Why Cats Rule the Internet

Yesterday’s Slate article comparing the prominence of dogs in publishing versus the prominence of cats on the Internet strikes a nerve.

If “[d]ogs are boys and cats are girls,” their victory in publishing—an avenue heavily policed by gatekeepers, quite unlike the open road of the World Wide Web—can hardly surprise.

Engber briefly, glibly, considers this possibility (“maybe it’s a gender thing”), then quickly discredits this direction of inquiry by noting that dog and cat writing are both “mostly female-written.” Yet the sex of the author doth not a feminist make.

When I think about literary dogs vs. LOLZcats, my gut’s first guess is that it relates to how dogs have been granted relatively individualized personalities as members of the home (hence novels may be believably written about them) while cats have largely been treated as an adjunct of the house: the mouse-hunting, necessary evil. What does one care to know about the concerns and interest of the household mousetrap?

There are also way more dog-care books than there are cat-care books on the shelves, suggesting that dogs need and deserve attentive human care while the working cat doesn’t. There are also more dog-breed books than cat-breed ones, so—if publishers know what they’re doing—knowledge about the dog must be more marketable than knowledge about the cat. The last time I went to Barnes & Noble, I saw 4-5 shelves on dog care and knowledge, and half a shelf on cat care and knowledge. (Never mind the fact that the books are generally recycled: same formula, updated packaging.)

Engber acknowledges our different treatment of cats and dogs, but justifies the difference with anecdotal generalizations about each species. That is, the boring cat likes “laze” about, to sit and lurk, while the interesting dog, well, we can’t even begin to sum up in a photograph that speaks a thousand words. Engber shrewdly doesn’t commit to this dogs > cats view, but he certainly concentrates on delivering this viewpoint. So “[w]e bond with [cats] in little spurts, like videos on YouTube. Dogs, meanwhile, demand a lasting interaction,” because that’s just what dogs want versus what cats want.

But how true is this? What do you say in the face of evidence that we’ve actively promulgated these kinds of polarized species-based human-animal interactions via centuries of dog (and male) worship and cat (and female) hate?

As I toil over the revision of a paper on the nineteenth century’s intense bifurcation of the cat and dog (for the VSAWC conference on “Victorian Humanity and its Others”), I feel like Engber’s piece is not so different than an 1885 article I’ve just cited.

Maybe in more recent decades (I wonder when it began) one could chart a trend of more and more people treating cats as they would a dog—that we also have “lasting interaction” with kitty. Still, since my dog of 17 years passed away a couple of years ago and I adopted three cats, I have had more people avidly ask after my dog (“What breed was it? I love Pomeranians, squee!”) and stare blankly when I share that I have cats. Mentioning my cats is generally an effective conversation-killer.

I’ve met with direct disbelief when I explain how I pretty much care for my cats as I did my dog. I’ve had to submit video evidence to an Uncle who insisted that cats don’t respond to their name. (The video showed my cat running over to sit and high-five in response to the cues we practiced. My Uncle’s response? “Bah! This isn’t real!”). Only my co-volunteers at the ASPCA have expressed equal interest in my new life with cats.

Dogs are for “companionship” and cats are for “observation,” Engber cites. To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, dogs are good to think and live with, while cats are (only) good to look at.

Unlike Engber, I don’t think this is merely coincidental to the incontrovertible fact that “dogs are boys” and “cats are girls.” The cat’s rule over the Internet may be as much a compliment as the fact that images of hot, sexy ladies “rule” over the porn industry (and the Internet as well).

And just like “no one” wants to see movies about women talking to women about something other than men, “no one” wants to read lengthy treatises about cats doing something that demands more than our greedy, observational consumption.

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