In the cats-versus-dogs debate, pop culture tends to skew in one direction. Many animated movies portray cats as manipulative and nefarious, and dogs as the (less canny) embodiments of loyalty and love. Cats also have a long association with the witchy and supernatural, underscoring their folkloric legacy as otherworldly beings. While some recent works have broadened depictions of felines, a new series from Netflix does the same for the humans who love them.
Released this month, the delightful six-part documentary Cat People introduces us to individuals in different parts of the world who have built a life around cats; more important, the show pulls back the layers of judgment and cliché that these people contend with. The six subjects come from an array of backgrounds and cultures, but what they all share—apart from their love of cats—is the experience of being perceived as oddballs by other people. What the cats make of them, we can only guess.
The show both explodes the narrow definition of a “cat person” and reclaims the label. The docuseries is a defense of the sort of person who should need no defending and yet often does, because of misguided assumptions about gender, race, and even labor and art. In the popular imagination, a cat person is usually a woman who lives alone and is devoted to animals that many observers dismiss as aloof or unfeeling. Sometimes known as the “crazy cat lady,” she’s pathologized and pitied. The presumption is that her feelings are silly because they could never be returned, that she dotes on her pets to the exclusion of caring for human children.
In Episode 2 of Cat People, we meet a cat rescuer and entertainer named Samantha Martin and see how demeaning the single-cat-lady stereotype can be. Martin runs a traveling show called The Amazing Acro-Cats, which features circus tricks and an all-cat band, The Rock Cats. The footage of the felines “rehearsing” is better seen than described, but suffice it to say, Martin’s cheerful stage persona complements the deadpan humor of a cat lighting up a banner printed with the word APPLAUSE.
While Martin is an exceptionally skilled animal trainer, she’s also vulnerable in a way that makes her confidence and her commitment to her cats all the more affecting. In one scene, she gathers the animals into their carriers with members of her all-female team, and remarks that the unfamiliar presence of “males”—that is, the documentary film crew—might be making the cats a little skittish. “It’s not like I have a lot of gentlemen callers,” she jokes. “It’s such a big turn-on, a woman that has 24 cats.” Martin’s team laughs, but the pathos in her comment suggests real, and understandable, hurt. Martin is obviously funny, ambitious, caring, and creative, a catch by any reasonable standard. Cat People is notable because it doesn’t present these qualities as a counterpoint to the fact that she’s a professional cat lady; it simply demonstrates that both are true.
The gender stereotypes associated with caring for cats cut both ways, as two of the men featured in the show explain. Both are Black, and both are involved in animal rescue and advocacy. Dwayne Molock, better known to his 373,000 Instagram followers as iAmMoshow the Cat Rapper, writes songs about his five cats, who appear regularly in his videos (sometimes sporting coordinating jewelry and sunglasses). Wearing a striped knit cap with spangled cat ears, Molock explains that as a teen, he was always the one in his friend group who preferred staying at home and playing video games. When he first started rapping, the lyrics he was writing didn’t feel authentic. “I knew that I’m not hard-core. You know, I’m not gangster,” he says. What did feel authentic? Rapping about how much he loves cats. As Molock speaks, one of his songs plays on the soundtrack: “Always love your cat and never declaw; I’m so raw.”
Sterling Davis, better known as the Original TrapKing, is also working to change cultural expectations through his work as a cat rescuer and advocate. Not only does he want to bring greater visibility to men working in the field, but he also wants to build a bridge between communities of color and the wider world of animal-welfare organizations, which are predominately white. Davis and other rescuers like him practice TNR, or “trap, neuter, return,” to help manage stray-cat populations. Through his work, Davis is modeling a form of masculinity that isn’t at odds with unconditional care and tenderness. As he says in the series, he’s in it for the headbutts and slow blinks—both of which are cat behaviors that communicate affection and trust. His motto: “You don’t lose cool points for compassion.”
Another issue the series broaches is the way that cat culture operates in harmony and in conflict with high culture. Artists who treat cats as their subject or source of inspiration are rarely seen as deserving of critical engagement—no matter how talented they are. The episode that best captures the outsider existence of the cat creative is titled “Copycat.” It introduces a Japanese artist named Sachi, who goes by the professional name Wakuneco and uses a technique called needle felting to make astonishingly realistic low-relief portraits of cats. She has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media along with a multiyear waiting list for portraits, and has received press attention all over the world. Though her clients are usually cat owners whose pets have died, we get to see her collaborate with two sisters on a portrait of their still-living 10-year-old cat, Miyu. Sachi meets Miyu to observe her personality and movements, and to note the subtle colors of her fur and eyes. The portrait is the sisters’ way of investing in an object that will invoke Miyu’s spirit even after she’s gone. Their grief is anticipatory, soothed in this case by careful observation, high-quality wool, and skilled technique.
The exquisite seriousness with which Sachi approaches her portraits is exemplary of a reality I encountered time and again when I was researching my 2020 book on cat culture in Japan: There’s nothing frivolous about feline-inspired craft. Though Japan is home to flamboyant cat icons such as Hello Kitty and Doraemon, artisans who make fine cat goods don’t tend to present themselves as self-consciously kitschy, the way their counterparts sometimes do in the U.S. The gesture of putting the utmost attention into making an object that serves or celebrates cats isn’t automatically considered wacky.
Still, Sachi understands that no amount of success as a cat portraitist will ever allow her to fit into the contemporary art world. Her painstaking felting processes and subject matter would probably be better understood as a wry work of performance art rather than as the practice of an earnest, highly skilled portraitist. Early in the episode, she explains that she admires artists who make abstract work, while adding that anything she creates will necessarily be “concrete,” not abstract. “To be honest,” she says, “I used to have a big complex about my art being concrete.” Later on, she explains through tears that back when she was trying to make a go of it as a painter, and later as a landscape photographer, “no one saw me.”
But realism and literalness, the very things that set her apart from other contemporary artists, are what give her cat portraits their startling, uncanny power. Each real whisker is placed by hand with a pair of tweezers, each glass eye painted and touched up until it precisely imitates the shimmering hues of a real cat’s eyes. When Sachi delivers her portrait of Miyu to the sisters at the end of the episode, all three women are visibly moved. The sisters are stunned by the verisimilitude of Sachi’s rendering, and Sachi is in turn thrilled with their response. Her work as Wakuneco gave her, it seems, a way to finally be seen.
Anyone who has lived with a cat—or who enjoys seasonal photos of cats that have installed themselves in a holiday nativity scene—is familiar with the self-assuredness of an animal that cannot comprehend imposter syndrome. Cat people often say that a particular cat, or cats in general, “saved” them; for some, it could be that cats help them find personal confidence. In one sense, cat people’s devotion to their animals sets them up to be stereotyped, judged, or not taken seriously. But in another, their work opens a different door, allowing them to be understood and valued for the singular human beings they are.