“No one writes about the subjects of sexuality, desire, the shadow, and diabolism with such relish, and when I read her words I feel both smarter and less afraid of my own ‘tabooed’ feelings and thoughts. Like a cat, Kristen sees in the dark, as she guides us gracefully forward with her vision of unapologetic, feminine power.” —From the Foreword by Pam Grossman, author of Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power
The cat: A sensual shapeshifter. A hearth keeper, aloof, tail aloft, stalking vermin. A satanic accomplice. A beloved familiar. A social media darling. A euphemism for reproductive parts. An epithet for the weak. A knitted—and contested—hat on millions of marchers, fists in the air, pink pointed ears poking skyward. Cats and cat references are ubiquitous in art, pop culture, politics, and the occult, and throughout history, they have most often been coded female.
From the “crazy cat lady” unbowed by patriarchal prescriptions to the coveted sex kitten to the dreadful crone and her yowling compatriot, feminine feline archetypes reveal the ways in which women have been revered and reviled around the world—in Greek and Egyptian mythology, the European witch trials, Japanese folklore, and contemporary film.
By combining historical research, pop culture, art analyses, and original interviews, Cat Call explores the cat and its indivisible connection to femininity and teases out how this connection can help us better understand the relationship between myth, history, magic, womanhood in the digital age, and our beloved, clawed companions.
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About the Author
Kristen J. Sollée is the author of three books on the legacy of the witch. A writer, curator, and educator exploring the intersections of art, sex, and culture, Kristen has lectured at Georgetown University, the University of Southern California, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and across the US and Europe. Her 2017 book, Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive was described by The Guardian as “a whirlwind history of the witch in America” and a “Must-Read” by BUST. Kristen’s work has also been featured in NYLON, Hazlitt, the Times Literary Supplement, and on Viceland, Huffington Post Live, and NPR. She currently teaches at The New School in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Cats Are Sluts?
#catsaresluts trying to seduce you
#catsaresluts because they can rub up against anyone's ankles
#catsaresluts they don't care who they go home with
#catsaresluts and dogs are faithful
Dozens of proclamations on Twitter refer to the licentious nature of cats. Tweet after tweet chastises cats for licking themselves or sitting with their legs splayed, private parts peeking out through downy fluff. Some tweets opine how a cat can have kittens at such a young age. Some tweets complain that a cat can play nice for a nuzzle one moment, then stalk away haughtily the next. Other tweets affirm the indecency of a cat's distaste for monogamy.
When the #catsaresluts hashtag first began to trend in late March of 2013, there was a common thread to the majority of posts: an outrage — or faux outrage, at least — about a cat's lack of shame.
For some reason, cat nature aligns in our minds with a predilection for pleasure. To be catlike is to be contemptuous of sexual mores. It is to be unbowed by propriety and repressive body politics. It is to be wild and unrestrained, in a constant state of arousal. There are no scientific studies that suggest cats are any more or less amorous than other animals, but the idea of cats as hypersexual beasts persists.
My cat is not even 1 and she's pregnant #catsaresluts
My cat shags 3 tom cats a night #catsaresluts
Curiosity killed your virginity #catsaresluts
Female cats have long been perceived as paragons of fertility. They are induced ovulators, so mating can trigger conception during any one of their many heat cycles throughout the year. They can reach sexual maturity as early as four months, and if left to their own devices, can have an average of twelve kittens per year that spring from the seed of multiple males. Add to that a cat's audible courtship and arousal rituals, and it's not hard to understand why cats — and female cats in particular — have been slapped with the slut label.
Slut, however, has become a shape-shifting epithet. It can be a hateful label, used to police and punish women for their perceived or actual sexual expression (slut-shaming). It can be a feminist rallying cry, used to highlight issues of bodily autonomy and sex positivity (SlutWalk). It can be a tongue-in-cheek sobriquet (Love you, slut!). Although it can be used to describe almost anyone, it is mostly a gendered term to laud or lash out at women who seem to indulge in sexual behavior that has historically been decried as improper, dangerous even, and worthy of punishment.
When taken at face value, the #catsaresluts trend is merely an outlet for lighthearted humor. Scratch below the surface, however, and there's much more at stake. Many of the tweets subtly reinforce biases against female sexuality by referring to all cats as if they were female. Feline behavior, then, is seen as repellent because of its proximity to femininity. In effect, #catsaresluts puts a cute face on sexist stereotyping and encourages its dissemination.
Twitter users are by no means the first to disparage cats and women, though. The same kind of misogynistic malice was actually directed toward female felines over a thousand years ago by the father of Western philosophy himself.
As far as we know, cats have been sluts since at least the fourth century BC. When Aristotle documented the particulars of the animal kingdom in History of Animals, he made sure to let on that he viewed female cats as less virtuous than other mammals. In exacting detail, the Greek philosopher explored all manner of animal behaviors, even offering ample word count dedicated to the ins and outs of stag, seal, and snake mating habits. There is little added judgment on his part when describing most copulation behaviors, save for his discussion of cats.
"Cats do not copulate with a rearward presentment on the part of the female, but the male stands erect and the female puts herself underneath him," Aristotle writes. In a prurient aside he interjects, "and, by the way, the female cat is peculiarly lecherous, and wheedles the male on to sexual commerce, and caterwauls during the operation."
Straightforward as it may seem, Aristotle's jeer isn't just about cats. His History of Animals is significant not only because it is a foundational exploration of the animal kingdom, but because it is "simultaneously an exposition of what it means to be human," explains classics scholar Edith Hall in Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life. Aristotle was a firm believer in the inferiority of women, so his commentary has implications that stretch beyond the bounds of species. Whatever the Greek philosopher had seen to inspire his prejudicial view of cats — probably just actual cats having sex — coupled with his views of women solidified the distasteful link between frisky felines and human females. Following his colorful comment, the two would be cast as beleaguered bedfellows for years to come, suspect for innate desires they could not — or would not — curb.
"Aristotle's association of cats with heightened and unseemly sexuality among women became absorbed into the common wisdom," author of Perilous Chastity: Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine Laurinda S. Dixon writes.
In addition to affirming Aristotle's role in shaping how we connect cats, sex, and women, Dixon also suggests that the cat can be read as a "symbol for the uterus." She reveals how Western culture came to view the uterus as "a roving, amoral creature," drawing from Plato's description of hysteria in women and the wayward uterus as "the animal within them."
Even before the time of Aristotle, "wandering womb disease," also known as hysteria, was the catchall cause of many ailments found in women. The belief was that if one's uterus wasn't anchored down by childbearing or chastity, it could be unleashed within the body, laying waste to the physical and emotional health of its owner. Hysteria could be the cause of anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and mood swings. Hysteria could also be the cause of an overactive libido. There was no end to the ways this sexist diagnosis supposedly impacted a woman's health.
In Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood, author Bram Dijkstra cites the writings of 19th-century medical professor Augustus Gardner on hysteria, which suggest that "personal pollution" was just as much the cause for waking the inner wildcat within women as not fulfilling their motherly duties. Every precaution was taken to keep "that veritable black panther of feminine sexual evil" from overtaking the female of the species, Dijkstra explains, which meant keeping a close watch on all women's sexual activity.
Cats, then, have not only been symbols for sexual women, but for an organ often associated with women's sexual worth and sexual evil. Yes, women can be cats, but many women also have a cat within them, living inside their most sensitive of regions, just lying in wait. Whether said cat decides to procreate or pounce is entirely up to chance.
* * *
Aristotle's snide remark about cats isn't the sole reason we continue to associate felines with female carnality. The philosopher's prejudicial sentiments no doubt infected the minds of men throughout the Western world, but they would be compounded by early Christians denouncing all that pagan cultures held dear, particularly goddesses of fertility who consorted with cats.
The link between cats, sex, and the divine feminine is as old as recorded history itself. Felines of all stripes were believed to be paragons of procreation, so they made excellent allies for fecund deities. Early visions of the feral feminine survive today in the form of cave paintings, carved statues, amulets, architecture, and funeral relics.
A sculpture from Neolithic Turkey, known as the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, shows a voluptuous mother, breasts heavy, belly round, face kind — a sister of the Venus of Willendorf perhaps? — each hand resting on the head of a leopard.
The Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon venerating the goddess of love, sex, fertility, and war features 120 of the lions associated with Ishtar prowling across the processional bricks leading up to the arch.
In Hindu temples from the early first millennium, reliefs show the violent yet nurturing mother goddess Durga riding a tiger or lion.
Wood carvings from the Viking age depict Freya, Norse goddess of fertility, flanked by two cat attendants who pull her on a throne, and surviving statuettes of Roman mother goddess Cybele portray her in a chariot led by lions.
The felines that accompany these otherworldly women signal how both parties were perceived: mighty, magical, sensual. Such connections were taken to greater heights in ancient Egypt, when sacred women weren't merely accompanied by cats, but became them.
Egyptian mythology bestows a multitude of deities with feline features. The mother goddess Isis is occasionally depicted as a cat, as are Mut, Hathor, Wadjet, Pakhet, and Tefnut. Gender matters in these cases, as "feline deities are predominately female," asserts Aleid De Jong in The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology — although there are a few male deities who have feline characteristics as well.
As early as the Second Dynasty, Bast, the lioness goddess of war, held court in the hearts and minds of the people in Lower Egypt. In Upper Egypt, the lioness Sekhmet filled a similar pugilistic role. When the two territories finally united, these goddesses began to diverge.
Sekhmet, protectress of the pharaohs, kept her lion head and a glowing solar disk on her headpiece topped with a uraeus cobra. Bast, later known as Bastet, morphed into a cat-headed goddess, revered as a fierce protectress, symbolizing motherhood and fertility.
Some historians speculate that Bast was initially a lioness and her features softened to become a cat because lions migrated away from the Nile delta and domesticated cats become more and more popular as pets. Others wager it might have something to do with differentiating her from Sekhmet. Egyptologist Ruth Schumann Antelme has a different take altogether.
In Sacred Sexuality in Ancient Egypt: The Erotic Secrets of the Forbidden Papyrus the author proposes that "divine lioness" Tefnut-Sekhmet, "an independent, untamed, and zealous deity," was defanged and transformed into a cat. Desiring to sow her wild oats, she left her father Ra to "romp as she pleased" in the desert. After some time passed (and litters of cubs had been produced from her wanderings), both Ra and the people of Egypt began to miss the presence of the goddess. To remedy her absence, her brothers Shu and Thoth forcibly brought her back to civilization, on the way plunging her into sacred waters that would eventually quell some of her wildness. Back on dry land, the goddess formerly known as Tefnut-Sekhmet "emerged tamed and in the form of a ravishing young woman — or a charming and cuddly cat," now named Bastet.
Still overflowing with fecundity, Bastet's sexuality became less about her own needs and more a wellspring for human couples to draw their procreative forces from. Under the watchful eye of Ra, she became less ferocious, less sexually explorative, but not entirely benign. Antelme describes Bastet as the "tamed but still uncontrollable" cat form of Sekhmet. The two feline goddesses are two sides of the same coin: the maternal cat and the voluptuous lion. "Kindly is she as Bast, terrible is she as Sekhmet," recites M. Oldfield Howey in The Cat in Magic, Mythology, and Religion, drawing from an ancient Philae text.
In either form, these feline deities represent sexual expression at its most freewheeling and at its most productive, and they were worshipped without judgment. Bast and Sekhmet would undergo a variety of changes throughout their tenure in ancient Egypt, but by the time of the ancient Greeks and Aristotle, the female feline began to take on an entirely different hue.
Our perception of the feral feminine — like the feral feminine itself — is always shifting shape.CHAPTER 2
Strung together, sinew packed, the fearful symmetry of a cat by nature shifts shape. Clavicles float free, anchored only in muscle. Ribs tighten then protract. Low and flat, lean and narrow, coiled serpentine, hair-on-end exalting in taking-up-space — that is the cat. These compressible creatures are shape-shifters, their physicality fluid, befitting any situation or inquisitive whim. Whiskers splayed wide, a cat senses when exactly a transformation should begin.
Hunters by design, felines are built to track prey into the smallest of spaces and inflate their silhouettes at will. Cats may now make our homes their nocturnal paradise, leaping at laser pointers, spiraling into boxes, and attacking passing feet like mortal enemies, but little has changed since they've lived among us. See a tawny figure slipping by, undetected, between cracks in the stone sanctuary at Delphi to sit at the feet of the sibyl herself. Or sense the outline of a single gray tail flicking from beneath the wood foundation of a Japanese longhouse or an inflated black specter amid the grain stores of an English cellar, besting an invisible foe. Cats move between territories, between worlds, becoming what they need to be in the moment.
Building upon this innate ability to change form, folklore around the world has frequently attached a shape-shifting power to cats. When these felines are feminine, this mercurial effect is amplified.
In ancient Greek mythology, the sphinx had dangerous allure. With the body of a lion, avian wings, and a woman's head, she was the keeper of knowledge who could see into men's souls. For years she crafted riddles at the gates of Thebes. Her wily wordplay would be the death of thousands of men, until Oedipus cracked her code and she crashed her body on the rocks in resignation.
In Edo Japan, the bakeneko yujo were shape-shifting cat courtesans. Rumor had it that in the pleasure districts of Tokyo, customers would awaken in the middle of the night to find the woman with whom they had paid to share a bed hunched before a shoji screen, vertical slits lit by moonlight, tearing open a fish carcass. Sometimes, male clients would even be swallowed whole by these ravenous cat women.
Tales of shape-shifting cats were numerous during the early modern European witch hunts, too, when witches were thought to send out their feline forms to inflict harm. You could never be sure if the cat who found its way to your door was a bashful associate after TLC or a demonic woman on a mission of nefarious recon. (Best to feed her either way.)
Presenting across cultures, shape-shifters break free from the confines of a single fixed physicality. Those who morph their forms defy the stifling binaries that organize the known world and reveal how tenuous all boundaries are.
But what defines a shape-shifter, apart from literally shifting shape?
According to Brent A. Stypczynski in The Modern Literary Werewolf: A Critical Study of the Mutable Motif, a shape-shifter is "a figure, whether human or otherwise, that is capable of altering its physical appearance without the aid of make-up, surgery, or prosthetics, often crossing species, gender and racial boundaries."
To Serinity Young, shape-shifters carry a specific gendered dimension. "Terrifying in their physical fluidity, shape-shifters are perversions of nature, belonging to the category of the monstrous-feminine," she explains in Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females. These include "women with both animal and human features ... sphinxes of Greco-Roman mythology, [and] demonesses of all times."
The feminine, feline shape-shifters introduced above all share a penchant for mischief. Their ability to play with words, with sexuality, with physiology allows them to entrance, ensnare, and even overcome aspects of patriarchal rule — although these hybrid beings often met their ends at the hands of men.
"Shape-shifting breaches fundamental boundaries," Young elaborates. "They are indifferent to differentiation, violating the established order, including the order of gender." So what is it about femininity — or perceptions of femininity at least — that aligns with shape-shifting and perpetual motion?
The feline and the feminine are famously forced to stretch and shrink, flatten and swell to survive in the landscapes they inhabit. Embodying either category requires the ability to move between worlds. Liminal living, feliminality, means slipping in and out of sight, between legs, and into spaces where they can never quite follow you. It means navigating how not to be at the beck and call of the master, even as some days you may sit and purr at his feet, ready to engage your claws.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cat Call"
Copyright © 2019 Kristen J. Sollée.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Cats Are Sluts? 1
2 The Shape-Shifter 8
3 Gat Out of Hell 21
4 Feline Familiars 35
5 The Cat Lady-Crazy, Sexy, Queer 43
6 Cats, Kink, and Kitten Play 63
7 Hex-Ray Vision and the Feline Gaze 80
8 Art Cats-Sex and the Sphinx 88
9 Feline Glamour (Magic) 95
10 Sex Kittens and Painted Cats-Untamed Eroticism 106
11 The Black Cat 113
12 Bloody Kisses-Vampires, Werecats, and Cat People 119
13 Tricksters, Shifters, and Femmes Fatales 129
14 Ailuramancy-Divination with Cats 133
15 Hello Kitty and the Cult of Cute 139
16 Cat's Call 148
17 Pussy Hats and Homocats 153
18 Tomcats and feline Casanovas 161
19 Animality and the Mystical Digital 168
20 Clawing Her Way Out-The Politics of Liberation 173
Tail's End 179
Selected Bibliography 190