In Conversation With Kristen J. Sollée

Kristen J. Sollée is the author of Witches, Sluts, Feminists, a lecturer at The New School in New York City, and founding editrix of Slutist.com. Sollée kindly agreed to an email interview ahead of the UK release of Cat Call, her second book. Being the cat lady I am, I was thrilled to get my paws on a copy; it’s a well-researched and compelling exploration of the cat archetype and its connection to gender politics in magic, mythology, pop culture, folklore and beyond.

Photo by  Natasha Gornik

ESK First, please tell me about your cat Cherie, to whom you dedicated this book.

KJS Cherie Purrie—a play on Cherie Currie, lead singer of The Runaways—came into my life quite by accident, but at the perfect (*ahem, purrfect) time. I was midway through writing Cat Call, my previous cat had died six months before, and I was in need of something to round out the book. Cherie was in need of a home, and as soon as she moved in I was completely and utterly changed. I had only been living with the cats of partners or friends for years, and having a cat again that I could raise from kittenhood really re-connected me with the power of the cat-human relationship. Much of Cat Call was written with her paws perched on the edge of the laptop, hovering near the delete key. She always seemed to know when to press it.

ESK Other than Cherie, who is your favourite cat? I’m thinking a cat from mythology, religion, literature, pop culture, as opposed to a cat you’ve met in person. 

KJS It’s so hard to choose, but since childhood I’ve been pretty enamoured with the sphinxes of Greek and Egyptian mythology as well as the winged cats in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Catwings series. There’s something about a winged cat that is so appealing, perhaps because the added appendage makes their otherworldliness all the more obvious?

ESK What inspired you to write a book about cats?

KJS When I was writing my first book, Witches, Sluts, Feminists, cats kept coming up in my research. There are long running associations between cats, witches, sexuality, and gender politics, so how could they not? Being the feline devotee that I am, I knew they deserved their own project entirely. (Cats are not known for their sharing abilities.) Cat Call continues the work of WSF around sexual liberation and bodily autonomy and art and politics but through the lens of the cat archetype. You might say I’ve been preparing for this book since I got my first subscription to Cat Fancy at 7 years old...

ESK Why haven’t we the stereotype of the crazy dog lady, or crazy hamster lady—why cats?

KJS It all comes down to the fact that cats have been inextricably entwined with our ideas about femininity and womanhood since the Ancient Egyptians envisioned their goddesses in feline form. (Bastet is the one we think of most, but even Isis and Hathor were sometimes pictured with feline features.) This association was then perverted by Aristotle, who deemed both women and female cats inferior beings, and then Christianity took up the mantle of the demon feminine/demon feline parallel, leading into the early modern witch hunts and finally the crazy cat lady stereotype today. Throughout human history, no animal has been gendered in the way the cat has.

ESK There’s a lack of nuance in people’s perceptions of cats. It seems they are either venerated or feared, considered cute or devious. Why do you think cats, in particular, are so polarising? Do you think this is changing? 

KJS I think it’s impossible to escape the designation of cats as demonic, as tricksters, as bad luck in Euro-American lore. There is also something frustrating about a “domesticated” animal that really won’t do as you say that either appeals to or totally turns off people. Add to that the fact that cats are most often viewed as feminine animals/women’s animals and that cat allergies can be quite nasty, and you’re either going to be firmly for or against them. It might be changing a bit now that there is less stigma attached to cats and “cat ladies” and cats have found such a home online, but I’m not so sure!

ESK Is the internet part responsible for making cat-loving acceptable?

KJS Absolutely. Cat videos reign supreme even after all these years. I mean, the phrase “internet cat video” can be used to conjure up everything we loathe and love about contemporary internet culture or the digital age as a whole.

ESK Many people who identify as rationalists reduce cats, and other animals, to machines incapable of suffering, feeling, and loving. Why do you think that is when science actually shows our cats do love us?

KJS I attribute that to anthropocentrism. One common side effect of rationalism, of positivism—of patriarchy!—is often speciesism, which allows humans to buy into the delusion that our cognitive abilities or cultural accomplishments mean we have more emotional depth than other animals.

ESK What distinguishes a familiar from a pet? Is this a reciprocal relationship or an exploitative one?

KJS To me, a pet is an animal that you care for, and a familiar is a magical partner. People have different definitions of what each means though. Some practitioners I interviewed said they don’t view their cats as familiars because they don’t think it’s ethical to involve them in their magic or leverage their abilities in any way. Other folks felt their cat freely gave them knowledge and insight and that the relationship was purely reciprocal.

ESK You write about how the suppression of the feline coincides with the oppression of the feminine. Do feminists need to liberate animals, too?

KJS I think that animal liberation—which means many things to different people—is certainly tied to feminist action. If feminism is about fighting patriarchy and fighting for gender parity, it makes sense that it also means fighting against the subjugation of animals and for equality amongst all life on the planet.

ESK On the topic of the stereotype that cats are female and dogs are male, you write in Cat Call about how cat-loving is perceived as some a cure for toxic masculinity, and how some people are actively seeking out “cat men”. Is there some truth to the idea that the feline is feminine? In A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote about how “psychological androgyny” is essential to creativity. So many male writers and artists seemed to love cats, as you pointed out Baudelaire, Mark Twain and Freddie Mercury, but also Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, William Burroughs — the list goes on. There’s also the belief in magic circles that magic is feminine. To acquire creative or magical powers, do men need to tap into the feminine?

KJS This is a question I often wrestle with. Ideally, I would love to break away from the masculine/feminine dichotomy in all arenas, and stop applying gender to ineffable energies or practices that don’t require gender at all. That said, dominant cultural ideas about the masculine and the feminine are indeed pervasive and powerful and you could say that we ignore them at our peril. If we associate femininity with creative prowess, with intuition, with receptivity, then absolutely, we need the feminine more than ever to manifest, to make magic.

ESK How can we embrace the feline archetype and what is to be gained from doing so?

KJS Cats are icons of the untamed, of feral appetites that survive despite the constraints of civilisation’s most repressive, controlling functions. I believe these are indeed aspirational aspects to emulate, but how we do that is a bit trickier. Spending dedicated time with your feline allies and watching them closely is a good place to start.

Cat Call is available in the UK from 25 September 2019.