Cats and Dogs

Cats and Dogs

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 3 1998 3:30 AM

Cats and Dogs

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Dear Steve,

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       Hello. Unlike some other participants in Slate dialogues, we haven't met, so our conversations will be based, presumably, on what we've read of each other's work, and what we develop in the course of this interchange. All to the good. Let me state the obvious to get it out of the way, and say that I don't expect that we will fight like cats and dogs, for two reasons: First, because I agree with most of what you have to say in TheEverything Cat Book about cats vs. dogs as pets (your deep affection for your dogs comes through, especially when you describe the new adoptee who destroyed $1,500 worth of furniture and rugs; the younger of my two golden retrievers is running a tab that now approaches $8,000--including two different sets of emergency repairs to an antique Oriental rug I inherited from my grandmother). Second, because, in my experience, cats and dogs don't actually fight that much--at least with one another. They're rather more likely to fight members of their own species. "Cat fight" and "dog eat dog" are proverbial phrases at least as accurate as fighting (or raining) like cats and dogs.
       Having mentioned cat fights, let me introduce the question of gender. Why are cats so often gendered female in the cultural imagination, while dogs are gendered male? For hundreds of years "cat" has meant a spiteful or backbiting woman and even a prostitute (see "cathouse"), though the approving 20th-century slang term "cat," for a regular guy (presumably from the jazz aficionado "hep cat") is male. Freud famously (or infamously) describes narcissism as typical of women, children, "great criminals and humorists,"--and cats. He himself adored dogs, and turned to them as his only reliable friends in his later years. Many of his dogs were female, but he doesn't use the concept "dog" (faithful, unswervingly loyal, capable of pure love, in his account of them) to describe women. What I'm describing here is not, of course, the "reality" of cattiness and dogginess, but the way cats and dogs have been taken over, symbolically appropriated, by human culture. That's what especially interests me: what our ideas about dogs (and cats) can tell us about human culture. Gender, after all, is a human construct, a set of attributes, culture rather than nature. (Biology--sex--is nature. Or so they say.)
       What sex is Socks the cat? As a cultural critic of such things, I should know--but I don't. Buddy, the chocolate lab, is certainly male. His name couldn't be more emblematic: It evokes campfire sing-alongs and sagas of male-male friendship, whether in war or in Hollywood movies. And we were soon treated to photo ops of Buddy golfing with the president, Buddy swimming in the Caribbean (no complaints about how he looked in swimming gear), Buddy and the president on a contemplative walk--the very emblem of leashed-in, respectful power in repose.
       This brief media fascination with Buddy the first dog, though it was all too soon succeeded by that of Monica the first intern, provoked--as you'll recall-- a good deal of speculation about Bill Clinton's state of mind. Was he bored with the presidency, now that he was well into his second term and prohibited from running for a third? Was he suffering from empty-nest syndrome now that Chelsea was away at Stanford? Was he seeking a photogenic and media-friendly companion for public display, or a comforting and nonjudgmental partner at home? Other presidents, from Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt to Nixon, Johnson, and Bush, used their dogs (beloved as they may have been) to humanize themselves in the public eye. Think not only of the notoriously bathetic (and politically effective) Checkers speech, but of the great noncommunicator, George Bush, announcing that "Millie went paws up." A nation wept. Have there been other presidential cats? No doubt. But do they live in history? As you yourself observe in describing the feline temperament, cats may be above the particular kind of emotional neediness that drives the quest for fame.
       Speaking of war, Hollywood movies, and presidential reputations, I went to see the uncannily prescient film Wag the Dog. Despite the title, I hardly expected to find an actual dog on the screen, since, as I had noted in my book Dog Love, the cliché about the tail wagging the dog was a commonplace of American slang and especially of modern political rhetoric.
       In Wag the Dog, the cat--or rather, kitten--is an inspired prop for the manufactured footage of war in Albania: A young "peasant" girl, cringing from the (virtual) sounds of bombs and sirens, dashes across a (virtual) bridge cradling a (virtual) kitten in her arms. Why a kitten? The animal wranglers on the set urge him to use a dog, or a puppy. But savvy producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) is a good reader of cultural signs. Kitten here says transient, female, and even slightly foreign or exotic. Steve, I see that you've written a book called Show Biz Tricks for Cats. Any views on this?
       As for the dog, it appears at the very end of the film, following the casket of the manufactured war hero. Dog plus dead hero plus flag combined, as the producer and the spin doctor agreed, make the patriotic tableau of a lifetime. No cat would have the automatic impact--let's call it ideological--of home and even America that dogs have acquired in our culture. So Wag the Dog seemed, in a way, to be announcing the truth about cats and dogs more than, say, The Truth About Cats and Dogs.
       Obviously some of the most famous movie dogs and other dogs in history have been female (Lassie is an ambivalent example, since as you know she was always played by male "actors"). It's not the real identities so much as the cultural associations of cats and dogs that fascinate me. If we're going to explore this particular binary opposition or dichotomy, one that has had a long and honorable history in literature as well as in popular culture and everyday life, I'd be interested to know what you think about the place of "cats," "dogs," and "cats and dogs"--as concepts and cultural icons as well as companions and pets.

Yours,
Marge

Marjorie Garber is the William R. Keenan Jr. Professor of English at Harvard University and director of Harvard's Center for Literary and Cultural Studies. She is author of Dog Love

The Everything Cat Book

Show Biz Tricks for Cats

To purchase Dog Love from Amazon.com, click here. To purchase The Everything Cat Book from Amazon.com, click here.