Today at Cat Lady Confidential we are publishing the first of a series of three posts on the subject of the crazy cat lady stereotype. In this first post we are going to look into the true story behind the crazy cat lady stereotype.
Definitions of the term “cat lady”
Over the centuries the term “cat lady” has taken on a pejorative sense. So, where did the crazy cat lady stereotype come from? Let’s look at the definition of the term in the popular Wikipedia:
A cat lady is a single woman who dotes upon her pet cat or cats. The term is usually considered pejorative, though it is sometimes embraced.
A cat lady may also be an animal hoarder who keeps large numbers of cats without having the ability to properly house or care for them. They may be ignorant about their situation.”
The definition of the term in the online Urban Dictionary digs even deeper into the “craziness”:
A old woman who usually lives secluded from society with her hundreds of cats. Because she is forced to use all of her social security money of her cats, she eats only cat food and drinks only milk. She usually feels the need to name every single one of her cats with funny names and possesses the uncanny ability to recognize which cat is which no matter how similar they may look to one another.”
So, according to these definitions, the cat lady is a crazy spinster obsessed with cats. But where did the negative connotation of the term came from? We have to go back a few centuries to understand the tie between “crazy” women and cats.
Origins of the Crazy Cat Lady Stereotype
The cat started by being worshiped in some cultures. In ancient Egypt the Cat Goddess, Bastet, who was half feline, half woman, was revered by the population. In the Norse mythology, Freyja, a goddess of both beauty and strength who rode on a chariot led by two cats, was also a popular goddess. In ancient China the feline goddess, Li Shou, has revered for pest control and fertility.
These representations of cats and goddesses were passed down through folklore and paganism, however as the Catholic Church rose to power, paganism and the goddesses that came with it were condemned.
The turning point came with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1486. This book, also know as the Witch Hammer, served as a guidebook for how to identify and prosecute witches during the Inquisition. The Malleus Maleficarum turned society’s attention toward witches, classifying both women and cats as evil and constructing some of the first negative associations between the two.
With the goal of condemning and persecuting pagan gods and goddesses, the Church transformed the once deified cats to evil personified as the Devil. For the Catholic Church cats were used by the Devil to communicate with witches and recruit young maidens into witchcraft.
This led to the torturing and killing of hundreds of thousands of cats ordered by Pope Innocent VIII. Ironically, this feline genocide created an overabundance of rodents that ultimately led to the rampant spread of the Black Plague.
So, both cats and women share a long history of being persecuted and connected to one another.
The Crazy Cat Lady in the 20th Century
But if we fast forward 400 years we still find that the crazy cat lady stereotype endures in reality and fiction. A film example worthy of note is Alex DeLarge’s murder of a paranoid, hoarder cat woman in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange.
But the cat lady truly entered popular culture with The Simpsons phenomenon as Eleanor Abernathy made her first appearance on the show in 1998. This character truly represents the stereotype of a crazy cat hoarder. And this stereotype has also been immortalized by the crazy cat lady action figure.
However, we seem to be witnessing a chance in the way people view cat ownership. Cats and all things cat-related seem to have become ever so in vogue these past few years, with CatCon La being the ultimate celebration of cat pop culture.
So, in our next post will be looking at this new era and how we are breaking free from the crazy cat lady stereotype (coming next week).
Post originally published July 2, 2015.