Cats Vs. Kids

Cats Vs. Kids

by Kelly Binning


I guess you could say I’m your quintessential “Crazy Cat Lady.” I’ve grown up with cats my entire life (my parents now own four), and I adopted my own cat, Gibson, the very day I moved to Iowa City to start grad school. I will jokingly identify with Eleanor Abernathy, resident CCL of The Simpsons, and I feel for the ridicule poor Ella Mason receives in her eponymous poem by Silvia Plath. These women exemplify the culturally significant, historically prevalent, technologically viral figure of the Crazy Cat Lady, but what is it about them that makes us view them as comical, amusing, or just plain sad? What does her character tell us about American womanhood today? And this also begs the question: Why the hell would I want to identify with such a character?

Let’s start with a little history, shall we? The Cat Lady, or at least a close cultural affiliation of women with cats, has been around for centuries. Literally. As a number of publications—ranging from Huffington Post, to Forbes, and to the Boston Globe—have discussed, the association between women and cats dates back to ancient times, among a variety of cultures. In ancient Egypt, people worshipped Bastet, a half-feline, half-woman goddess. Norse mythology holds that Freyja, the goddess of beauty and strength, drove a gilt chariot pulled by two divine cats. And ancient Chinese culture reveres Li Shou, a cat goddess known for her overseeing of pest control and fertility. These are clearly all positive images, but as I was not surprised to discover, the Catholic Church had a hand in putting the “crazy” in Crazy Cat Lady. As the Catholic Church’s power grew in strength and influence over centuries of human history, negative cat-woman associations began to arise through a concatenation of events (pun intended)—first with the Church’s condemnation of paganism and then with the Inquisition and its infamous “witch hunts.” During the Inquisition, the first published words that publicly constructed a negative link between women and their feline companions appeared in a book called the Malleus Maleficarum a.k.a. “the Witch Hammer” in 1486. (I think the title of the book is fairly self-explanatory, but if you would like further information on it and all of the terribly insane, misogynist things its authors had to say, click here.) The book posits that more likely than not, women are witches, cats are their evil accomplices, and all are, essentially, spawn of Satan himself. Needless to say, the CCL and her cats have had particularly rough histories together.

In the 21st century, however, we are no longer conducting “witch hunts” in the traditional sense. Well, we’ve at least come to reason that witches (spell-casting, cauldron-stirring, demon-conjuring, cat-owning individuals) don’t actually exist and we, as a general population, aren’t hunting them down anymore. But the CCL nonetheless maintains a cultural stigma. Now women like me who own cats have fallen into a new, altered stereotype. If one looks to Wikipedia (or the simultaneously comical and cynical Urban Dictionary), one will find that Crazy Cat Ladies are described as depressed spinsters, animal hoarders, single women who “can’t hold down a man,” selfish career women, or hermit-like humans who value interactions with cats over people. CCLs are stereotypically believed to not be “real” women, as they live outside normative femininity: not being romantically available or interested, not embodying a typical maternal desire. They are commonly seen as self-induced social pariahs, or eccentric weirdos at the very least, cut off from human reality and instead voluntarily living among cats.

To discuss the Crazy Cat Lady, then, is to discuss what it means to be a “real” woman in American society today. While we have come a long way since the Victorian maternal, domestically imprisoned ideal of “The Cult of True Womanhood,” having to contend with what I am dubbing “The Cult of Neoliberal Womanhood” feels, in some ways, worse.

Why do I say “Neoliberal”? Well, in a backwards little nutshell, the socioeconomic movement of neoliberalism pushes us to conform to this idea of not only “having it all” but also having it all perfectly.  Today’s ideal neoliberal woman is autonomous, educated, driven, and financially independent. But here’s the kicker: she must also be a mother. But not just a mother, a “Supermom.” She must be a perfect worker and a perfect mother. Don’t worry, she won’t be expected to cook dinner every night (because we’re all so feminist now), but she sure as hell better balance work and motherhood to perfection.

Honestly, I have no gripes with pushing for women to get an education, become independent, be competitive, and strive to do well—I’m on that bandwagon! But when school or work intersects with women’s personal lives (familial, romantic, or otherwise), things can become problematic, especially if she deviates from either side. Case and point: I am doing relatively well on the neoliberal checklist as I’ve earned my bachelor’s degree, I make my own money, and I am currently working toward a master’s degree. But, oh shit, I don’t want babies?! I don’t want to be a Supermom? Suddenly I’m seen less as a driven, independent woman and more as a cold, uncaring, heartless bitch. My priorities are out of line.

Photo by Japheth Mast, Unsplash

“She cares more about those stupid cats than actual people.”

“Is something wrong with her?”

“I’ve never met a woman who doesn’t want kids.”

“Maybe she’s a lesbian.”

“Life without kids is just sad and lonely.”

Cue internalized inferiority and waxing anxiety. Cue feelings of self-loathing and defectiveness. Cue social phobia.

From the moment I started dating at age 17, I knew I wanted to diverge from this assumed path of motherhood, but I never imagined the stress it would put on me as I got to “that age” of prime childbearing.  All of this is compounded by my older sister passing away unexpectedly five years ago, leaving me as my parents’ only child. The pressure to carry the family name and provide grandchildren for my parents usually goes something like this:

Me: “I don’t think I want to have children.”

Parent 1: “Oh, sure you do! Everybody does.”

Me: “Uh, nope. No I don’t. I’d rather travel, work, and enjoy my life with a spouse maybe.”

Parent 2: “Oh, well, don’t worry about it. You’ll want kids at some point. Just give it time! You’ll reach that age and realize that’s what you actually want.”

I’ve also been told, after expressing my desire to remain childfree, that wanting to share my life and love with only my spouse was “selfish.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but to me, this feels really uncool. Why should I be called selfish just because I don’t agree that having children is the most fulfilling way to live one’s life? And on top of my own personal reasons for not wanting to make babies lies a global perspective. Our earth is populated by nearly 7.6 billion humans. We need to face the facts here: having children is no longer necessary for our species’ survival. Our earthly home is only so big, and we are depleting its life-giving resources at startling rates. People are starving; our natural energy resources are drying up; world leaders are getting scarier and more unstable every minute. I’m not saying that all people who want to have kids are terrible. It is not at all my intent to attack them. The point I’m trying to make here is that people like me get judged for being selfish when the people doing the judging are acting with their own interests in mind, too. The difference here is that one group is doing more of the judging while the other is more so dealing with the consequences of being judged.

Among the jerkish judges who happily wag their fingers in your face are a milder faction of our biological determinists, the ones who assure you that “you’ll want to be a mother eventually.” While on the surface they seem less threatening than the former, their words still contribute to the anxiety of us maternally ambivalent women. Assuming that some dormant “maternal instinct” will just “kick in” one day undercuts my ability and human right to choose what happens to my body. It also assumes that I am not truly happy now and I won’t be until that fuzzy happy feeling of wanting to be a mother implants itself in my brain.

I am so sick and tired of feeling like I’m doing something wrong for wanting to opt out of motherhood. It’s about due time people realize that we childfree women are not the defect; the system is defective.

And this is where I may call upon my inner Crazy Cat Lady again, perhaps more explicitly. So far I’ve only mentioned the negative social connotations of intimately identifying with this figure: being the farcical face of the “sad, lonely, selfish woman,” a target at which the “normal,” “real” women with babies on their hips may point their fingers and click their tongues. More recently, however, I have become aware of how others are reshaping this identity, molding it into a symbol of resistance to the heterosexual conventions of parenthood, “the system,” if you will.

A community of really stellar people have mobilized to reclaim the CCL stereotype and challenge The Cult of Neoliberal Womanhood. Writers at the aforementioned news outlets, along with Mother Nature Network, the Crazy Cat Lady Facebook group, The Crazy Cat Ladies Society, and Cat Lady Confidential have all begun working on not only subverting the CCL stereotype, but also by extension challenging conventional American womanhood. Cat Lady Confidential writes about the growing CCL culture in an effort to frame this faction of childfree living not as a parody of “real” womanhood but rather as its own subculture that is gaining popularity, gravity, and social power. Cat Lady Confidential blogs regularly about goings on in popular culture, including the rising popularity of cats as pets, cats in advertising, and celebrity cat culture endorsed by Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Mayim Bialik. Further, 2015 saw our very first Cat-Con event. Through these organizations and events, childfree women like myself, some of whom also identify with the character of the CCL, urge others to see our decision as not a depressing default or personal defect, but as a perfectly legitimate alternative lifestyle.

A candid photo of Gibson by Kelly Binning.

As it sits right now, I don’t want to be the sociological Supermom—especially since studies have suggested that Supermoms are actually at a higher risk for depression. All I want, honestly, is to be able to say to someone “I don’t think I ever want to have kids” without getting the derisive side-eye, a self-righteous scolding on how selfish I am, or a dismissive hand-wave accompanied by a “reassuring”: “Don’t worry, it’ll happen.”

Bottom line: Let us be Crazy Cat People. Let us be childfree. Let us be open about our feelings toward motherhood. We’re happy with the choices we make, so let us revel in our ability to be autonomous women.

I will forever be an unabashedly proud Crazy Cat Lady. I may not be actually crazy like Ms. Abernathy and default to slinging cats at passersby, but you bet your bottom dollar that I adore Gibson, affectionately called Gibby, more than almost anything on this planet. As far as I’m concerned, my cat is my baby. And he’s pretty easy to take care of. I mean, he poops in a box.

Kelly Binning is a graduate student at the University of Iowa, and she is currently working toward a master’s degree in English literary studies. She enjoys long walks on the beach, black coffee, fat cats, and critiquing the Neoliberal agenda.