Who’s Really Nuts, 20/20 or the ‘Crazy Cat Ladies’?

You don’t have to be single to have lots of cats.

Posted Nov 15, 2009

The ABC show 20/20 recently treated its viewers to an all-out condescending pity-party for the women it calls ‘crazy cat ladies.' The segment hosted by Elizabeth Vargas, with an accompanying article online, was so over-the-top that it was almost a parody of itself.

The article begins this way:

"Single. Female. Three cats.

Red flag! For most people, the combo invites the label Cat Lady, says Christie Callan-Jones, a filmmaker."

Vargas interviewed the filmmaker about "Cat Ladies," her documentary of four women with cats. Here are some of the quotes you will hear in the 20/20 piece, or the preview of it, and I swear I'm not making up any of them:

  •  "shadowy lives of cat ladies"
  •  "shadowy existence consumed by an uncontrollable connection to cats"
  •  These women "struggle with alienation, loss, and loneliness"
  •  She (one of the cat ladies) "feels like society has thrown her away"
  •  She (another cat lady) is "protecting herself with a wall of cats"
  •  "I'm starting to fall apart"
  •  The cats "aren't making it any easier for her to find a man."

Fortunately, the viewers were having none of it. The 175 comments posted (so far) to the online story are overwhelmingly excoriating. They take on Vargas, 20/20, and the filmmaker for the stereotyping of cat lovers, the disregard of the number of strays and the good some of these women were trying to do by caring for them, and much more.

I wrote previously about the bogus claim that singles who love their pets are just "compensating" for not having a spouse. That post was called, "What's with the cat, and other questions about singles and their pets."

Here I'll underscore just one big complaint about the 20/20 segment, the online story, and what I could tell about the documentary from these sources: They all create a gratuitous link between being single and being a crazy cat lady. All four of the women in the film and in the TV segment are single. As I mentioned in my previous post on the topic, I don't know of any research on the link between marital status and cat ownership. But neither I nor Elizabeth Vargas nor the filmmaker needs to read a study to know that:

  •  there are both single people and married people who have cats;
  •  there are both single and married people who have lots of cats; and
  •  there are both single and married people who are intensely devoted to their cats.

Around just this story of cat ladies, we have a 20/20 segment, a preview of the segment, an online story, and a link to a documentary, all of which link single people - and ONLY single people - to being crazy, lonely, alienated, thrown away, and falling apart. That's all on one day, and all linked to just one network. It's a telling example of how singlism is perpetrated without apology and maybe even without awareness.

I'll end with my usual qualification: I'm not saying that people with pets, or people who are single, are never lonely or alienated or anything else. What I am saying that it is wrong and inaccurate to engage in stereotyping, by creating a piece in which ALL of the "crazy cat ladies" are single, lonely, and broken, and none of them are married. Kudos to the many married people who added their comments online at ABC, noting that they, too, are cat people.

[Thanks to Monica Pignotti for the links to all these related instances of singlism. And on another note, my post about how expectations shape behavior has generated so many thoughtful stories that were contributed to the comments section, as well as emails sent to me privately, that I will surely take up the topic again in the future. I'll probably address the question of how to deal with those kinds of interactions. So if you have ideas, please add them to the comments section of that post or email them to me. If you send them by email, let me know if I can thank you by name if I mention your ideas at some point.]