Did you hear the story about the old woman from Ohio who was arrested for training her 65 cats to steal her neighbour’s stuff? The Columbus police department found thousands of dollars’ worth of jewellery in the 83-year-old lady’s house and discovered she taught the cats to bring back “anything that shined”.
The news story went viral at the end of last year. How do you picture her? Unkempt hair, dressing gown and slippers, living alone, rarely leaving the house? The “crazy cat lady”, in other words. In fact, the story was fiction on a satirical website, but people bought it and shared the story thinking it was real.
The crazy cat lady is a common, recognisable trope in contemporary culture: think of Eleanor Abernathy in The Simpsons. After a promising career in medicine and law, she experiences burnout, starts drinking and gets a cat. Next minute, she’s talking gibberish, looking dishevelled and throwing her army of felines around. Then there’s Robert De Niro’s predictably bonkers elderly Christmas cat lady in a 2004 Saturday Night Live skit: she “had dreams and then she was kicked by a horse and now she has cats. The end!”
The younger version of the stereotype is usually associated with being single, kooky and weird; after her relationship with Carol Burnett comes to a head, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon acquires a cat. “I can fit Emily Dickinson’s whole head in my mouth,” she tells a concerned Jack Donaghy. You can even buy a Crazy Cat Lady action figure online, complete with deranged, staring eyes.