“We use the nature we find, then make up the rest,” goes a line by Alexis Madrigal, my favorite sentence in an anthology of writing about cat videos, Cat is Art Spelled Wrong. Actually, I would add, using nature and making it up often amount to the same thing.
Nature is largely alien to us, yet we are continuous with it. Calling nature an “it” evidences the overarching trouble; though we are animals (albeit highly articulate ones), we tend to see every other life form on the planet as an “it” rather than a “thou”—something to use, reinvent, or both.
That includes other humans, of course, but first let’s talk about cats.
Mother cats move their kittens around by biting them on the scruff of the neck, which signals the youngsters to freeze in compliance until set down in whatever location mother has decided is favorable. To stay safe, the kitten reflexively turns itself into an object. Human guardians can call upon this instinct when they are really desperate to move an unwilling kitty—even adult cats will freeze when the reflex is activated by a firm human hand—but this is a humiliating party trick, a get-out-of-jail-free card that conscientious humans should deploy only as a last resort. Such effortless erasure of the free will of cats is certainly the exception, not the rule.
As Sasha Archibald notes in one of the collection’s more provocative essays, “In a cat-and-mouse game of our own invention, we attempt subjugation, and the cat resists, over and over and over.” Yet technology gives us a bag of meta-tricks for turning cats into our virtual toys. Archibald: “With the online cat video…our attempts at mastery have acquired their most powerful arsenal to date.”
Cat videos were the first window my husband and I offered our two young daughters into the online world. It felt like we were just showing them cats—the things cats do—but of course, the medium is the message, and we surely were also teaching them about the things humans do.
Humans point cameras at cats, not bothering to edit our own piles of laundry or cluttered shoe racks out of the shot; then we post, angle for likes and forwards and shares, and in a few cases find ourselves watching as our fur-bearing companions become stars, memes, more famous than we’ll ever be, beloved around the globe. Perhaps we’ll even be invited to bring the actual cat, as several essays in the anthology recount, to meet fans face-to-face at a cat video festival. And at that moment we will know that we are, as Madrigal put it, “making up the rest.”
It’s probably true that no individual cats have been harmed in the making of all those lo-fi movies. But what of the broader attitudes at play when we take cats, so complete unto themselves, and make them into raw material for our own inventions?
The implications might be darker than we think. Cats are historically likened to women, women to babies, and babies to cats. Archibald questions the standard attitude toward pets: “Are the sticky moans of cuteness endemic to cat love? Are there other ways to treasure an animal? It’s a dangling question, unresolved even in regards to human babies, let alone cats.”
Archibald is spot-on to make a connection between our treatment of animals and children. Exhibit A: Just like cat mothers with their kittens clamped in their teeth, human parents have a curiously perfunctory way of toting babies around. Infants can easily become equivalent to the diaper bags they travel with, slung carelessly over hips or lifted swiftly, mid-pivot, while the adult looks at or talks to someone else. The babies, meanwhile, may be dressed in clothing festooned with text they cannot read, messages aimed by the parents at other adults, text reading “My Mommy Is Awesome.”
If we sometimes turn babies into objects, that may be because we prefer it to encountering them as animals. Though only babies lack language, even older children are usually seen as in need of domestication.
Children are humans who are still natural. To bring them up is to, slowly but surely, draw them, as one would pull a heavy rope hand over hand, into the invented realm of society. This is accomplished in a million little ways that, as a whole, enact the bone-deep ambivalence we hold about our own status as clever apes. In parenting, we communicate through word and gesture and act of discipline that we require our children to shed their instinctive selves. (Could it be that one of the reasons adults continually surround children with images of animals is to teach them that animals are other—to be regarded with some distance?)
My children are not infants any longer; the elder one is seven. A few days ago I woke her up with the words “Look at this cat, all stretched out in bed!” and then petted her head. I was imagining—and my daughter, for the record, smiled at the suggestion—that a human being was an animal, and by naming this fantasy out loud, I reinforced the requirement that she be, fantasy aside, a non-animal. Both humans and cats may stretch out luxuriously in bed, but only cats are allowed to lick up bacon grease off the floor. That’s why you don’t need to tell a cat she’s a cat.
But children and cats both stare out at us from inside the frame we call cuteness; and cute, as Archibald notes, has a dark side. For one thing, it makes us, as onlookers, insatiable. “Touchability is a core property of cuteness,” says Archibald; in the same paragraph, she uses the phrases “a good fondling,” “bodily manipulations,” “loving molestation.”
If Cat is Art Spelled Wrong, two years out of the gate, already feels slightly outdated, it may be because the form of online togetherness it celebrates—cat videos, for all their well-documented moral ambiguity—seems so innocent now, in early 2018, when our most recent convulsion of Internet sharing isn’t a cat meme but a tidal wave of #MeToo stories.
You don’t need to tell a cat she’s a cat, but if you want to prepare a woman to be treated as less than human, you do need to tell her she’s a kind of animal. You need to continually draw her attention back to her own bodily presence—her hide, her teeth, her scent. You need to make her ashamed of her bodily processes so that she’s preoccupied with disguising them. You need to tie her worth inextricably to the quality of her own bones and meat and ply her with condescending compliments, of which “cute” is only one example. In short, you need to train her to believe that her roots in the natural world—which, of course, men share—are uniquely feral and foul. And then you can pet, grab, and molest.
No woman on earth is surprised to hear all these stories of women being treated like objects; we know it’s a deeply embedded part of human society, and the only new thing here is the cultural moment that is allowing such an outpouring of narratives to be offered publicly and heard with respect.
Perhaps, amidst the hearing and telling of stories, we might consider exactly what spawns such harassing behavior, and what else grows from that same rootstock. I don’t think men, as grabby as they can be, are the only ones who can’t resist touching, taking possession of, failing to humanize. On the same day I woke my older daughter up by calling her a cat, I caught myself patting the naked rump of my younger daughter, age four, in a quick eighth-note rhythm to accompany a little song I spontaneously sang: “What a nice hoosh, what a nice hoosh, what a nice hoosh, what a nice hoosh.” (Lovingly, I hasten to add; but still—can such maternal privilege, a direct descendent of the earlier diaper-changing stage, in which the daughter’s body is a kind of work site, like the kitchen sink, truly be considered respectful? She’s taken to pointedly wiping my kisses off her face.)
And endangered big cats are sold as pets, and illegally traded baby chimps are dressed in children’s clothes, and pets rescued at great expense from Hurricane Harvey are getting accustomed to their new homes.
As a collection, Cat is Art Spelled Wrong aims for variety—it includes poetry and memoir and David Carr archly pointing out that “[your cat] would eat you if it could.” Sprinkled among these are the backbone of the book—a group of essays that attempt to suss out the deeper teleology of cat videos, their function in our collective psyche. (Ander Monson: “Like nostalgia or consuming porn, it’s not an interaction at all, but a kind of loop: it plugs you back into your own predictable desire.”)
Once again, though, the truest message is the medium. The smorgasbord of viewpoints here is itself indicative of our culture-wide confusion about animals, nature, and our own animal natures. If anything might help the situation, as in making lives better, I’m betting it’s empathy, and I’m betting against Internet spectacle as the way to get there.