cat lady

this is, as might be obvious, a part of a much longer and bigger thing I’m working on about several of the themes in here (is griefbacon gonna be just excerpts from stuff in progress going forward? is it a music blog now? sure, all of these things, who knows). which is to say, if something seems like it’s missing or not addressed, it’s probably in a much longer and even messier draft somewhere, and might even end up in another one of these essays eventually. anyway, enjoy. x

Loving a cat is a very immediate proof that love is gross. Cats poop in a box inside your house, and the poop just sits there in your house until you throw it away yourself and even then all the weird gravel that touched the poop is still there, in your house. Cats step in the poop gravel and track it around through wherever you live, trailing their little contaminated paws over your skin. Everything cats do that’s sweet, that’s cuddly, that’s affectionate, is also kind of gross if you allow yourself to think about it, creating a direct link between poop and your skin. Cats barf frequently, and hack up hairballs. They shed and even with constant vacuuming they make it almost impossible to ever feel completely and entirely clean in your own home. Like any pet, and like actual children, and even like romantic love on a long enough timeline, they require bodily care in the most disgusting way. The agreement to take in an animal as a pet means you’re agreeing to clean it up if they shit themselves, if they start drooling or barfing or bleeding. You agree to let whatever leaks out of the thing you love get on you. You agree to try to help even when it’s horrible. You agree to let yourself get contaminated. 

This is also true for dogs, but cats don’t have the jaunty, outdoorsy vibe that dogs have. They don’t send you into the parks and sidewalks of the world, to meet strangers and to get fresh air. Dogs are somehow athletic, the equivalent of playing a sport. Cats are the opposite, keeping their people inside, representing isolation, drawing away from the healthy, natural outdoors into the hoarded recesses of the interior home. 

Plus, everyone knows dogs can love you back and cats can’t, or at least that’s how the general popular understanding goes. Dogs know their names, know your voice, answer to commands. Dogs can demonstrate their love through consistency, obedience, action. Dogs are a gestural, extroverted love, a proof that you are a person who is good at being a person, who is glad to be here, who has no trouble going outside, who seeks to love what loves you back. 

Cats, on the other hand, at least to hear a lot of people tell it, have no idea who you are (scientifically, I believe there’s actually research on both sides here). Cats do not answer to their own names, rarely perform tricks, and don’t have to go outside. What looks like love, lots of people are anxious to remind you about your cat, is just their long-term plan to eat your face when you die. Cats are always somehow related to death and to morbidity. Witches have cats; black cats are bad luck. Cats’ eyes glow creepily in the darkness. Cats can see in the dark. Cats will bring you dead things as presents if given the opportunity, and make chittering murder noises at the window when birds fly by. They torture their food before they eat it. Old women locked in rooms away from the light have cats; people who play sports and are good at online dating have dogs. It is far, far less cool to talk about one’s cat at a party than it is to talk about a dog (or, obviously, a baby). Dogs welcome people in, but cats shut them out, turning the person discussing their cat (or worse, cats) into a mildly creepy joke. 

This past week, Carly Rae Jepsen released a music video for her new single “Now That I Found You,” a slight, joyful boppy pop song, not her very best work, but good enough to make me wish I were at a big sweaty party dancing to it. The song is pretty good; the music video, however, is one of my favorite things I have ever seen on the whole gigantic stupid poisonous internet. I have maybe never encountered a work of media that so utterly demonstrates how much an artist comprehends her own fan base. The video was so perfect for me, as an audience member, as a fan of something, as a consumer of a product, a demographic able to be targeted, that I was at once overjoyed and personally offended by it. This is the woman who seemed delighted but not surprised when a fan brought her an inflatable sword at a show, the gesture inspired by a tumblr post made by another fan about how CRJ should have a sword because they like her. CRJ understands that her fans are going to bring her a sword because of a meme, and want her to dance in a pink sequined minidress with it. There’s an argument to be made that the best work by an artist is not just the work that their fans will love most, but the work that the people who already don’t like them will hate most furiously. If that’s a measure of success, this video is the most CRJ has ever succeeded. It skirts the edge of self-satire so perfectly that it should stand as the answer to anyone calling pop music unintelligent. 

Anyway, the video (here’s the link again) is a love story about a large orange cat. (Specifically, this cat, Shrampton, a star). It opens with a shot of a luxury sports car in the rain. A glammed-up CRJ is about to get in the car when she hears a pitiful mew and sees an orange cat huddled in a cardboard box. The action then proceeds through the whirlwind glamour of a standard romance, surrounded by all the luxurious and brightly colored trappings of CRJ’s character’s very glossy life, but with the big orange rescue cat standing in for the love interest. If you like cats, or if you already like CRJ, you will love it. If you like neither, you will hate it perhaps more than you knew you could hate anything. 

Liking cats, being a cat lady, and liking CRJ, being a fan of the overgrown teenager in the pink minidress with the inflatable sword, are kind of the same thing. Both are childish and uncool, too old and too young at once. Both are for people who have zero chill, and both celebrate having zero chill. While cats themselves are often elegant, having a cat always teeters on the edge of bad taste. There’s a reason that online misogynistic trolls tell women to go cry to their cats, and there’s a reason that the skin-crawlingly viral short story about the worst kind of nice guy that took over the internet in 2017 wasn’t called “dog person.” Having a cat, and liking the kind of music CRJ offers to the public is not exactly proof that one is socially dextrous. The ways in which cats are gross reveal the people who keep them in their homes to be more concerned with affection than appearances, to still be interested in what is cute and soft long after growing up and knowing better should have burned the desire for cuteness and softness out of us. People talk to their cats in baby voices; the conversation around or between people who have cats devolves alarmingly into cat stories that must be mind-numbingly boring for those who do not have cats. Cats are a form of earnestness, and so is CRJ, and earnestness has long since gone out of style, relegated to the smelly heap of childish things. We shouldn’t like uncynical, bright-pink pop music, and we shouldn’t keep sweet-faced poop machines in our homes and call them our babies. 

But it’s also hard to ignore that both of these things - teeth-achingly optimistic pop love songs, and cats, are coded feminine in our society. When online MRAs taunt women about their cats, what they mean is “you are going to die alone.” Cats are seen as a way for women to be alone. We are afraid of women when they are alone, when they are able to be alone, and we are afraid of the things that enable women to be alone, be it money or self-sufficiency or a bunch of cats. A woman who is alone and is not seeking a way to be less alone is profoundly untrustworthy. A woman being satisfied to love something, like a cat, that might not love her back, is intensely unsettling. Cats make a woman willing to do all the things that women are not supposed to do, the things capitalism and patriarchy count on women to exhaust themselves trying to avoid: Getting old, being alone, being a joke, being unlovable and not trying to fix it.

You don’t have to like cats to be a woman who likes being alone, but cats are certainly one language that is still used to talk about acceptable ways of hating women. The shittier parts of society have to depict cat ladies as sad and unhinged because a happy and thriving cat lady is a woman who isn’t ashamed to be alone, who isn’t ashamed to love more than she is loved, and who therefore can’t be controlled. On an episode of Mad Men, Peggy’s mother, in the middle of a bitter fight about Peggy’s career-minded-ness, says “look, you get a cat, and then you get another cat, and then you get another cat, and then you’re done.” It’s supposed to be a threat: This is the grim spinsterhood that awaits you if you don’t conform better, nothing but three cat deaths and then your own. When Peggy gets her own cat at the end of the episode (a big orange guy who looks a great deal like Shrampton) it feels like a triumph: Peggy’s mother, stuck in a past generation’s idea of what a woman’s life should look like, might mean it as a warning, but Peggy thinks it sounds pretty good. 

Carly Rae Jepsen is perhaps the most glamorous she’s ever been in the Now That I Found You video, wearing a succession of theatrically feminine outfits ranging from frothy lace nightgowns to an all-latex look for going out in the rain. The video does end, it has to be said, with her meeting a man by way of Shrampton. The cat escapes and as CRJ is frantically searching for him, a handsome stranger in Clark Kent glasses and some great knitwear appears with the large orange boy in his arms. But the meeting is sweetly incidental. The point is finding the cat; the man is just a nice side benefit. The real love story is still with Shrampton, whose confused face throughout the video makes Jepsen’s decadent lifestyle in her high-rise apartment seem at once tender and defiant. One of the many luxuries afforded the character she plays here is the luxury of being a cat lady, which is to say, the luxury of being alone without being sad about it. 

But the tender heart of the story is Shrampton himself. Every time the whole thing seems too silly or too self-satirizing, we focus on his little round orange face again. Lots of people don’t like cats, or aren’t particularly compelled by them, which is fine - lots of people don’t like lots of things. But for those of us who do, for the cat ladies, it’s an absolute love that is instantly recognizable, a form of tenderness that is pure precisely because it cannot be returned in kind. No matter how many times a day I say out loud that I wish they could, my cats can’t talk to me. They can’t tell me they recognize that I love them, or that they return my love. My inability to confirm mutual feeling, to receive validation in the way we expect validation in human love, makes the tiny things about loving a cat more tender, more precious. What I read onto a cat settling in on my chest and falling asleep, or purring when I scratch their chin, or making that little face that looks like a smile, or curling their paws under them into a loaf-shape may all very likely be a fiction. But I have no choice but to believe it. A cat is a small, furry void into which to pour love. They are an excuse to exercise our capacity for giving, to find out what remains when rewards, rankings, profit, and all the other external validations that lend love materiality are not possible. When a cat purrs on my lap, I choose to read their warmth as an answering tenderness, but it may very well be only about keeping off the literal cold. 

In truth, human love is not so different. While we can gain both verbal and material validations from romantic partners or family members, it is still up to us to trust that those declarations or gestures are sincere. What we choose to believe is largely a fiction, and whether or not it aligns with what the other person feels is largely a matter of grasping luck. Cats are gross, and people are gross, too. We are all at all times tracking poop gravel everywhere, getting our contaminants on each other. Cats scare and repel people in part because of what they reveal about human love, the parts about childhood (we talk to cats in baby voices) and the parts about old age and death, (maybe Shrampton will eventually eat CRJ and her handsome new friend’s faces off one day, who knows). Cats are a reminder that one must live within the squirming, abject facts about oneself, that there is no version of love, even of self-love, that is not at heart disgusting, unhygienic, and repellant. If cats are a way to be alone, they also remind us that togetherness is not a more glamorous or desirable option. All love is gross, and tenderness turns us all into cat ladies, sweeping up poop gravel, unable to shut up about our cats at parties. 

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