Men can like cats nowadays for the same reason that men can find Tina Fey really sexy—because feminism has loosened the gender bindings of masculinity enough that they can find something other than dumb adoration appealing. You’re welcome, men. I realize that my comment about dumb adoration will probably come across as offensive to dog people, so I’ll state up front: I am a dog person. In fact, I think getting dumb adoration from your pet is the appropriate place for that, so that you don’t put that on your lover. I’m just noting that under the old gender rules, masculinity was often considered mutually exclusive from desiring loving relationships of the romantic or pet variety with anyone capable of more than gazing at you with that blank intensity of pure thoughtless love.
Of course, part of it is the simple fact that cat ownership is on the rise overall, and dog ownership is on the decline. Cats just are more appropriate for the modern urban lifestyle. It’s a matter of space, yes, but it’s also a time issue. People work long hours and have long commutes and all that isn’t so great for dogs, who need lots of outside time. Cats don’t need to go outside. In fact, it’s fun for me to taunt my cat when she’s sitting in the window longingly gazing at birds. “You’d like to go out and get hit by a car, wouldn’t you?” I say with an evil, cat-depriving laugh.
It’s true that the notion that men would balk at cat ownership is silly, and it’s also true that the methodology on the story is as crappy as it usually is in NY Times trends stories, but I’m not really that unnerved by this story, which is pretty harmless, unlike stories that try to guilt women into damaging “traditional” choices. Plus, the premise of the story—that cats are coded as feminine in our culture, and therefore looked down upon, but that this is changing—is absolutely true. And I find that fascinating, and not just because I’m a cat person.* Are some men less hung up about TEH GHEY? Are cats becoming less gender-marked? I’m inclined to think the former more than the latter, because cats are still strongly associated with women in our culture. In fact, it’s still a standard issue insult to feminists to say, “You’re single and own cats!”, which is one of the many creative ways our culture has come up with to express a fear of girl cooties. And a lot of people I meet with anti-cat prejudices have them because they still have associations with cats that go back to deeply buried misogynist stereotypes, even in people who aren’t particularly sexist. The cure for cat hostility, as my mother always said, is exposure. Most people who don’t like cats just don’t know them.
Plus, the joke about Robert De Niro being a cat person in “Meet the Parents” doesn’t work unless you assume cat love is coded as feminine, making it unusual for such a manly man.
*See how I did that? See, people can be both cat people and dog people. The dichotomy between the true has always been artificial.