conform to heteronormative ideals of family and relationships or you will turn bitter, resentful and incapable of love.
Be young, desirable women. Or end up with cats. Which is a bad thing? Obviously. It means you do not like people and that people do not like you. It means you are sad, lonesome and an outcast. It means you are not a woman. Not a ‘good’ one, anyhow. Not a ‘normal’ one. You have neglected your duties. You have failed.
We think the modern woman is safe, liberated. That she “don’t need no man”, as the saying goes. How are we to persuade her of this when we are still guffawing at the Cat Lady? At the pinnacle of ‘she needs a man, or she’s a freak’?
Of course, it is not just the Cat Lady. It is the ostracisation and manipulation of any and all women who live husbandless:
– LGBTQ+ women.
– Women in cohabitation relationships, who would prefer to remain that way (often subject to ‘Break up or get hitched already!’ as though love is meaningless without a contract).
– Women who are partnerless and happy about it.
– Women who are partnerless and could be happier.
– Older women who are single and are poked, piqued, prodded and pressured.
– Teenage girls who vow to themselves that they will find love – bear children, perhaps. That they will conform, for fear of being spinsters, cat ladies and old maids.
‘Life without marriage to a man is a life devoid of love’ – it is cold and empty and sprinkled with cat hair, like Mrs Scratchen-Post’s sweater. That is what we have been told, via Cat Lady-esque motifs. To stop us from being Scratchen-Posts and Cruel Devils, to stop us from imperilling the System – the System being the patriarchy.
Me, I remain unswayed.
It is not the end of the world to be a Cat Lady. An old maid, a spinster, a Scratchen-Post. It does not make you lonely. It does not make you not ordinary. So, Cat Lady jokes are cruel. They are misogynistic. And I, for one, have stopped laughing.
Also Read: The Household Stereotypes That Surround Women And Their Work
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: The Guardian