Intro: This is a look at how men have sometimes portrayed women in paintings and books. There is a link between the two both in terms of how men perceive women and domestic cats and how women like the independence of the cat. It is a personal view and a bit difficult to digest.
It is still a man’s world. Men have written most of the books and painted most of the paintings in which the domestic cat and the woman have been linked in one way or the other and the images and words are often unflattering to the woman because the man has long complained that women do not obey them enough thereby reflecting the so called independence and aloofness of the domestic cat.
For many leading artists, the character and behaviour of the domestic cat is mirrored in women’s behaviour and thus they have painted women with cats, while in books writers have described women as if they were describing cats; soft, nice to touch and observe yet dangerous.
On the other hand women have long been associated with liking cats more than men who prefer dogs, and often it is independent and intelligent women who love cats. This relationship between the independent woman and the independent cat reinforces the attitude of men towards women as willful and disobedient and disrespectful of the man’s superior and more rational way of thinking.
People still tend to think of cats as female and dogs as male. Even the words used to describe women are “cat words”. “Tomcat” means a stray, unneutered male cat. “Bitch” is the female equivalent but “bitch” also means a nasty woman or perhaps more fairly it means a woman who is not prepared to give way to a man’s will.
Spiteful, old women are called “cats” and attractive girls are called “kittens”, thus indicating they have the same physical attributes of young cats: soft, cute, pretty and nice to touch.
“Pussy” is a vulgar word and we know what it means. Isn’t this cross-referencing the sexual allure of the woman with the promiscuity of the unspayed female cat who has sex with any male. It is the way men want women to be.
In Young Woman with Cat (1882), Pierre-Auguste Renoir, placed a sexy young woman and a pretty cat together in the same painting. The cat was a calico (tortoiseshell-and-white) while the women had auburn hair and peachy, soft skin. They were the same creature indicating how male artists described women in describing cats.
The same theme can be found in Bacchiacca’s Portrait of a Young Woman (c.1525) (see above). A pretty woman holds a pretty cat. The cat is a brown tabby and the woman has brown hair. They have similar expressions: alert, wild and self-willed. The woman’s expression is one of sexual invitation.
Male artists have used cats to emphasis the behavior of “cats” (prostitutes, so called, since 1400). Cats are an emblem for whores being sexual animals that constantly wash themselves.
Women have been portrayed as a domestic cat: “sitting silent and motionless on a chair with open but expressionless eyes…..but it was possible to divine the feline litheness….and passion lying dormant in the quiescent body…”
The cats retractable claws have been a symbol of hidden treachery in the woman. Medieval preachers constantly compared single women who went out dressed nicely as roaming female cats.
Charles Dickens criticised the disehevelled and ill-kempt housewives by equating them to mangy cats in the London slums. He reduced unmarried women to feral cats.
The medieval (and earlier) attitude of modern men desires that they should rule women because men are more rational still persists despite feminism and some progress.
Some recent books have disguised the author’s hostility towards women when rather crudely referring to a woman as a dead cat: 101 Uses for a Dead Cat (1981). In this book a dead cat was used a pencil sharpener on a desk with its tail in the air while a man sticks a pencil in the anus – this is symblomatic rape.
Dr Robert Daphne’s misogynistic book How to Kill Your Girlfriend’s Cat describes killing the girlfriend’s cat because she pays too much attention to him. The third volume in the series was entitled: How to Kill Your Girlfriend, thereby belying the true sentiments of the author.
Men as authors have stereotyped both the cat and the women, merging the two as disobedient and unloving.
“Women and cats have a lot in common” Kinky Friendman…”a liking to be stroked by ready to pounce…..”
There is still a lot of cat hating and women hating (misogamy) amongst males of the human species.
In China, the principles of yin and yang are well-known and employed. Yang the masculine, bright, positive and heavenly principle is superior to yin the feminine, earthly, negative, dark and passive principle.
In China and Korea, “men and dogs are yang, while women and cats are yin”. Women are seen as secondary to men.
My deep indebtedness to Katharine M. Rogers who wrote “Cat” which forms the foundation of this essay and which gelled my thoughts about cats and women. The ISBN code is 1-86189-292-6