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How the “crazy cat lady” reclaimed her powerful narrative in 2019

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Hollie Richardson
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Crazy cat ladies

For too long, the cat lady has been labelled “crazy, lonely and sad” but this powerful movement proves just how cool cats really are. 

Cats are cool. They reduce feelings of loneliness, trigger the calming release of oxytocin and increase sociability (thanks to all those cat cafes).

They even made a case against Brexit in the 2016 referendum.

So, why does the tired trope of “crazy, cat lady” still exist? Think Eleanor Abernathy in The Simpsons, stumbling around Springfield with cats clinging to her cardigan while she shouts obscenities. Or, Michelle Pfeiffer’s dowdy, unappreciated Selina Kyle in Batman Returns, who becomes the vengeful Catwoman after being saved by the stray cats she regularly fed and talked to. 

According to pop culture, cat ladies are crazy, dishevelled, lonely, men-hating spinsters. 

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Even Taylor Swift – mum to moggies Olivia Benson, Meredith Grey and Benjamin Button - pokes fun at the cliché in her single Gorgeous, singing: “Guess I’ll just stumble on home to my cats, alone… unless you wanna come along?”

But where did this idea of crazy cat lady come from? Well, the negative association between women and cats in the West dates back to early as the 13th century, when they were persecuted for being “witches”. The black cat was often deemed as demonic in Christianity, probably because they’re all slinky and mysterious. 

black cats
Why did people hate black cats?

Fast-forward to the Victoria era. People realised that witches weren’t a real thing by this point, but observed that single, older women without children often kept cats. Regardless of the fact that plenty of other types of people kept cats too, these women were grouped as cat ladies.

Offering an insight on this, a journalist wrote in the Dundee Courier in 1880: “Old maids and cats have long been proverbially associated together, and, rightly or wrongly, these creatures have been looked upon with a certain degree of suspicion and aversion by a large proportion of the human race.”

In fact, anti-suffragette propaganda in the 1900s used images of cats to portray women as silly and catty.

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But the cat lady is finally getting the true representation she deserves. 

Girls and Their Cats is a new movement that breaks down the trope and celebrates the real cat lady. Set up as an Instagram account by BriAnne Wills, it features striking portraits and engaging profiles of independent and artistic women who take the world in their stride alongside their beloved felines. After a quick scroll through the account, it’s suffice to say that cat ladies are cool. 

Now, 50 portraits from the account are being published in a book to prove the powerful bond between a girl and her cat. 

“In my photographs, I set out to modernise the ‘cat lady’ stereotype. The women in these pages are artists, entrepreneurs, writers, activists—no Big or Little Edies here’” explained Willis.

Girls and Their Cats: redefining the crazy cat lady
Girls and Their Cats: redefining the crazy cat lady

With this in mind, we asked  a few kitty owners what it means to be a cat lady in 2019. 

“I’m not a crazy cat lady. I’m a woman who adopted a kitten, and takes her responsibilities seriously,” says Stylist’s executive digital editor Fliss Thistlethwaite.  “Luther - Lulu to his friends and family - is more than ‘just a cat’ to me. He’s a confident and a friend. We adopted him from Battersea Cats Home three years ago and I honestly could not imagine life without him. He’s the first person I say hello to in the morning (I’m an early riser, my boyfriend most certainly is not), and the last person I make dinner for at night.”

“I’m just a hipster feminist who wants a fluffy flatmate,” said Amy, owner of black and white cat Thor.

“Lena Dunham and Taylor Swift give me major cat lady vibes on their Insta and I don’t think it’s a negative connotation at all – I was happy to be single with a cat,” says Leanne, co-parent of Gus.

“If a single guy owns a dog, it isn’t seen as inherently negative, but yeah I do think a single girl with a cat still sometimes is. But they’re becoming the perfect millennial pet (clean, do their own thing), so this idea is probably shifting. I just really, really like having the best cat ever,” added Gus’s co-parent Emmy. 

Girls and Their Cats by BriAnne Wills out 20th August (Chronicle Books, £17.99)

Images: © 2019 BriAnne Wills

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