Catwomen return to the big screen

New documentary addresses the crazy cat lady stereotype and the reality of their social struggle

Cat Ladies chronicles the lives of four women, two of whom share their home with more than one hundred cats.
Cat Ladies chronicles the lives of four women, two of whom share their home with more than one hundred cats.
The cat lady action figure depicts an infamous stereotype.
The cat lady action figure depicts an infamous stereotype.

In ancient Egyptian culture, the cat was worshipped. In the event of a fire, the men of the household would guard the fire to protect their cats from running into the flame. The historian Herodotus also documented that when a family’s cat died, the entire family would engage in a process of mourning, often even shaving their own eyebrows to commemorate their loss.

Today, the cat has a somewhat different role for those with no family. The crazy cat lady stereotype is one deeply embedded in our culture. But when it comes to crossing over from feline-friendly to the kingdom of cat lady, where is the line drawn between LOLcats and all-cats?

Cat Ladies, a new documentary set to air on TV Ontario, explores the lives of Margot, Diane, Jenny and Sigi, four cat ladies with diverse stories to tell about living in relative solitude with their many, many cats.

Christie Callan-Jones, ArtSci '96 and the director of Cat Ladies, said when women hit the age of 30 there’s a sudden influx of societal pressures to get married and have kids.

“The cat lady stereotype is just such a negative stereotype—it kind of deems women as being hopeless and when you are called a cat lady it immediately raises a red flag,” Callan-Jones said. “When some men hear that a woman has a lot of cats, in their mind she’s on her way to becoming the crazy cat lady. It’s especially applicable to older women as a way to dismiss them as members who aren’t really valued by society.” Callan-Jones said in proposing the idea of the documentary to the four women who appear in it, she was honest in her intent.

“I told them that the film won’t be making fun of them and in doing this project we’re attempting to figure out why people have these special relationships with their cats,” she said.

“When we got to spend so much time with these women I found myself having this surprising revelation,” Callan-Jones said. “We assumed that they’re these lonely sad and depressed women, but I learned that they are actually so feisty and independent and defy convention, which I think not only surprised me, but will surprise the audience as well.” Callan-Jones said she hopes her audience rethinks the stereotype.

“On the surface they may see it and they may laugh at it—these sad women who will never meet a man—but my goal is for people to realize that there is so much more to that label, because people aren’t a label. I want people to understand these women, to create a sense of empathy and understanding in the sense that these women are not just the sum of a stereotype, you really have to peel it back to realize who they are.

“And even though we obviously didn’t call them crazy cat ladies, what’s great about these women is that they own this label, they’re proud and they’re very, very self aware, rather than embarrassed by it,” she said.

Sally Blake, one of the producers of Cat Ladies, said all four women depicted in the documentary weren’t the stereotypical cat lady.

“We wanted to look at the whole stereotype of crazy cat lady because it’s such a terrifying thing for women,” she said. “We have this notion that if by a certain point you’re not married and you’re a woman and you’re a certain age and you live with cats, then it automatically means that you’re totally beyond help.”

“We figured that these women were all alone, but soon we discovered that there is a whole community of cat ladies—but more in a cat rescuing sense,” Blake said.  “There are hundreds of thousands of abandoned cats and the vast majority of people who take care of them are these single women who take it upon themselves to nurture them and feed them and take them in.”

 Because Toronto bylaws prohibit people from keeping more than six pets in their household, Blake said some cat ladies have to keep their love for their feline friends a secret.

 “One lady does it underground and has more than 120 cats. She is retired and had put all of her money into it. She is losing money, but it’s also affecting her health,” she said. “She never sees her family or friends anymore, but she thinks of what she is doing for these cats as a very valid thing, even though at the same time she realized that it’s hurting her in many ways.” Blake said all the women depicted in Cat Ladies experienced emotionally crippling tragedy and alienation.

“One woman had a very abusive father, the retired woman had lost her job and then there was  this idea that all of a sudden she was alone, looking for a new purpose in life after having experienced this traumatic event,  and she saw rescuing cats as a valid way to deal with it,” she said. “Another one of the subjects in the documentary was adopted into a family when she was one year old and she never felt as part of the family. All these women definitely have major identity issues and are always looking for this sense of community and security,” Blake said.

“These four women were incredibly social; they were funny and smart and very gutsy and maverick in a way. It goes against all social norms to live the way that they do and they actually do it—it’s a sort of F you to society,” she said. “There is definitely an element of a kind of a strength because it takes a lot to take care of these cats and it involves a lot of self sacrifice.”

 The women also rescue these cats for their own selfish reasons, said Blake.

“They need validation and sense of worth—and for them helping these stray cats gives them these feelings.”

  Blake said the idea appealed to her because this iconic figure in our culture had never really been explored.

“Because no one really actually cares,” she said.  “We left it up to viewers to make conclusions about these women’s life choices.

Despite locating a few cat men, the misogynistic reality of the cat-lady stigma kept the film’s focus on women.

“There are some cat men, but they are in the minority. Women are always identified with cats, from being called a kitten when you’re young to a cougar when you’re old. All feline words are related to femininity and there is this historical and cultural connection between women and cats,” she said.

“I think the notion of specifically cat lady has come to be because cats are more complex and don’t necessarily  love you back immediately—you need to earn their respect and love and women are attracted to that in a way,” she said. “Whereas with dogs it’s a bit more straightforward, they are a pack animal, you tell them to do something and they do it.”

And so it happens that the misbegotten notion of crazy cat ladies is up to us to interpret. Whether we think of the crazy cat lady from the Simpsons or the crazy cat lady action figure—yes, it actually exists—it’s important to remember much like their myriad of cats, these cat ladies, more than anything, just need compassion.

Cat Ladies will air on TV Ontario on Sept. 27 and 30.

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