Where Did The ‘Cat Lady’ Cliché Come From & Why Are Some Men Still Obsessed With It?

Photo by Adam Kuylenstierna/EyeEm/Getty Images
Last week, after the Laurence Fox furore that started with his BBC Question Time appearance and escalated when he told the world he won't date 'woke women' on the cover of The Sunday Times, my colleague wrote a piece about the growing number of men who harbour this mentality. It wasn’t long after the piece went live that the comment section became a total and absolute mess.
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The never-ending comments (appearing largely to emanate from the Men Go Their Own Way subreddit, a community which is "forging our own identities and paths to self-defined success; cutting through collective ideas of what a man is" and where posts like this are among the most popular) insulted her intelligence, claimed she was begging men to date her, called her a 'female incel' and a 'feminazi', and told her she needs therapy.
At peak, there were 752 comments (they have since been turned off in accordance with Refinery29's policy regarding abusive commentary). Her social media accounts were also targeted. The tone of the comments ranged from mildly belligerent to ferocious attacks on her as a person.
Among the comments about 'blue haired SJWs' (social justice warriors), one very distinct theme kept coming up:
"Best of luck with your cats… All 43 of them!"
"Start now in your mental preparations to be an old cat lady."
"Good luck having a life of cats."
And our personal favourite:
"And yet Mr [Laurence] Fox is currently knee-deep in fanny, whereas I bet the author of this piece is spending Saturday night in with a bottle of Rosé and wondering if it’s time to start getting some cats yet."
The recurring repetition of 'cat lady' ('crazy' prefix implied) is the oldest cliché in the book. So why, in 2020, is it still coming up as an insult? Surely, we asked ourselves in the office, we’ve reached a point where everyone knows that liking cats doesn’t doom a woman to a life of solitude? Likewise, the MGTOW crowd must know that not all politically left-leaning women head home after work to a dingy, cat-filled flat? Yet there it was, the 'crazy cat lady' trope, coming in thick and fast from the burner accounts of commenters entrenched in the rhetoric of the Manosphere.
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Cats and women have been linked in symbolically sinister ways for centuries. Our feline friends were (and of course still are) associated with witchcraft, starting in the medieval period when a cat was said to be one of the most common forms taken by a witch's 'familiar'. The very first woman to be executed for witchcraft in England, Agnes Waterhouse, confessed she had a cat as a 'familiar' before she was hanged in Chelmsford in 1566.
As time went on and the interest in witches waned, the association between cats and their (female) owners shifted from mystical to the stereotype we recognise today – cats as companions to lonely, embittered women. During the 18th century, etchings of the 'old maid' character became common; one famous example is Old Maids At A Cat’s Funeral, where all but one of the women are clutching cats. This caricature escalated in the 19th century among anti-suffrage commenters, with illustrations and cartoons depicting suffragettes as domestic, silly and whiny cats.
A funeral procession of elderly women with cats in their arms, following the coffin of a dead cat, in a churchyard. Engraving by J. Pettit after E.G. Byron, 10 April 1789. Credit: Wellcome Collection
The more current cultural references are endless, from the Edies in Grey Gardens to Eleanor 'Crazy Cat Lady' Abernathy in The Simpsons. Michelle Pfeiffer in 1992's Batman Returns played her Catwoman as a cat lady; Angela, the judgemental accountant from the US The Office, owned at least 17 cats; Linda’s sister Gayle in Bob’s Burgers owns three. And who could forget Rebecca Bunch and her song "Buttload Of Cats" in Netflix's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? None of these women is a traditionally 'aspirational' character. In each iteration, the character and her cats are to be avoided, pitied, disgusted by or laughed at.
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The evidence linking 'craziness' and cats is patchy. There are some studies, like this one from Brazil which indicates that women are more likely to be hoarders of animals (hoarders are defined here as neglectful to the animals with an inability to recognise suffering). Generalised hoarding disorder, however, does appear to affect men and women equally.
Another interesting theory involves toxoplasma gondii, a parasite associated with mental and behavioural syndromes in humans, which is found in cat faeces. Toxoplasma gondii's purported causation of psychiatric conditions is even sometimes referred to as 'crazy cat lady syndrome'. But most scientists pooh-pooh the idea. Dr Randall Lockwood told Vice: "I've seen no literature that suggests there are higher levels of toxoplasma antibodies in hoarders versus non hoarders – so it's quite a stretch going from animal studies to thinking that somehow it's influencing human behaviour."
We asked members of the MGTOW subreddit why, when cats seem so universally popular on the internet, 'cat lady' is still used as an insult. Before our account was blocked and our posts deleted (fair play Reddit), an interesting theme emerged.
Cats are mysterious and although domesticated, still play by their own rules. It is hard to elicit affection from cats and rarely do they demonstrate loyalty. "Dogs give them unquestioned love and affection," one Redditor wrote, "like they want from a guy until he gives it them and then they want a Chad instead." Could it be that the MGTOW commenters using the 'cat lady' insult see themselves as 'doglike' in relationships – trusting and doting – while women are more like cats, rejecting love and care?
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Of course, the 'crazy cat lady' insult says far less about women and far more about the people who use it. For the Men Going Their Own Way who commented on our piece, ending up as a 'cat lady' is a failure. It's a fate reserved for those who fail to live up to their expectations.
Ironically, more and more women are going their own way. They are choosing new life paths that have nothing to do with the archetypal husband and 2.4 kids; they're chasing careers, are less heterosexual than ever and are eschewing motherhood, and they're doing it not only successfully but happily.
In the end, how much you love cats is really not the point. If you want to surround yourself with them, or just dote on one, more power to you. Because honestly, if Saturday night entertainment is a choice between being "knee-deep in fanny" with Laurence Fox or drinking rosé with the cat, it's a no-brainer.
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