Tuesday, July 03, 2012

BREAKING: Belittling women for cat ownership 'not real misogyny', Twitter numpty says. I had a ridiculous fight on Twitter today over a Gawker article. The article was about a study that investigated whether there's a higher incidence of suicide among women who carry the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. The parasite is often found in cats' intestines, and cat owners can become infected while cleaning litter boxes.

The trouble is, the article's headline is "Being a Cat Lady Increases Your Risk of Suicide".

Gawker knows this is a SEO-friendly headline because the stereotype of the 'crazy cat lady' is so pervasive. The body of the article actually calls the cat lady/suicide connection "a little misleading", and states the link between cat ownership and increased risk of suicide in women is tenuous (because the link between toxoplasmosis and suicide is still only a correlation, and because T. gondii can also be contracted through undercooked meat and unwashed vegetables).

But on balance, Gawker is happy to participate in the genre of media coverage that seeks scientific validation for the crazy cat lady stereotype by linking the neurological impacts of toxoplasmosis with animal-hoarding behaviour.

There's no reason this behaviour should be unique to women, but many news articles don't seem to think toxoplasmosis is a problem for male cat owners. This Atlantic feature is one of the few articles on the phenomenon that never mentions the term "cat lady" (until the comments section, when you can be sure people pick it up).

'Cat lady' is about systematic belittlement and demonisation of women cat owners. We make fun of cat ladies seemingly for no other reason than that our society is threatened by a woman who cares more for an animal than she does for a man or a child (and perhaps is also old, and hence sexually valueless), so we neutralise that threat by branding that woman 'crazy'.

Cats are negatively stereotyped as women's evil familiars, and are themselves feminised to the point where we nickname women's genitalia after them, and children innocently believe all cats to be female.

So, here's what I tweeted:

I would've left it there, except the guy whose tweet I quoted got snarky and decided he wanted to pick a fight with me. I shouldn't have risen to his taunts, but basically, his smugness gave me the shits.

It's people like him, people who see nothing wrong with cat-lady jokes, who made me agonise over whether to get a cat, because I'm single and was afraid of being the butt of such jokes. It's people like him who make me feel ashamed of caring for and worrying about my cat, even to the point of apologising for being sad when he went missing. It's people like him who help silence me from talking about my cat in public forums where I want to be taken seriously. It's people like him who make me fear an old age filled with loneliness, mental illness and perhaps even suicide; a future devoid of compassion and full of yet more light-hearted humour at my expense.

This is because I am a woman. If I were a man, it would be deemed novel and adorable for me to like cats. I would be a lust object, no matter how old I was.

For mentioning this, I got treated to a Twitter shitfight. When I expressed my dismay that what I thought was a pretty defensible objection to 'cat lady' gags had culminated in a demand for my apology to the original dude, I was accused of adopting a "victim mentality" and obscuring the real feminist issues, seeing as "it’s ridiculous statements like that that actually devalue & mask real misogyny."

Look, this seems pretty obvious, but I'm gonna have to say it again: there is no authoritative Real Misogyny Master List, arranged in order of hatefulness to women so we can efficiently make our way down it fixing each problem in order of urgency.

Misogyny is capillary. It's everywhere. It's in our economy, our society and our culture. It's not only expressed in overtly hateful behaviour, but also in the behaviour of people who don't want to think of themselves as hateful, yet who nonetheless contribute to systems that oppress women.

Caring about seemingly small issues in your day-to-day life does not in any way devalue, obscure, or suggest you are unmoved by the 'big issues'. Indeed, suggesting there are 'more important issues' to address is a common strategy for derailing discussions of discrimination.

Based on today's shitfight, I am glad I'm not a Professional Feminist. As Lefa says, maintaining the rage makes me tired, and I also don't like the person I become, the level I descend to ("Fuck off, the lot of you" was a particularly cheap and unintellectual response), when I participate in these kinds of spiteful, pointless exchanges. But I still strongly believe I was right today, and I am never going to apologise for calling someone out whenever I see them demeaning women in ways it'd never occur to them to demean men.

Yes, and why don't dog people come under the same scrutiny?

Self-identified Cat Whisperer
Well, there is another stereotype: the Dog Lesbian, who is usually a butch lady who treats her dogs with gruff affection. Because dogs are coded as 'masculine', when women love anything bigger than a fluffy toy lapdog their sexuality is apparently up for discussion.
Fuck yeah, Mel.

In many ways I feel like this kind of misogyny is more insidious, because it is all-pervasive. And when it is called out, as this example makes abundantly clear, it is just another opportunity for people (men and women) to participate in judging women adversely or deciding if our speech/thoughts/behaviour are acceptable.
I think it's strange that cats are such a 'feminine' pet when dogs actually require a lot more work which I thought would make them more like children and therefore in the domain of women. But then there's a lot about gender stereotypes I don't understand...

As for your other point about silencing feminists looking at the 'small' issues - you are totally right. It's either 'Geez, all you talk about is rape and domestic violence' or 'don't you have bigger things to worry about than X?' Both are just ways of telling you to shut up. You are the activist - you set the agenda.
When I was a kid I thought horses were boys and cows were girls. Needless to say, bulls confused me. Horses can be ridden and cows apparently pushed over in the dark, so I conclude that gendering animals is complicated.

If a woman has a cat, they're a pet owner. If they have 10 cats, is the stereotype more reasonable? I think if I met a man with 10 cats I would call them a crazy cat lady & this is a kind of casual prejudice. Any kind of activism will basically ruin the fun of anyone using casual prejudice as part of their humour. Much humour is casually prejudiced to some group or another, which does not mean at all that it should not be called out by social activism.

And as a self-confessed thambogynist, nothing says fear&loathing better than a sentence that starts, "The problem with you feminists is..." so good on you getting at this dude.
At the risk of sounding like a wanker (I am a bit of a wanker), this sort of stuff shows the link between misogyny and pro-human prejudice. Does this have a proper name? I think misogyny is at least party based on the hatred of the animal in all of us. So it hates women because we breed and make milk, children because they are more obviously animals, and 'crazy cat ladies' because they have a relationship with their animals based on affection rather than mastery. . . .
Hi Anonymous, I approved your comment before I realised it was anonymous. I don't publish anonymous comments as a rule – yours got past me this time, but please put your name to what you say here. I do!
Let's not forget as well that feline insults like "catty" are always almost used not just exclusively towards women, but almost always as a way of silencing a woman who is angry.
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