I Went to Cat Con and It Was A Bit of a Letdown

By the time I arrive, the coffee cart has sold out of catpuccinos. I wonder if Lil Bub has too much power.
Publish date:
June 12, 2015
pets, cats, cat ladies

“Some rich Italian cat lives there,” I say out loud, to no one in particular. In front of me, there is a large replica of the leaning tower of Pisa, with descending ramped entry points and a sculpted veranda. There is no cat in sight.

A giant familiar face watches over the second floor of the rented downtown coworking space: a cardboard cutout, depicting a small, female cat with its tongue peeking out, echoing some hybrid of feline genetics and marketing triumph.

I am walking through aisle 808 of Los Angeles’ inaugural Cat Con, a cat convention in the style of Comic Con. There are mid century modern litter boxes and abundant fliers for a cat yoga mat. A woman circles in a fur hat and cat-covered ballgown, taking pictures with guests. She looks like Marie Antoinette. The cat-eared mob moves slowly through the convention center, comparing two brands of feline bowties and stirring a martini glass full of wet food for consistency. I am late for my panel, pushing through a crowded Pusheen pop-up shop and searching for a press room.

It is odd, busy and perilous - I am woozy, still feeling the half-Xanax I took the previous night. By the time I arrive, the coffee cart has sold out of catpuccinos. I wonder if Lil Bub has too much power.

I have been a card-carrying cat lady for quite some time now. Joey, my rowdy former feral, just turned two. I enjoy meeting new cat people, if slightly less than I enjoy meeting new cats.

Though I revel in the procession of simulacra, living in LA, I rarely have to seek it out. The panel I am scheduled to attend is titled “Goodbye Dowdy, Hello Gorgeous: Debunking the Cat Lady Myth” and is a bizarre hybrid of form and content, first structured somewhat like an art history seminar, presenting a series of slides of glamorous women in Hollywood cradling one cat or another.

The first speaker, Diane Lovejoy, has a background in fine art, briefing the audience on composition, color, and general theme in a survey of women in Hollywood through the lens of posed photographs with various felines. Lovejoy briefs the crowd on the medieval, witchy misconceptions about women and cats, then quickly moves on to a slideshow of Hollywood starlets, echoing that each is sexy, stylish, even chicer with cat in tow. Focused primarily on the notion that cat owners are capable of being sexy, but failing to go much further than that, it is well-intentioned but teeters precariously towards false epiphany.

Descriptions of cat ladies, Lovejoy tells us, are often predicated by the prefix “un-”: unsightly, unpresentable, unfashionable, unkempt, unpolished, and most of all, unmarried. This notion is echoed throughout culture: on Urban Dictionary, and via a Cat Lady figurine that remains an Amazon bestseller every year, depicting a mismatched, frumpy woman surrounded by needy pets that have supposedly replaced any lasting human contact or possibilities for glamor.

While her fine art background has taught her things like color coordination, proportion, and basic good taste, Lovejoy explains that these characteristics remain antithetical to most popular conceptions of the cat lady stereotype. The greatest failure of these renderings is their failure to mention the profound personal connection cat owners feel towards their felines; in many ways, this is a failure shared by the panel, which dwells primarily in the realm of appearances.

Copanelist Ashley Tsuchdin introduces her presentation as more solely concerned with the high fashion space. Her blog, Choupette’s Diary, ventriloquizes the concerns of Karl Lagerfeld’s pet Choupette, illuminating a cat with an unconventionally high-end lifestyle including maids, a personal chef and a private jet. One can suppose that the blog's ultimate ends are to subvert our expectations about cats and those who enjoy their company, but like anything on the Internet, it is equally digestible as one of an endless supply of randomly amusing distractions.

We laugh as Tsuchdin reveals Choupette’s preference of social media platforms and shift a little awkwardly when she reveals the cat’s culinary philosophy, quoted from Kate Moss, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Despite Tsuchdin’s satirical bend, there is an awkward and pervading cognitive dissonance between these notions, also echoed by Lovejoy, who draws a binary between frumpy stereotypes and chicly styled starlets, but fails to delve much deeper into our relationships with our cats, suggesting only briefly that they are more than an attractive prop on set or nice accent to an Instagram photograph.

In other words, there is little discussion of what these images might mean or signify beyond deflecting a meaning that is decidedly less attractive. The crowd, such as it is, is primarily outfitted in tee shirts and cat ears, seeming somewhat unconcerned with ways they might mask their doubty cat ownership with wardrobe tips from Francophone women or Grace Kelly.

In this way, Cat Con’s female-oriented panel shares many of the failings of popular feminism as commonly articulated in popular culture, insisting on deflecting negative stereotypes in ways ultimately as superficial as the stereotypes themselves.

By the end of the panel, I begin to wonder if the very idea of "cat lady pride" is worth thinking about at all. Cat Con is lined with selfie booths, Q&A sessions with owners of cats who are famous on a medium they do not know exists. It all seems a bit too easily digestible, too eager to pat itself on the back or derive a form of empowerment without any real sense of where that power is derived from or what it means. While pretty pictures are well and good, it seems to me that there are enough revisionist theories of Hollywood Glamour as it stands. Might our time be better spent with our cats? Or even learning how to take care of them better, rather than simply searching for yet enough way to feel more attractive, stylish, chic-er, better about ourselves?

I miss my cat, who is probably asleep with my boyfriend, in my spot, or chirping at birds from his window perch.

In one of her more acute moments, Lovejoy poses the question: “So maybe an eccentric theorist did invent the crazy cat lady, or she's a figment of a traumatized therapists imagination?” announcing, “No matter the inventor, I was determined to be the rescuer -- the woman who would liberate the cat lady from the hall of shame.” But what shame? And what kind of liberation?

There are more substantial moments: an image of Georgia O Keefe and her cat is rendered “the essence of American modernism.” Brigitte Bardot likens herself to a cat. Lovejoy mentions a local feral she has tended to as a source of inspiration for the images she has selected.

Still, like many of my fellow cat-owners, and cat con attendees, no amount of black clothing will make me look like Grace Kelly. While I agree with the problems with using words like “frumpy” to speak about women, the solution I want requires more deeper consideration than simply altering our wardrobes or creating pinterest boards full of movie stars with cats in tow.

It all seems so crude, and a bit superficial. Instead of making the cat lady more fashionable, what if she didn’t need to be? What if we spoke about why we bond with cats or other pets or animals we encounter, instead of rushing so quickly to excuse these relationships as something aesthetically stylish enough not to offend our friends or critics?

Actress Mayim Bialik, who introduces the panel, explains its aim to dispel “the notion that you’re spinstery if you're a cat person, that you stay home in your rocking chair with your creepy cat, that your primary attachment is to the cat and nothing else.”

Ultimately, though, its purpose is to promote adoption by debunking less attractive myths about what cat ownership might entail. It is, after all, kitten season. Bialik has grown up with cats, and is now a practicing vegan.

“I’m an animal rights person in general, so I think that adopting rather than buying is super important. Part of what Petsmart Charities is trying to do is to emphasize pet adoption as super important and to balance out the ratio between dog adoption and cat adoption,” she explains. The Petsmart Charity Meowt Yourself campaign invites cat owners to take inventive selfies that highlight unusual things people do with their cats. “I’ve met a lot of amazing women here today, people of different sizes, shapes, and backgrounds, and I think that’s really cool.” Bialik explains. “I’ve seen such a variety of cat personalities.”

She hopes the campaign will echo this diversity, though there is a part of me that worries it may do the opposite -- highlighting cats as glamorous accessories, rather than flushing out how meaningful our relationships with them can be. On days when I feel I should be watching my weight or saving up money to dress more stylishly, I return home to someone who doesn’t give a crap about any of that. Joey wants to curl up next to me even when I’m unshowered and grumpy and further than ever from chic. Sometimes we are so hungry to be loved we forget real love is not superficially discriminating whatsoever.

June is Adopt a Shelter Cat month. More cats enter shelters than dogs and more are euthanized each year, says Julie White of Petsmart Charities. The incentive of the program and social media initiative is to help solve this by combating the negative stereotype and encouraging people to adopt.

Seventy percent of people surveyed view these cultural myths as a deterrent when considering adopting a cat. The Meowt Yourself campaign aims to express the diverse experiences of cat owners in a fun, silly way that will ultimately help combat pet homelessness.

Perhaps my cynicism is in itself, a form of narcissism no different than styling my cat to echo Lauren Bacall’s. In spite of everything, I lag behind in the VIP room to snag a picture with Lil Bub. Owner Mike Bridavsky cradles her lovingly, once a litter-runt, now a social media sensation. To me, this says more about the enduring power of the image than any candid snapshot of a pin-up girl snuggling with a pussy off set. I am transfixed, waiting for my turn to sit beside the top cat.