CULTURE & ARTS
07/19/2018 11:38 EDT | Updated 07/23/2018 13:16 EDT

How The ‘Cat Lady’ Trope Came To Be

And what people get so wrong about it.

Volanthevist via Getty Images

Dogs are said to be man’s best friend. Cats, on the other hand, are often seen as appealing mainly to lonely social outcasts, especially women. 

The “cat lady” trope even has deep historical roots. “If we think about cats historically, at one time they were associated with witchcraft, so that probably contributes to it,” Zazie Todd, author of the Companion Animal Psychology blog, told HuffPost.

She added that in modern times, “The stereotypical crazy cat lady is a woman who has too many cats and isn’t really taking good care of them ― her house smells, and she is a bit of a mess too.”

Pop culture has also contributed to the cat lady stereotype. On “The Simpsons,” the character Eleanor Abernathy is a cliche cat lady who always surrounds herself with a large number of felines and screams gibberish, causing people to avoid her. 

Angela Martin, a character on “The Office,” was portrayed as an avid ― and often creepy ― feline lover, complete with her cat mug and her cat-themed desk. In 2004, “Saturday Night Live” perpetuated the stereotype in a sketch featuring Robert De Niro playing the role of an old, lonely woman who has a collection of cats. 

But as is often the case, there’s a lot to be debunked about this trope. Having a cat as a pet typically has more to do with one’s personality traits and lifestyle preferences than anything else. And, of course, just because more women own cats than men doesn’t mean that all women who own cats are the same.

Below are a few of the biggest misconceptions demystified. 

Myth #1: You’re going to be alone forever if you have a cat. 

One reason why single women ― and not single men ― are more commonly linked with cats probably is because of cats being seen as feminine creatures and dogs as more masculine.

“If you think about the ways we as a society talk about dogs, it’s still often in terms of the outdated idea that dogs are trying to be dominant, and that fits in with stereotypes about masculinity,” Todd said. “We think of cats as quirky, finicky, hard to please, and society perceives these as more feminine traits.” 

BriAnne Wills, a New York-based photographer, said she started a photo series called Girls and Their Cats as “a way to showcase cat-owning women in a positive light and give new meaning to the age-old trope ‘cat lady.’”

Wills argues that one of the biggest misconceptions about women who have cats is that they are single and won’t ever find love. 

“I would say the majority of the women I photograph are in relationships, and those who are dating have actually said that having a cat is a great way to weed out potentially crappy partners,” Wills said. “If they’re not open to your cat, they’re not worth your time.”  

Myth #2: Having a bunch of cats means you’re an animal hoarder.

Cats are the animal that is hoarded the most, according to Todd.  

“Although both men and women can be animal hoarders, most commonly it is a woman who is middle-aged or older,” Todd said. “I think some of the stigma of being a ‘cat lady’ rather unfairly comes from the idea of being a ‘crazy cat lady’ who hoards animals.” 

But just because you have several pets doesn’t make you a hoarder, and as long as you’re properly taking care of all of your cats, you shouldn’t let this myth get to you.  

Myth #3: You’re socially awkward if you have a cat. 

Carole Wilbourn, a cat therapist based in New York, said that because people don’t usually walk cats, you can’t really tell if your neighbor has one ― or more than one  further supporting the misconception that cat guardians are friendless and antisocial.

“Generally speaking, people who have dogs tend to be more gregarious and very social,” said Wilbourn, based on her observations with clients whom she counsels about cat behavioral problems. ”You’ll find a lot of people who have cats may be writers or artists, and spend a lot of time indoors.” 

While the label of being “socially awkward” may be a bit much, Todd said there has been some research done on the differences in the personalities of people who have cats versus dogs.  

A study published in Anthrozoös found those who identified as “cat people” were more open to experience, which included being imaginative and curious. But they were also more neurotic, less agreeable, less conscientious and less extraverted than those who identified as “dog people.” 

At the same time, displaying a slightly higher level of neuroticism doesn’t equate to neurosis, which is described as a broad category of conditions associated with poor functioning, anxiety and depression.

″[Neuroticism] is still a part of our normal personality,” said Mikel Delgado, a researcher at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and a certified cat behavior consultant. “There’s a normal level of depression or anxiety that we experience as humans.” 

Myth #4: Cats aren’t as friendly as dogs. 

Cats have a reputation for being mysterious and less obedient than dogs, Delgado noted.  

Cats are friendly. They just might need a little more time to trust somebody,” she said. 

Todd said that cats are also more independent than dogs, which leads to misconceptions about their attitude toward humans.

“Cats don’t mind if you have to go out to work, unlike many dogs who prefer not to be left alone all day,” she said. But, she added, “They will be there to greet you with a chirrup and by rubbing their head on your legs when you come home.” 

“Cats can be very affectionate,” Todd continued. “When they walk toward someone with their tail straight up, often with a little hook at the top, they are showing positive affiliation.”

So in other words, if you’re not receiving much love from a cat, maybe it’s not  them ... it’s you.  

Photo galleryTidy Cats - 9 Things Cat Owners Must Do Before Entertaining See Gallery