By Carolin Hartter
TW: Some of the historic incidents discussed in this essay may be upsetting to some readers
What words do you associate with a cat? Quickfire: Adorable? Cuddly? Small?
My whole perspective on cats as cybercultures’ ultimate icon of Cute has been overturned after seeing the Carolee Schneemann retrospective at the Barbican, on show until the 8th January. Schneemann, an important artist and activist within the second-wave feminist movement and a pioneer of body politics, had a very particular bond with her cats.
The Barbican is showcasing films and photographs by Schneemann where the cat is involved in deeply sexual acts, French-kissing the artist or watching her have sex. In comparison to the domestic fluff balls trolling around on Instagram, these cat-human interactions published by Schneemann seem more lewd than cute. Even though it could have easily been labelled as obscene, the work inspired a pause. Although difficult and uncomfortable to see, this wicked sexual connection draws attention to a significant historical link between cats and femininity.
Even before Schneemann and the second-wave feminists, this link was firmly established. Their intertwining history goes as far back as ancient Egypt, morphing cat and woman into a hybrid deity, all the way to the superhero ‘Catwoman’, who first appeared alongside Batman in 1940. How then did cats end up subject to a constrictive social media rulership rendering the cat utterly domesticated – a girl’s cuddly companion? And more importantly, if cats and women have a symbolic connection that transgresses the trope of the crazy cat-lady, isn’t this hyper-cute portrayal of cats a regression of women’s emancipation by displaying a feline image contrary to Schneemann’s autonomous cat?
This essay attempts to shine a light behind the façade of the cat video and elucidate the mysteries of the past while acting as a warning for feminist self-representation and interpretation in the wake of hyper-cute realities.
In her ground-breaking essay When Species Meet, feminist Donna Haraway reflects on the profound affiliation between cat and woman. She writes: “We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up in the flesh.” Since no thought can find expression without context, one needs to return to the origins of the metaphorical icon of the cat-woman or the cat-lady. On a superficial level, one can observe a linguistic link between feline and feminine. The prefix fe introduces the two as acting synonyms for each other without any concrete etymological reasoning. It’s like a match made in heaven only to be capped by pussy-cat, with ‘pussy’ informally referring to both vagina and cat. Correspondingly, the French word Chat Noir (Black Cat) was used as a euphemism for female genitalia since the Renaissance.
In its most primitive form, the kinship between a cat and a woman can be traced to psychoanalytic theories. Thinking of the human unconscious, labelled the Id by Freud and expanded on as the animus in Jungian theories, we all harbour primal instincts – needs like sex or food – urges that equate humans with animals. This awareness of our instinctive appetites makes an allegorical connection between women and cats even more tangible. By imagining the human as an animal, the cat’s movements, gracefulness, and slender form appear feminine adding another link to the chain of feline femininity. Using the Id as a stepping stone attempts to justify the metamorphosis from cat to woman and vice versa. More than that, there is a reason for the cat’s unrivalled popularity within the pool of anthropomorphised cultural icons that hints at their potential to become ‘woman’. Their historical associations create an ambivalence between good and evil, cute and repulsive. This dual nature of the cat is reflected in the patriarchal perception of women, who can exist as both the fetishized object of desire but also as dangerous and defiling once they have evaded normative control. While the cat’s independence and freedom have been linked to both the divine realm and the devil’s dominion, as will be outlined in the following, the woman as a synonym has been subliminally determined as coequal.
To corroborate the cat’s affiliation with the female sex, an evaluation of their historical significance is vital. The earliest depictions of cats date back to ancient Egypt finding their symbolic apex in the portrayals of the goddess Bastet. As the goddess of fertility, she was depicted as a woman-cat hybrid. Anyone praying for Bastet would pray for a female, lunar energy, and in turn value the cat as a sacred animal of femininity. Likewise, we find Freya, the goddess of fertility in Norse mythology, riding a chariot drawn by cats, substantiating the animal’s mystical female spirit.
Unfortunately, this ideology of cats as the divine signifier of female sexuality was overthrown by the emergence of the Catholic Church. Ancient animal gods suddenly became a sign of pagan worship, as they antagonized the church’s need for anthropomorphisation. Christianity idolised the human form by modelling its icons after it, thereby attempting to create a relatability to the divine realm. Thus, by establishing the archetypal figure of the Virgin Mary as the sublime form of femininity, any woman deviating from the dogma of purity and obedience would suffer punishment. The importance of chastity led to a profound paranoia of individualism. Thus, a woman openly othering herself, by living alone, or inviting the male gaze – that is to say by adopting those attributes that have previously been admired in cats – would be condemned as a ‘witch’ leading to torture or death.
Officially, ‘witches’ were said to be in league with the devil, bringing illness and bad luck to the people. In reality, they were women of an independent spirit or healers, whose progressiveness was deemed socially unacceptable, making them the ideal scapegoat for misfortune.
Adopting the medieval belief of cats as wild, independent animals explicates the connection between so-called ‘witches’ and cats. There was a head-reeling number of myths attaching the feline to the ‘witch’, most commonly making the cat the messenger between its mistress and the devil. Another myth talks of a lunar transformation from ‘witch’ to cat to facilitate entry to the homes of people they subsequently bewitch. Understandably, cats didn’t have a great reputation in those days and would often be burned alongside the ‘witches’. A particularly barbarous form of torture saw a kitten forced into the ‘witch’s’ vagina to claw at her from the inside, cruelly abusing the dual nature of the word pussy.
Moving forward to a new progressive body of thought, the apprehension of cats as a portent of evil turned into a more benevolent feeling. Many romantic poets used the puss as a metaphor for unattainable women as the object of their liberated desires. In his poem Le Chat, Baudelaire draws a direct comparison between the two, composing the line: “[…] I think about my woman – how her glances Like yours, dear beast, deep down and cold, can cut […]”. In this way, many avant-garde thinkers thought of the cat as their spirit animal, taking their independence and indifference to human affection as a sign of progression. In his poem The Naming of Cats, T.S Eliot addresses the cat’s mythological bearing when he writes: “[…] a cat needs a name that’s particular […] more dignified, […] The name that no human research can discover […]”. Admitting its prevalence in critical discussion, Manet’s Olympia is a painting of tremendous sexual provocation. The positioning of the cat next to the female nude not only remarks on the before mentioned Chat Noir but alongside the black servant in the background attests to a grouping of otherness associated with femininity. The aloofness of Olympia and its symbolic relevance to the cat further inspired artists like Balthus and Beardsley.
With the introduction of cat litter, toys, and anti-flea treatments, the cat became more and more domesticated, losing much of its original status as a self-reliant animal. This new home-loving image became a prominent punchline in anti-suffragette propaganda, with men fearing the loss of their patriarchal rule, and traditionalist women expressing outrage over their reformist counterparts.
Here, an illustration of a cat dressed up in woman’s clothing was used as a signifier for their ‘failing’ attempt at emancipation- condemning both cat and woman to their ‘rightful’ place in the domestic sphere. By contrast, images of dishevelled-looking cats were circulated to indicate their dependence on the woman’s presence at home. Both cases are an example of the exertion of patriarchal control, stemming from a fear of otherness, that harps back to a medieval ideology.
With the first and second World Wars, the status of women in the West changed dramatically, seeing a vast number leaving behind the dowdy image of the housewife and finding employment in positions left vacant by the enlisted men. During this time the cat was pushed to the background, nurturing its role as a house pet to entertain the children now left at home without the care of their mother. Unfortunately, this status of emancipation didn’t last, and the end of the war signaled the return of the stay-at-home wife. Having tasted the freedom of equality, this regressive development had a bitter taste for the progressive woman and sparked the second-wave feminist movement in the 60’s and 70’s.
Sitting within the glossary of radical feminists of that time is Carolee Schneemann. Alongside critical theories on sex and gender by the likes of Judith Butler and Simone de Beauvoir, Schneemann’s use of her own body addressed topics of objectification and sexual expression in an uncompromising manner. In this way, the activists illustrated a man-made horror toward female sexuality and the Freudian castration fear associated with its liberation. Sigmund Freud introduced the psychoanalytic concept of castration fear in connection to the Oedipus complex in 1909. The concept is simple: a boy or man fears damage or loss of his genital organs as a punishment for having sex fantasies with his mother. Historically, the penis represents dominance and power, which can explain why the loss of the penis is met by such deep-rooted anxiety and how this is amplified by the vagina-forward artworks of the second-wave feminists.
Within her radical advocacy of female independence, Schneemann returned to the ancient notion of a divine lunar energy, which she found reflected in her cats. The artist purportedly had a spiritual bond with her cats, not unlike the one rumoured to exist between ‘witches’ and their feline companions. In fact, to her, these furry creatures were lovers and collaborators. Their mystical ability to move between the wild outdoors and the domestic interior world according to their own will echoes an independence that further consolidates the cat as a feminist symbol in Schneemann’s work. This statement finds legitimacy in the following words by Schneemann: “When I am caressed by my cat, […], I wonder at the stretching, tearing contradictions surrounding the fragility of domestic constancy and the female traditions of empathic attention which are ever assailable.”
With sentiment to the Chat Noir, Carolee Schneemann uses the cat as a synonym for provocative female sexuality, thereby moving away from the convention of the male gaze. Her most radical works are arguably her films Fuses and Cat’s Cradle and the photographic series Infinity Kisses in which controversy is created through a hybrid of zoomorphic (representing animal forms) and anthropomorphic (representing human forms) scenarios of sexual interaction.
As a matter of fact, this confusing otherness through human-animal qualities is revisited in the contemporary cat video. As an antithesis to Schneemann, who was associating the liberation of her female body with the sexual potential of her cats, the ambivalence of zoomorphic (representing animal forms) and anthropomorphic (representing human forms) qualities of the internet-famous cats enhances its potential for cuteness. The online consumption of cat videos presupposes a ‘cute-fetishization’ generated by the animals’ complete surrender to human control. As critical writer Sasha Archibald explains, the fetishization of cuteness that exists today is fuelled by our addiction to ‘cute’-stuff. Regrettably, Archibald continues to explain that the hyper-consumption of cute content “[…] eclipses functionality” and can therefore be considered a technique of oppression. In this manner, the token of cuteness in a cat video indicates the animal’s loss of power. To this degree, are these popular cat videos nothing more than a fetishization and subordination of the female body through the allegory of the cat? In a quasi-act of pornography, the cat is made to please and satisfy the viewers’ voyeuristic appetite for cuteness. Following a past in which the cat was either a metaphor or synonym for the female sex, is there a juncture between the subjugation of the cat on social media and the beauty standards brought on by filters on these exact platforms? Don’t both embody the performativity of a man-made ideal hidden behind a digital aura of cuteness? Having proven that cats were historically the signifier of a woman’s sexual liberty and provocative emancipation, this analysis leads to the conclusion that cats in contemporary culture exude only a state of fetishized virginal cuteness possibly reflected in female self-representation. Between pouty selfies and cats with hair rollers, the pussy has ultimately returned to its place in the children’s nursery rhyme.
Within contemporary culture cats have been so utterly domesticated that it has become difficult, at least in their treatment as a pet, to differentiate the cat from the dog. Finding its pinnacle with the introduction of cat leashes the cat’s mythological origins have been obliterated, leaving only the crazy cat lady lurking in its wake. The baffling ripple effect of their ambivalence as both good and evil can be trailed through history ending in an unfortunate neutrality of embodied cuteness.
In a hopeful endeavour, philosopher Jacques Derrida suggests that the cat’s lost dignity can be restored “[…] by occasionally reversing the spectral terms of the human-feline relationship.”– hats-off to Schneemann for her pioneering work in feline-female redemption. Maybe, this essay could revoke some of the ancient kinships between cats and women ending with a suggestion to contextually challenge the next cat video you will watch.
What words do you associate with a cat? Quickfire: Carnal Provocation! Mysterious Metamorphosis! Invulnerable Independence!