Hello Kitty? Why Are Celebrated Cats So Un Cat-Like? Hello everyone, I hope you are well. In today’s post, I will be sharing a guest post from Dr Rebecca Rose Stanton, Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. She will explore the media’s vilification and celebration of cats and why so many cats are very un-cat-like. If you were asked to name a famous cat, there are many examples: Top Cat, Garfield, Hello Kitty, and the Pink Panther. But who would you pick if asked to name a famous cat that wasn’t anthropomorphised? Despite the prevalence of cats in the human world, famous cats in popular culture are almost always anthropomorphised. Why is this, and why does it apply to cats but not dogs or horses, for example?
Hello Kitty? Why Are Celebrated Cats So Un Cat-Like?
Imagine you were on Family Fortunes and asked to name a famous cat; who’s the first one that would come to your mind? Top Cat? Garfield? The Pink Panther? Felix? Now, who would you pick if I asked you to name a famous cat that wasn’t anthropomorphised? Well, let’s face it, there isn’t one, certainly not universal, anyway. Despite the prevalence of cats in the human world, famous cats in popular culture are almost always anthropomorphised.
Consider Hello Kitty: even if you’re not a fan of this widespread waving white cat, you’ll undoubtedly know who she is. This cute cat’s global success is perhaps not surprising if studied alongside the popularity of domestic cats today and throughout human history. What is surprising, however, is that Hello Kitty doesn’t have that much in common with real house cats, the very species she represents. For example, she is bipedal, wears clothes, and is clawless – features that do not apply to cats naturally. However, perhaps because of this unnatural anthropomorphism, she is well-known and loved globally.
The intense anthropomorphism of cats in the media is not the case for other popular species, such as dogs and horses, of which there are several well-known non-anthropomorphised examples. Rin Tin Tin, Lassie the Dog, and Seabiscuit the Horse are just three examples you could use to illustrate this point.
However, this is logical given that such species have been selectively bred over thousands of years to look and act precisely as humans want them to. For example, humanity has repeatedly adapted a Labrador to suit our and our ancestors’ tastes. That’s why we often see dogs like this behaving naturally in films and the like. Cats are slightly different in this respect. Yes, house cats have evolved alongside humans, but in a different way from dogs and horses.
For example, whilst dogs were welcomed into human homes to provide protection and, later on, companionship, cats were often kept outside the home to keep rodents away from food stores. Therefore, humans selectively bred dogs to suit the home, which they didn’t do with cats. Secondly, unlike almost all other domesticated species, cats are carnivores. As such, they possess an overwhelming instinct to hunt, so they spend much of their time chasing and killing smaller animals, a practice humans cannot relate to as omnivores. This is again why cat behaviour differs from that of dogs and horses.
As Different As Cats And Dogs
These two points highlight why the world’s most famous cats are all anthropomorphised, yet famous dogs are a mix of natural and anthropomorphised. Essentially, it is because there are certain animalistic behaviours in cats that humans dislike and wish to attenuate. Animation, merchandise, and many other popular culture areas reflect the world humans want rather than what is accurate. This is why Hello Kitty, a heavily anthropomorphised animated cat, commands the popularity she does. This is also why, in the media, pro-social animals only exhibit certain behaviours, such as a dog catching a ball, yet rarely others, such as mating. The ball catching is anthropomorphised; the mating is animalistic. Therefore, humans prefer the dog catching the ball because they prefer Hello Kitty over a real cat.
Pro-Social And Anti-Social
Hello Kitty, Top Cat, and Garfield are examples of how cats are commonly characterised as pro-social. However, countless anti-social cats are depicted in the media, too. The difference between the two is almost always in their anthropomorphism, appearance, and behaviour. For example, cats like Hello Kitty do not scratch or hiss (in most cases, they do not even seem to have claws), whereas antagonistic cats, such as Tom in Tom and Jerry, often do.
Similarly, anti-social cats usually don’t wear clothes, speak English, or walk on two legs. However, this means that anti-social cats are usually more cat-like than their pro-social counterparts. This point isn’t just valid for cats and can be seen with several other species in the media. For example, in animation, antagonistic animals are often non-anthropomorphised rodents, reptiles, and other wild, frequently carnivorous, species.
They often exhibit behaviours that are natural to these animals, such as biting, hissing, or scratching, which are presented in an anti-social way. In contrast, pro-social animal characters, such as dogs, tend to be highly anthropomorphised species that viewers are familiar with, exhibiting human-like behaviours. Therefore, despite the popularity of cats in human culture, it is not enough for a cat to be a cat; it must also shed its more animalistic traits for humans to like it, as is evident with Hello Kitty, Top Cat, Felix the Cat, etc.
Anti-social cats are known for associating with criminal human acts, such as witchcraft, and socially unacceptable behaviours, like women daring to live alone (the horror!). To illustrate, cats are often the pets of fictional human villains, such as Cruella de Vil, Team Rocket (Pokemon), and Dr. Evil (Austin Powers), amongst countless other examples.
However, whilst the association of cats with villainy is sometimes comic, it is believed to have severe consequences for real cats. For example, cats are frequently victims of domestic animal harm. Furthermore, specific types of cats are vilified more than others. For instance, it is well documented that black cats are less likely to be adopted from animal shelters, perhaps because of the media’s common pairing of black cats and witches. This may also be why famous pro-social cats like Hello Kitty are white.
Therefore, even though negative depictions of cats are often set in fictional worlds, they are exclusively consumed by those who live in this world, which is home to millions, if not billions, of natural and very cat-like cats.
The media often implies that if a cat uses their claws or even has claws, they’re a villain rather than just a typical cat. However, hissing, scratching, and chasing mice are all natural behaviours of cats; perhaps because humans cannot relate to such behaviours, they have chosen to vilify them rather than celebrate them. That is why Hello Kitty looks and acts like she does; she embodies what humans want cats to be like. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be the most recognisable cat in the world. Similarly, all the dogs that didn’t look and act as humans wanted them to are long extinct for the same reason.
A Brighter Future
On a brighter note, more recent media releases suggest that positive change could be on the way for our furry feline friends. For instance, Puss in Boots from the Shrek series, a cat with both pro and anti-social qualities, has had three spin-off movies due to its phenomenal popularity. As a cat character, he doesn’t fit comfortably into the hero or villain role, suggesting that the next generation might prefer a more nuanced portrayal of such animals. Given the adverse effects that past depictions of cats have had on them, these signs of progress can only be good for humans and the many real animals we share our world with.
I hope you enjoyed that.
About The Author
Dr Rebecca Rose Stanton is the author of ‘The Disneyfication of Animals’ and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, an independent centre pioneering ethical perspectives on animals through academic research, teaching, and publication. The Centre comprises more than 100 academic Fellows worldwide. www.oxfordanimalethics.com/home
LinkedIn: Dr Clair Linzey – https://www.linkedin.com/in/clair-linzey-ab012272/