A Brief History of the Cat Lady

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From the tenth to the eighteenth centuries, countless thousands of cats across Europe were tortured and burned to death alongside the women whose “familiars” in witchcraft those cats were presumed to be.  Sometimes the cats themselves were believed to be witches.  The women were usually single and often elderly.  Medieval and Early Modern society’s mistrust of single women, cats, and any bond between the two lingers in today’s conception of the “cat lady.”  Like her persecuted “witch” predecessors, the cat lady is our culture’s envisioning of the woman who has failed to remain within the social order, who lies precariously outside it.  Continue reading “A Brief History of the Cat Lady”

“Zootopia” Encourages Us to Examine Our Prejudice

**This post contains some spoilers**

Zootopia continues Disney’s time-honored tradition of using animated creatures to talk about something else, whether it’s covering….Hamlet with lions or depression with walking, talking emojis (I’m talking Lion King and Inside Out here, in case you couldn’t tell). But Zootopia manages to do a little more, by drawing a charmingly insightful view of the world that still manages to talk about the prejudice and stereotypes that plague us.

Are you in it for the animal puns and inventive world-building? Sure. There are little sparks of pleasure throughout the entire movie, as the animators recreate familiar technology in an “evolved” world where animals, predators and prey, live together in a modern metropolis. How would subways accommodate both giraffes and hamsters? Do rabbits facetime? Are leopards pop-star fanboys who know how to use apps? All of your questions will be answered. (Bonus: this makes the film’s address of bigotry, racism, and prejudice even more compelling, as there’s a clear parallel drawn between Zootopia’s world and ours).

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Photo from Zootopia \\ Twitter @DisneyZootopia

Its main character, Judy Hopps, is an amibitious young bunny bent on becoming the first police officer of her species. To do so, she works twice as hard as anyone else, insisting that she’s not just a “token.” She is a creative problem-solver who works collaboratively, respects her friendships, and knows when to acknowledge her own mistakes and shortcomings. She’s a great cop who got there mostly by the dint of her own hard work, but also through the love and support of her community. She is defined more by her ambitions than anything else (and thank god there was no love story in this movie, because how would that even work…?). My cynical heart swells thinking of the young girls watching this movie who will absorb this film’s subtle, but strong message about the potential and abilities of the underestimated.

But Zootopia is more than a girl-can-do film, and its address of bigotry is what makes it one of the best and most important movies Disney has put out yet. In the beginning, Judy’s naive worldview presents Zootopia as the harmonious, “race-blind” melding of two distinct classes of animal: predator and prey. Part of her journey is through the disillusionment of that idea, and toward a concrete plan of action to remedy it. There are forces at work in the city who feed off of the distrust and prejudice that still surround “predators” and their unavoidable “biological instinct”—an early lesson for young viewers in the insidious power of coded language to shape public opinion, as Judy also learns. Through Judy’s friendship with the street-hustler fox Nick Wilde, she learns what it means to confront the lingering animosity between “predator” and “prey,” and how to forge a strong friendship from this unlikely, but very effective, partnership.

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Image from Twitter @DisneyZootopia

The film is also seeded with references for the adults or particularly savvy kids—like how the “nighthowlers” drug can be seen as a parallel to the crack epidemic, or how Judy tells another animal that bunnies can call other bunnies “cute,” but if another species does it….(you can almost hear the n-word echoing in the background). Zootopia depicts how quickly people (or animals) can fall into the traps of fear-motivated thinking, how bigotry and racism feed off of misinformation and fear. It also shows how much is lost when one’s world is circumscribed by these prejudices. And it does so in terms that both children and adults can understand and use to discuss racism, bigotry, and prejudice in the real world. That is a refreshing antidote to the hate-mongering and racism being peddled by election frontrunners—and the positive reaction to Zootopia bespeaks more than just our love for cuddly animals. Is it perfect? Probably not. But it brings the problems of bigotry right to the front and center. That’s a hell of a lot more than Disney movies used to do. We need more children’s movies like this, which are driven by interesting storylines and use world-building to open up discussions about the pressing problems of our own world.

 

Plus, this movie is just really freaking cute.

 

 

Animal Feeling

…There’s a reason we try to teach our children this kind of sympathy. Lack of sympathy, or outright cruelty, to animals, stems from the same mindset that, more egregiously, can deny humanity to other people by denying their capacity to think or feel. The Victorians considered women less rational than men, and regarded other races and the lower classes as less sensitive to pain, thus denying these groups full humanity and consequently full legal rights. Given these attitudes toward members of our own species, it is unsurprising that many Victorians felt panicked when Darwin suggested our kinship with other creatures.

Editor’s Note: I’m very happy to introduce our newest writer, Isabella Cooper! I hope you’ll enjoy this heartfelt, nuanced look at our feelings toward animals–and how we can avoid letting our sympathy become a “zero sum game.”


I am a strong proponent of the idea that the things you loved most at age six are probably the things you should pursue for the rest of your life.  The thing I loved at that age was animals. My first memory is of delightedly watching the sea lions at Monterey Aquarium. I can’t actually remember the fishy smell, the barking, or the antics of those particular sea lions, but I remember the feeling.  And that same complex feeling—a mix of awe and joy and something I can only describe as love–that I felt watching those sea lions returns to me whenever I see an animal happy or in its natural habitat, living its wild animal life.

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All children are fascinated by animals, even if not with the same intense, protective attachment I felt for them.  The first time it occurred to me to feel guilty about caring so much for animals occurred after going to see the 1994 live-action version of The Jungle Book with my grandparents.  My grandfather mentioned to my parents the way I’d cried when I thought Baloo the bear had died, but had been pleased when the human “bad guys” died.  I felt rebuked, as I always have when someone has suggested that my emotions are excessive or inappropriate.  Beyond that, the implication was that I cared more for animals than people.  It wouldn’t be the last time I’d face that charge, and feel like I was somehow a species traitor.  (Let’s just say no one was surprised when I became a vegetarian at fourteen.) But that experience with my grandparents was my first realization that a core part of my being might be viewed by others as emotional self-indulgence.  Continue reading “Animal Feeling”

Big Sound Saturdays: Sonic Zoo pt. 1

Animals have been imitated in musical compositions for years. I think immediately of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals from 1886, though I’m sure that in vaudeville, minstrelsy, and other popular entertainments, the tradition is much older. Catalyzed at least in part by John Cage’s “4’33” (four minutes and thirty-three seconds of any combination of instruments resting, silent, while the intended audience listens to the ambient noise of their surroundings), the inclusion of animal sounds in rock and roll might similarly serve to blur the distinction between art and the everyday, drawing attention to the textured sounds of the recording environment.

It might also, a la Donna Haraway, query the foundational relationship between human and animal. Since A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway has expanded her conversation about the intersection of human and technology in this, our technofuture, to one that considers our inter-species relationship with dogs. Understanding our relationship to dogs, for Haraway, helps us to understand our ethical relationship to our natural environment. How, then, do we listen to, and hear, this nature, and how does it talk back?

When the Beach Boys recorded the dense, meticulous, and perpetually indefinable Pet Sounds in the period between July of 1965 and April of 1966, recording technicians captured front man and musical ingénue Brian Wilson asking studio engineer Chuck Britz to add to the dog-whistles, organs, double-cellos, and coca-cola cans, a horse:

“Hey, Chuck, is it possible we can bring a horse in here without…if we don’t screw everything up?…Honest to God, now, the horse is tame and everything!”

Brian Wilson’s startling request is set, amongst other surviving clips from the now colloquially-named “Dog Barking Sessions,” to the tune of his two dogs, Banana and Louie, barking excitedly. His request didn’t make the cut on Pet Sounds, but the same two dogs did make it onto the end of “Caroline, No,” one of two singles released before the album itself.

Incorporating the incidental aura of his soundscape into his music is par for the course in Brian Wilson’s oeuvre, but the dogs themselves are specific for their expert ears—lyricist, singer, and Beach Boys co-founder Mike Love, in fact, was said to call Wilson “dog-ears” for their shocking sensitivity. We might consider, with this relationship of happy accident in mind, what the relationship between our “pets” and our “sounds” actually is.

Animals have been imitated in musical compositions for years. I think immediately of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals from 1886, though I’m sure that in vaudeville, minstrelsy, and other popular entertainments, the tradition is much older. Catalyzed at least in part by John Cage’s “4’33” (four minutes and thirty-three seconds of any combination of instruments resting, silent, while the intended audience listens to the ambient noise of their surroundings), the inclusion of animal sounds in rock and roll might similarly serve to blur the distinction between art and the everyday, drawing attention to the textured sounds of the recording environment.

It might also, a la Donna Haraway, query the foundational relationship between human and animal. Since A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway has expanded her conversation about the intersection of human and technology in this, our technofuture, to one that considers our inter-species relationship with dogs. Understanding our relationship to dogs, for Haraway, helps us to understand our ethical relationship to our natural environment. How, then, do we listen to, and hear, this nature, and how does it talk back?

Obviously, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ rapturous “Alligator Wine” isn’t an intentional contribution to zoomusicology (an entire discipline about inter-species musical collaboration!). The endless stream of musical innuendo—rep’d here most overtly by Hasil Adkins’ nasty proto-punk “Chicken Walk” (an innuendo I started to explore in C-H-I-C-K-E-N, Vol. 1), PJ Harvey’s “Snake,” and the Cramps’ “Swing the Big Eyed Rabbit”—is similarly irreverent. Still, the sheer breadth of songs about animals does point to our fascination with animal soundings and symbologies. What is that freaky, low-down “Camel Walk”? What makes the “Milk Cow Blues,” recorded live, here, by the Kinks for their BBC Sessions in 1965, so persistently coverable? How amazing is it that Bikini Kill wrote a song about female self-sufficiency called “Star Fish”?

I’m very into all the tunes on this, the first volume of Sonic Zoo. It’s a loud, weirdo Noah’s Ark, and each song treats its animals differently. Come for Moondog, Daniel Johnston, King Kahn & BBQ and Fred Neil, leave with the dogs, cats, star fish, regular fish, cow, chicken, rabbit, camel, alligator, snake, rat, duck, dolphin. All with Wayne Coyne signing us off: “I thought I’d free the animals all locked up at the zoo.” An ongoing series of animals unchained!