“YouTube speaks a tale of catness thoroughly at odds with feline history,” writes Los Angeles–based curator Sasha Archibald. For this contribution to the book, Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong (Coffee House Press, 2015), she looks to art, literature, and pop culture–from Carolee Schneemann to Manet’s Olympia to Felix the Cat–to show how the cat’s status as “cute icon extraordinaire” is recent, supplanting its early role as a symbol of “magical metamorphosis, potent danger, sexual provocation, and impervious autonomy.”
In reply to online cat videos, artist Carolee Schneemann’s Infinity
Kisses (1981–1987) arrives like a missive from the past. The piece comprises
a nine-by-seven-foot arc of Schneemann kissing her cats, 140 times, in
close-up color photographs. These are not sterile pecks on the cheek,
but full-throttle French kisses, the kind that distend the neck and leave
glistening saliva all around.1 The kisses are framed by pillows and bedclothes,
intimate objects on a night table, and Schneemann’s mussed-up
Kisses landed with a silent thud in the art world, seemingly too
eccentric and repulsive to warrant attention.2 The piece proved an heir to
the cautious repugnance relegated to cat women, those self-elected pariahs
who have exchanged human company for feline and carry the molt to
Schneemann, the creator of the infamous Meat Joy, a 1964 performance
involving animal carcasses, and the 1975 Interior Scroll, in which
she read from a manuscript extracted from her vagina, has always had a
knack for intuiting the point at which contemporary art’s tolerance for
transgression shudders and snaps. And yet on the surface, Infinity
seems hardly so outré as these earlier works: no vaginal fluid and no raw
meat, only methodical documentation of a cat’s belovedness. In fact, like
Schneemann, we love our cats, kiss our cats, and film our cats. Cats play an
outsize role in our emotional lives. The puzzle of Infinity
Kisses is not that
it is a paean to cat devotion to which we can’t relate, but a paean to cat
devotion that thoroughly evades the aesthetic of “cute.” Cute is the affect
cat photography tends to produce nowadays, and it is certainly the lingua
franca of the online cat video. Schneemann’s piece results rather in a
squeamish gulp. Like a musty tropical fruit or a beloved cat in heat, Infinity
Kisses tips the line between delectable and revulsive.
A handful of writers and critics have recently turned their attention
to the cute, plumbing it with the sort of gravitas usually reserved for
the beautiful or the just. The provocative sum of these analyses is that
the characteristics of cute belie its true essence. Appearances to the contrary,
cute is neither petite, sweet, nor vulnerable, but bombastic, evangelical,
and sadistic. William Burroughs wrote about control as having an
inherent quality of boundless propagation, such that exercising control
has the paradoxical effect of begetting more control. Cuteness shares this
tendency toward explosive proliferation. As a visual experience, it has the
characteristics of addiction; looking at cute things breeds the desire to
look at more cute things, such that icons of cute are pasted on points of
constant contact: calendars and screensavers, refrigerator magnets and
bulletin boards. Moreover, the apex of cuteness is a flexible point, spiraling
out further and further. Eyes grow bigger, features rounder, texture
more uniform, colors more soft. There is always one critter cuter than
another, such that cuteness implies an interminable search and a contest
for the ultimate cute, albeit a contest of biased judges who unabashedly
proselytize.3 The highest level of praise in the cute lexicon—“Isn’t it
cute?”—is a judgment disguised as a question, to which there is only one
acceptable answer. Devotees of cute coerce agreement, thrusting their
cell phone before your eyes, chirping in a sunny way that silences dissent.
Eventually, cute’s ravenous appetite eclipses functionality. The child is so
gussied up she can’t eat or play, and the kittens are wearing bonnets and
socks. In Japanese, “kitten writing” describes handwriting so extremely
rounded it’s no longer legible.4 Cuteness does not pause and rest content.
The finale of this crescendo effect is the transition from cute as a
mode of apprehension to a mode of tactility, from looking to touching.
Cute theorist Sianne Ngai argues that touchability is a core property of
cuteness, one of its definitive characteristics. Whether animate or inanimate,
cute things emit a recognizable siren call, signaling (in their cute
way, with a squeak or a whisper) that they want nothing more than a good
fondling.5 The commonplace expression of cute, the plush toy, is designed
for such bodily manipulations, built for squishing, pressing, squeezing,
dragging, and stroking. For a time, my daughter insisted on carrying her
stuffed monkey layered beneath her clothes, tucked inside her underwear,
a gesture that expressed her great affection even as it suffocated and cannibalized
her animal friend. This sort of loving molestation—the very
response cute seems to demand—is rooted, argues Daniel Harris, in the
sadistic. Cute dolls and animals and toys are specifically deprived of the
appendages that would let them fend off touch. In the course of the twentieth
century, the arms of stuffed teddy bears grew shorter and shorter,
cuter and cuter with each amputation. “Although the gaze we turn on the
cute thing seems maternal and solicitous,” writes Harris, it “will stop at
nothing to appease its hunger for expressing pity and big-heartedness,
even at the cost of mutilating the object of its affections.”6 Poet Frances
Richard makes a similar point, employing a kitten to demonstrate (and
confess) that the stirrings of the sadistic often follow on the heels of the
cute. “It is horrifying,” she writes, “to feel the fragile bones and heartbeat
warmth of the actual kitten in one’s hands, and to feel those hands flexing,
as if of their own atavistic accord, to crush.”7 Cuteness and cruelty are
bedfellows more often than we care to admit.
By positing a cat with agency enough to consensually kiss, Schneemann’s
photographs refute cuteness, whereas the ordinary online cat video stokes
its fire. The cutest videos are those that depict a cat in a predicament,
just as the most beautiful women are those, according to Edmund Burke,
who “counterfeit weakness, and even sickness.”8 The index of cuteness is
the degree to which an object sheds its power. Nothing possessed of full sentience can be cute, at least not simultaneous to it achieving cuteness.
The aesthetic brokers no autonomy; an objectified subject is prerequisite.
No wonder cute’s operational mode is so often photography and video.
How, then, did cats become the cute icon extraordinaire? Unlike
Hello Kitty or Beanie Babies or Pillow Pets, not only are cats alive—
already an impediment to cuteness—but they scratch and bite, use urine
as a form of protest, and, perhaps worst of all, kill other cute things. They
command attention and accommodation, shamelessly exerting control
over an entire household. Cats are notoriously conceited, supremely confident
of their dominance. When a cat deigns to offer comfort and companionship,
the relationship remains of the cat’s design, contingent on its
capricious inclinations. As most cat lovers acknowledge, the cat’s imperviousness
is key to its charm. Knowing the object of our attentions will never
be subjugated makes its pursuit enjoyable: In chasing the cat’s exquisite
not-need, we allow ourselves to need. The tension between human agendas
and kitty self-determination lies at the very heart of feline devotion.
In a cat-and-mouse-game of our own invention, we attempt subjugation,
and the cat resists, over and over and over. With the online cat video, however,
our attempts at mastery have acquired their most powerful arsenal
to date. Camera in hand, the cat is forced to yield its dignity, abandon its
claims to privacy, and finally acquire a reputation wholly counter to its
ancestral roots. The ancient cats of myth, literature, art, and even early
twentieth-century popular culture bear little semblance to today’s bigeyed
kittens. YouTube speaks a tale of catness thoroughly at odds with
The shift is recent. Even just two hundred years ago, cats were
operative symbols of qualities antithetic to cute: magical metamorphosis,
potent danger, sexual provocation, and impervious autonomy. Take
for instance, the feline’s long-standing association with feminine sexuality.
Whereas cute suggests a virginal and yet available sexuality—the
aesthetic is a placeholder for the eroticization of succumbing to another’s
desire—cats were historically the indicator of women’s self-determined
sexual prerogative. The links between pussy the cat and pussy
the cunt extend over centuries of folklore, a connective tissue that
binds the contemporary Russian punk-protest group Pussy Riot with
ancient Egyptian celebrations that honored the cat goddess Bastet. In Herodotus’s account of these festivals, thousands of women crowded
onto barges and traveled down the Nile, wildly dancing and drinking
wine (more wine, Herodotus noted, than at any other annual holiday).
As the barge passed by men on shore, the women flipped up their
skirts to reveal nothing underneath. To celebrate the cat was to tout
The fairy tale cat is almost always a syllogism for pussy as a provocation.
In a Romanian fairy tale, for instance, when a young woman refuses
to yield to her lovesick suitor, he is so brokenhearted he commits suicide,
and she is punished for his death by being turned into a cat.9 Her feline
form becomes a warning to other young women of the dangers of nonconformity;
by threat of cat transformation, women yield their bodies. Just
as a woman who refuses sex becomes a cat, so does a woman too eager for
sex, or a woman who seems to love cats more than sex. Or a spell might
command that a young woman become a cat the day of her eighteenth
birthday, the symbolic moment at which she could exercise her sexual
autonomy. In the reverse, a man who demonstrates kindness to a cat might
be surprised with a beautiful lover—a lover who may or may not retain the
head of a cat.10 So permeable was the boundary between feminine wiles
and kitty cats that in the Salem witch trials, a woman wasn’t considered
completely dead until her pet was also murdered.
It is no surprise then that the consummate scene of feminine come
hither-ness in art history–Édouard Manet’s Olympia–includes an enigmatic
cat. Manet’s nude is in placid repose, her body there for the taking
but her sentient feeling concealed. Just as Olympia’s diffident gaze ignores
the servant handing her flowers, so does she rebuff the viewer’s attention.
Bored and aloof, her tidy hair and rouged cheeks suggestive of perfunctory,
rather than amorous, coitus, Olympia’s internal self is pointedly hidden.
In Manet’s time, Olympia’s ambivalence was less decodable, and his
contemporaries instead seized on the cat at the foot of the bed. It was the
pet cat, they decided, that made plain the subterranean gist of Manet’s
intention. The animal that punctuates the scene in Manet’s model for
the painting, Titian’s The Venus of Urbino, is a fluffy white lapdog nestled
in the sheets—a symbol, art historians report, of marital fidelity. Manet’s
animal accent is Titian’s opposite: a black cat. Hair on end, tail stiff, back
arched, with electric yellow eyes, the cat appears agitated or even aroused,
the sort of matted-fur, caterwauling animal more at home in an alley than
a lady’s bed. The cat was exaggerated in cartoons that mocked the painting,
depicted as much larger and more central to the composition, the
spike of the fur exaggerated and the tail shooting straight up. Chat noir
had since the Renaissance been a euphemism for women’s genitalia, such
that Manet’s audience directly linked the private parts clamped beneath
Olympia’s palm with the arching black cat by her dirty ankles. Given the
symbolic import of chat noir, the painting was indeed as pornographic as
its detractors claimed. Manet’s friend Émile Zola, one of the painter’s few
defenders and himself no stranger to calculated provocation, marveled at
the audacity of it: “[T]o have put such a cat into that painting, why, [Manet]
must have been insane. Imagine that! A cat—and a black cat at that!”11
As Zola perceived, it was the cat in combination with the nude—a
nude depicted as a naked woman rather than an idealized female form—
that signaled the degree to which Manet was flouting convention. And
flouting convention, in turn, became the enduring reputation of the cat.
Although “pussy” is still crude slang for a woman’s sex, cats in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were more likely to be used as
symbols of nonconformity—when the powerful labor union Industrial
Workers of the World needed an emblem of strike, they chose a cat. This
symbology helps explain the cat’s enduring alliance with artists and writers, and why certain gatekeepers of high culture have no qualms contributing
to the schmaltzy genre of cat books and cat art. Many times over, catloving
literati, particularly Francophile cat-loving literati, have been tallied,
photographed, and quoted; their ranks include the most accomplished of
thinkers. The cat is the preferred pet of the cultural elite, naturally gifted
with qualities creatives like to claim for themselves: insouciance to public
opinion, for instance, and unshakable self-assurance. In the famous title
essay of Under the Sign of Saturn, Susan Sontag describes writer and critic
Walter Benjamin with terms that might have been just as well applied
to Benjamin’s (imaginary) cat: “secretiveness,” “feelings of superiority,” a
tendency toward “scrupulous manipulation,” and “faithlessness.”12 Sontag
herself so successfully emulated the cat that she was pictured in memoriam
as “a big lady she-cat [basking] in the sun.”13
The qualities intellectuals celebrate in the cat are the same ones
others denigrate. Whereas the nineteenth-century American relationship
between slave and master, for instance, had been commonly understood
as that between a man and his dog—a dog had to be trained, disciplined,
and controlled and would render useful service in return—blacks who
exercised new freedoms upset this imagery; as a result, they were suddenly
characterized as cats: ungovernable, disobedient, uncomprehending
of order and decorum. The feline comparison was extensively used
to discredit progressive social thought that advocated racial equality. In
Thomas Dixon’s 1902 novel The Leopard’s Spots, a white reformer is mocked
when her interlocutor, a Southern preacher, points out that she endowed
a home for homeless cats before she took up the Negro cause, the implication
being that both projects are equally stupid. “Training black men,”
writes Jennifer Mason, was perceived to be “as futile and idiotic as training
cats.”14 Cats and blacks were almost interchangeable in the writings of scientist
Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, the author of several influential books
on racial difference, who also published on the animal kingdom. Shaler
hated cats—“the only animal which has been tolerated, esteemed, and at
times worshipped without having a single distinctly valuable quality”—for
the same reason he hated blacks. Both exhibited, he said, a lack of loyalty,
an “inability to be trained,” and a stubborn resistance to domestication.15
Whether an honorable or dishonorable rebel, the cat was ready at
hand when cartoonists began experimenting with animation cells. It was a perfect marriage: a genre that could graphically depict changeability
and a notion of cats as freewheeling, capricious rogues. Felix the Cat
debuted in 1919 with a combination of genre, style, and species that was
pitch perfect. “It seems as though the cat’s personality,” writes animation
historian Donald Crafton, “was understood and appreciated almost
overnight.”16 For nearly a decade, Felix cartoons were screened near constantly
in cinemas around the world, inspiring merchandise spinoffs,
sports mascots, military insignia, mixed drinks, pop songs, bars, and
restaurants. (It was Felix who evidenced the creative potential and audience
appeal of animation, paving the way for Disney’s menagerie, which
began, incidentally, with a short-lived character named Julius—a cat who
looked so similar to Felix that Disney scuttled the character after a lawsuit
and staked its fortunes instead on the cat’s rodent nemesis.) In
these early cartoons, Felix is unfettered by home or family, geography or
time. Conveyed by a wisp of smoke or a surge of volcanic magma, Felix
travels the world and beyond, visiting outer space, the depths of the sea,
fairy tale land, and back in time. Even his bodily integrity is provisional;
he melts, dissolves, and coagulates, detaching his tail to use it as a knife
or a toothbrush or a scooter and becoming something other than a cat
whenever escape is paramount: a lady’s hat, a can of salmon, a dirigible,
a block of ice.
Despite the comedy of his predicaments, Felix cartoons often hint
at their firsthand war experience of animator and audience, particularly
in Felix’s many journeys beyond the pale. Felix’s capacity for reincarnation—
a holdover of the fairy tale cat of seven lives—must have softened
the misanthropy of a character who finds so many ingenious ways to commit
suicide. Compare Felix’s suicide mission to that strange figment of
twentieth-century catness: Tigger, of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Striped
like a tiger but with a character clearly modeled on a kitten, Tigger is
best known for his spastic enthusiasm and paean to durability (written by
Disney, not Milne): “Tiggers are wonderful things! Their tops are made out
of rubber, their bottoms are made out of springs!” He chants this rhyme
on repeat, punctuating it with a hysterical giggle. Whereas Felix feels the
burden of living, Tigger, with a coiled spring attached to his rear, would no
more wish to die than a pogo stick.
Many animated cats followed, but Felix was the swan song of a metonymical
relationship between a fictive, personified cat and an age-old
understanding of catness. Cats were on the cusp of a momentous transition
toward greater passivity—if not in their actual disposition, then in
relation to their human companions. In the next few decades, a series of
scientific innovations (vaccines, insecticides, reproductive surgery), in tandem
with the birth of the pet industry (cat food, kitty litter, pet accouterments),
brought about great changes in pet-keeping.17 The shift was quietly
presaged by Charlotte Gilman’s Herland, a 1915 account of a futurist utopia.
Among the peculiarities of Herland, Gilman explains that the inhabitants
have only cats as pets (no dogs), specifically only cats that do not cry.
In Gilman’s fantasy, Herland’s felines have been bred as perfect pets: they
purr but never meow or howl, register pleasure but never request it. In
1915, the notion of a made-to-please cat was as radical an idea as female
separatism, and yet far closer to becoming reality.
First, a vaccine for the common and fatal disease of feline distemper
dramatically extended cats’ life spans and presumably made cat owners
more inclined to attach to their pets. Feline-human intimacy also became
more profuse with an insecticide for fleas. Without threat of fleabites, cats
were welcome to sleep in the family bed and sun themselves on the couch.
Veterinarians turned their practices from livestock to pets and began to
offer spaying and neutering, relieving cat owners of the annoyances of an
animal in heat and the nasty task of murdering kittens. Cat food appeared
on supermarket shelves in the prosperous years after WWII. At about the
same time, kitty litter was first marketed. In the space of just a few decades,
cats that had taken regular sojourns outside—to mate, hunt, and use the
bathroom—now took none at all, their cosseted lives beginning and ending
inside the front door.
In tandem with newfangled inventions like dry pet food, public
health initiatives in family planning resulted in smaller families. Choosing
to abstain from the demand of a child did not, however, ameliorate the
need to have something to love, and cats—small, tidy, low maintenance—
proved the perfect candidate. The emotional rapport between cat and
keeper was further deepened by the animal welfare movement. Clubs for
children that promoted animal kindness (Bands of Mercy), and a surge
of popular literature written in the animal first person endowed pets
with sentient selves, albeit of human design. The conceit of dressing animals
in human costume was astoundingly successful in curtailing animal
abuse—Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty ranks among the best-selling books
of all time—but there were other, less happy consequences. By invoking
Christian notions of charity and mercy, the animal welfare movement necessarily
positioned felines as defenseless and vulnerable. On the upside,
cats were no longer drowned; on the downside, they were perceived as
creatures that had been rescued from drowning. Cats play this role awkwardly;
feline grandeur does not mesh well with the humility expected of a
supplicant. Yet absorbing such tension is precisely where cuteness shines:
“the conventions of cuteness,” writes Harris, “are the residue of unfulfilled
wishes.”18 In sum, the pet cat was bridled by human heartstrings
and tugged further from the wild and closer to the hearth, until finally—
contained in the home, cosseted from discomfort, served a special menu,
stripped of sexual prerogative, and subject to the same degree of devotion
as a child—the cat was primed for viral stardom.
The original online cat video is not a video, but a little-known art
film, produced the same year kitty litter hit the supermarket: Alexander
Hammid (née Hackenschmied) and Maya Deren’s The Private Life of a Cat.19
In their twenty-five-minute silent short, Hammid and Deren film their
cat, Glamour Girl (or Gigi for short), giving birth and tending to five kittens.
Gigi’s cardboard box labor is as lowly and sublime as a biblical birth in a manger. She cozies up as her kittens spool out from folds of pink flesh, ectoplasmic bundles of slime. She licks them into life and their fur
spikes up; they flop about, nosing for a teat. When a placard indicates two
weeks have passed, Gigi carries each by the scruff of its neck to an unused
fireplace, where the kittens learn to walk and climb and lap cream from a
saucer. Deren is deservedly celebrated as the grande dame of avant-garde
film, and even this whimsical piece is stately and honorific. The shots are
beautifully framed—shafts of light in a Hollywood bungalow—and the
editing is witty and charming. Yet, like its less-polished cousin films, The
Private Life of a Cat projects a version of catness that has little to do with
cats. In peeking in on the cat’s interior self, Hammid and Deren find no
trace of alterity, but rather the familiar saga of an idealized mother. For all
its delight, The Private Life of a Cat trespasses the privacy of a cat to satisfy
the vanities of a human. Coddled and cuddled and photographed ad nauseam,
cats like Gigi will soon be pressed in the mold of America’s Funniest
Home Videos. Pray we don’t return to a time when children are indulged in
setting cats on fire. And yet, are the sticky moans of cuteness endemic to
cat love? Are there other ways to treasure an animal?
It’s a dangling question, unresolved even in regards to human babies,
let alone cats. There is, however, one apropos suggestion by the late philosopher
Jacques Derrida. The cat could be restored its dignity, he suggests,
by occasionally reversing the spectral terms of the human-feline
relationship. In a late lecture, Derrida analyzes the primal scene of his
adulthood: he is undressed, preparing to get in the shower, and his cat appears. The animal stares at Derrida’s naked body, gazing like a sphinx, or
“an extra-lucid blind person.”20 The cat’s gaze induces a cataclysm of discomfit.
Derrida feels mortification and shame, he writes, but also a sense
of momentousness. The encounter stages a threshold. He and the cat are
frozen in space and time, eyes locked in a quiver of interspecies communication.
“Something happens there,” writes Derrida, “that shouldn’t take
place.”21 (Indeed, a similar scene, described in Edgar Allen Poe’s 1843 story
The Black Cat, is the stuff of horror. The narrator becomes so unnerved by
his cat’s gaze he savagely puts out its eye.)22
It is only when this moment dissolves, Derrida reflects, that he can
visit animals in a zoo, or enjoy paintings of animals, or stroll through
dioramas at the natural history museum, or read about animals in a book,
or, presumably, gorge on online cat videos. Gazing into the cat’s eyes holds
in abeyance these other forms of looking, such that the cat is allowed,
briefly, to be something other than a toy or a surrogate or entertainment,
something more majestic, peculiar, and potent . . . something more cat.
Henceforth, a new requirement: Before producing or consuming a depiction
of catness, one must first submit to the gaze of the cat. Assume the
posture of “a child ready for the apocalypse”: naked, no camera allowed,
ego tucked between the legs.23 Don’t be surprised that should the apocalypse
arrive, the cat will take its vengeance on cute. Brace yourself for an
interspecies French kiss.
1 Infinity Kisses I (1981–1987) was followed by a second photo grid, Infinity Kisses II (1990–1998), and by a video, Infinity Kisses—The Movie (2008), which incorporates images from the two
2 Infinity Kisses builds on explorations Schneemann took up twenty years earlier with Fuses
(1965–1968), the premise of which, as Schneemann describes, was to visualize her sex life through
the eyes of her cat, Kitch. Schneemann filmed herself with her partner at the time, composer
James Tenney, and then assiduously marked the 16mm footage with heat, water, paint, and ink.
The final product is a sex film that lacks the hallmarks of a sex film—no fetishized nude and
no drive toward climax—and instead captures the texture of lovemaking, rendered as a series of
flickering affects. Human sex from a cat’s perspective seems innocuous enough as a description,
but for two decades, Fuses outraged audiences. At a screening in Cannes, theatergoers ripped apart the seat cushions in disgust. At another in El Paso, Texas, the projectionist was assaulted
and arrested. As recently as 1988, the film was cancelled from the program of a film festival in
3 Artist Nina Katchadourian’s Continuum of Cute literalizes this contest by arranging one
hundred animals in a linear trajectory (least cute to most cute) and inviting viewers to do the
4 Frances Richard, “Fifteen Theses on the Cute,” Cabinet, Summer 2001, 96.
5 Sianne Ngai, introduction to Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2012), 1–52.
6 Daniel Harris, Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism (New York:
Basic Books, 2000), 6.
7 Richard, “Fifteen Theses on Cute,” 95.
8 Edmund Burke, “On the Sublime and Beautiful,” in Harvard Classics, vol. 24, ed. Charles
W. Eliot, LL.D (New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company, 1909), 29–137.
9 This fairy tale is the subject of a book-length Jungian analysis by Marie-Louise Von
Franz, The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1999).
10 Sylvia Townsend Warner cleverly scrambles these fairy-tale motifs in her novel The Cat’s
Cradle Book, in which a woman stumbles upon a remote cottage inundated with cats and inhabited
by an enigmatic man. To atone for a past sin—he was so irritated by his cat in heat, he
dumped water on her head and she subsequently died—the man has taught himself cat language
in order to study cat folktales. He makes love to his visitor (with a decidedly feline technique),
and asks her to share the burden of his task.
11 John F. Moffitt, “Provocative Felinity in Manet’s Olympia,” Notes in the History of Art vol. 14,
no. 1 (Fall 1994): 21–31.
12 Susan Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Macmillan, 2013), 18–19.
13 Terry Castle, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” London Review of Books vol. 27, no. 6 (March
17, 2005): 17–20.
14 Jennifer Mason, Civilized Creatures: Urban Animals, Sentimental Culture, and American
Literature, 1850–1900 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 142.
15 Ibid., 141. The creators of Felix the Cat exploited racist stereotypes to increase the
comedic appeal of the character. Felix was the brainchild of Pat Sullivan, whose first venture
into the business was an animated version of Little Black Sambo, from the eponymous 1899
children’s book by Helen Bannerman. Sullivan depicted Sambo with inky black skin, thick lips,
buckteeth, and a swollen belly. Sullivan’s commercial success with Sambo was interrupted by a
jail sentence—he was convicted of raping a fourteen-year-old—and upon his release, he set the
character aside and launched Felix the Cat. His depiction of Felix, however, also relied on various
stereotypes of African American culture, albeit of the exotic type. The cartoons established Felix’s
edgy sensibility by drawing on hallmarks of 1920s Harlem. Felix’s nickname, for instance, is Jazz
Baby, and in a print advertisement for the cartoon, Felix learns the “Black Bottom,” a dance from
the rural South that made its way to Hollywood via Harlem. See Patricia Vettel Tom, “Felix the Cat
as Modern Trickster,” American Art vol. 10, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 64–87; and John Canemaker, Felix:
The Twisted Tale of the World’s Most Famous Cat (New York: Pantheon, 1991).
16 Donald C. Crafton, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898–1928 (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1993), 307.
17 Katherine C. Grier, Pets in America (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books, 2006).
18 Harris, Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic, 15.
19 Hammid is credited as the director, but later said the film was Deren’s idea and that they
worked together. Deren is the sole author of an introduction to the film included with the dvd
Maya Deren: Experimental Films (Mystic Fire Video, 2002).
20 Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” trans. David
Wills, Critical Inquiry vol. 28, no. 2 (Winter 2002): 369–418. In the scene Derrida describes, he is
frontally naked, and the cat, he emphasizes, is not an abstraction or an archetype but a singular
cat with a singular personality: his cat. Peter Trachtenberg writes about the exact same moment
in his memoir, Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons (Boston: Da Capo Press,
2012), describing it as one of exquisite vulnerability. Stroking the cat while naked combines two
postures—defensive protectiveness and demonstrative affection—that are otherwise inimical.
21 Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” 369–418.
22 In several respects, Poe’s story draws on real customs of seventeenth-century France,
detailed in Richard Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre (New York: Basic Books, 1984). For instance,
it was believed that the trick to disabling a cat’s powers of sorcery was to maim it: “Cut its tail,
clip its ears, smash one of its legs, tear or burn its fur, and you would break its malevolent power”
(92, 94). In the same period, live cats were bricked into the mortar of new homes, a custom
believed to protect the hearth. Poe’s feline character suffers an identical fate, except it remains
alive, meowing from inside a wall to betray his master.
23 Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” 369–418.
“Feline Darlings & the Anti-cute” is reprinted with permission from Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright ©2015 Sasha Archibald