Cats and Dogs

Cats and Dogs

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 5 1998 3:30 AM

Cats and Dogs

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Dear Marjorie,

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       Greetings!
       The question of the gendering of cats and dogs is interesting. In my opinion, the increased anthropomorphization of dogs and cats has only served to create problems for both species. Many owners of the toy-dog breeds, for instance, in an attempt to transform their pets into pampered, furry baby humans, end up with troublesome, anti-social canine misfits. Better to let them be dogs and to persuade their owners to appreciate and accept their truer natures.
       Here is a twist on the gender issue: I have found that the gender of a human can often profoundly affect a dog's or a cat's behavior. My mixed-breed dog Louie, for example, prefers women to men (the exception being his beneficent owner). What's your read on this? Cats are also guilty of this innate gender preference, I believe. Several I have owned have preferred the company of men to women. One, perhaps thinking me her spouse, would hiss at and attack my former girlfriend yet would cherish the attentions of any man in her vicinity.
       I must agree that domestic cats do seem to have inherited a feminine mystique, whereas dogs are often thought of as masculine. Is this really demeaning? After all, if it is going to happen, I'd rather my gender be assigned to cats than dogs. Independence and sensual elegance are better attributes than blind obedience any day. Am I really a poster boy for subservience, malleability, and predictability? "Yah, yah, I'll leap in that freezing lake for you! Jump? How high? Run around until I'm totally exhausted? Sure! Anything for you!" Why would any man want to be identified with this? Would any woman?
       For me, the root of the cultural feminization of cats comes not from any negative connotations but rather from an appreciation of feline grace, intelligence, elusiveness, and survivability--qualities most men do seem to (stereotypically?) appreciate in women. We are, after all, animals too.
       By the way, I think it a mistake to take the misogynistic Freud too seriously. His preference of dogs to cats, in my opinion, says much about his boorish need to dominate. Dogs are easier to train and control than cats, and as such, fit nicely into his rather dogmatic world.
       Meanwhile, poor Socks has been usurped by that media hog Buddy, who must surely have an agent and an advance from Random House by now. Too bad, because I think the White House is a crummy place for a Lab. Bill and Hillary are too busy (and stressed) to be anything more than mediocre owners in absentia. Who, then, will take care of and train this active, social pooch? Probably some wise, aged valet, who for the last 40 years has cared for each and every neglected presidential pet, lovingly bringing them White House table scraps after the dog contingent of the Secret Service has retired for the evening. A cat, on the other hand, would enjoy exploring and napping in famous (and infamous) rooms in that big D.C. rental.
       In Show Biz Tricks for Cats, I explain why cats (unlike dogs with pack loyalty) will perform only for food and only when hungry. And the majority of dogs and cats working in show biz are male, due less to the possible distraction of estrus (as most are altered) and more to the fact that the males tend to be slightly more gregarious and willing to perform. It may sound sexist, but we're talking about pets, not people.
       With regard to my feelings on the place of cats and dogs as cultural icons and pets, I think the cat is rapidly becoming not only the pet of choice (particularly in expanding cities) but also a symbol for our increasingly independent and detached culture. As our society becomes more separate (read less pack-oriented) and less family-centered, our choice of pets evolves accordingly, favoring a species that mirrors our increasingly independent, anti-social mentality. They are easier to maintain, less emotionally demanding, and come housebroken from the factory.
       You stated in your book that how we treat animals becomes a litmus test for our "humanness." If that is true, then the great momentum animal-rights causes have enjoyed in the last 20 years should, in fact, indicate that we are becoming a more humane society. Do you believe this to be the case?

Talk to you soon,
Steve

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.