All hail the rise of cat men, an antidote to toxic masculinity
An online movement of men is shrugging off the stereotype that 'cats are for girls' and flaunting their affinity for kitties, writes Hayley Gleeson. And they're giving others permission to embrace a gentler, more thoughtful kind of masculinity.
David Williams's book Men With Cats celebrates cat-owning men.
Myles Loughran is a cat man. 'Cat man' as in, 'cat lady', but with a Y-chromosome. Put another way, Mr Loughran is a man who likes cats — as opposed to a man who likes dogs, say, or miniature pigs.
"There's something about cats," the 29-year-old co-owner of Cat Cafe Melbourne tells ABC News.
"I feel they can give you that real dedication that a lot of animals can't. And even though they can be a bit aloof, when they bond with you, there's nothing like it."
As he speaks, one of the 15 resident felines at the cafe — a large, fluffy, white creature — struts past, its proud confidence commanding our attention.
"That's Jasper," Mr Loughran nods, as another cat curls around his leg. "He's our dominant male."
Though starting a business based entirely on cuddling and playing with cats might be an extreme manifestation of cat love, Mr Loughran represents a burgeoning movement of men who are shaking off the tired stereotype that cat ownership is exclusively a feminine pastime and publicly embracing their affinity for kitties.
Meet Australia's one million cat men
The rise of 'cat men', as they've been dubbed, can mostly be observed on social media, where countless pages exist to document the relationship men of all ages and backgrounds have with their cats.
"For too long, there's been a stereotype about cat guys. Unmanly. More soft than rugged. More feminine than masculine," reads the 'about' section of the It's Okay to be a Cat Guy Facebook page.
"It's time to show the world that it's okay to be a cat guy."
It's also where many celebrities — including comedian and radio host Hamish Blake, singer Ed Sheeran, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld and comedian and actor Russell Brand — post sweet photographs and doting captions of their feline friends.
But while some might dismiss men's pussy PDAs as frivolous, experts say it represents a shift towards a more positive, inclusive masculinity — one which is sorely needed, especially given the impact a more aggressive masculinity — evident in, for example, violence against women — is having on society.
Others might be surprised to learn how common the cat man actually is. Indeed, recent Roy Morgan research shows there are 2.3 million 'cat people' — those who have cats but not dogs — in Australia, one million of whom are men.
The report also found Aussie cat men earn more, on average, than non-cat men; are 29 per cent less likely than the average man to believe 'homosexuality is immoral'; and — contrary to popular misconceptions that cat owners are sad singletons — almost 70 per cent are married or in de facto relationships.
And yet the 'cat men' phenomenon has not been extensively explored in scholarly research — until now.
Why are cats considered feminine?
Dr Heather Fraser, senior lecturer in social work at Flinders University, is currently working on a study of what she calls "feline masculinities" and the rise of cat men on social media — "that is, men depicted as keeping cats, and differently from their predecessors".
The aim of her research, she says, is to explore better understand who cat men around the world are, what popular photos, videos, gifs, and news stories about men with cats reveal about their masculinity, and what such shifts in pet-keeping might tell us about the diversity of gender practices in modern society.
"There are aspects of orthodox masculinity that get in the way of or prohibit ... many men from being able to talk in the same kind of ways about their feelings about animals as women," Dr Fraser tells ABC News.
"So I think it's quite an interesting cultural shift to see especially young men ... taking on cat love and presenting it in ways [on social media] that challenge the stereotype that they're effeminate."
Of course, this stereotype has endured for hundreds of years.
Since at least the 19th century writers have observed that, among English speakers, cats have been associated with females and the feminine, while dogs — "man's best friend" — have been thought of as male, and masculine.
As F.B. Harrison wrote in an article in The Journal of Education in 1891, for example, "The fiery spirit, the loud bark, the watchful temperament of the dog give him always a male aspect; and the sleek sleepiness, the treble mew, the spiteful deceit of the cat combine to render her female in character."
In the early 20th century, illustrations of cats dressed as women were used in American anti-suffrage propaganda to depict suffragettes as silly and incapable of orchestrating a political campaign, and debase their movement.
Cats, like women, were trivial, incapable of and incongruous with seriousness.
And although the spinsters of the Victorian era, ostensibly loveless but for their trademark clowder of cats, have long been buried, their legacy endures; the term 'crazy cat lady' appears so frequently in modern popular culture it has become a cliche.
(It must be noted that while men may be successfully "reclaiming" cat love, women are having a harder time shaking off the negativity of the 'cat lady' label.)
What's behind the rise of cat love?
Dr Fraser attributes the emergence of cat men online to a range of factors: urbanization and the trend towards apartment living, which is conducive to keeping cats; the "rise of the metrosexual" man, who is confident enough in his masculinity to embrace his feminine side — particularly in his fashion choices; and, of course, the internet — original home of the cat meme.
Thanks to social media, Dr Fraser says, men can "join forces with other people sharing cat love. You're not some whacko from whatever town; you are part of an entire network of 'men who love meow' or whatever sort of groups.
"That gives people a lot more license to strut their own stuff, I think."
It may also allow men to express a kinder, more thoughtful form of masculinity they may want, but feel afraid, to embrace.
In fact, evidence suggests doing so will not damage his standing as a man. Recent research has shown that branding a man a 'cat person' does "not diminish his masculinity or heighten his femininity" — despite the fact the stereotype of 'cat people' as feminine has persisted into the 21st century.
(A previous study, in 1998, found that men who were identified as liking cats were rated by participants as less masculine and more feminine than men who liked dogs.)
The study, published in the journal Society and Animals in 2013, found that while a man labelled as a 'dog person' was rated by participants as more masculine than a man labelled as a 'cat person', both labels had "fickle effects on gender-related stereotypes" and neither label negatively affected ratings of likability.
Aussie Cat Men
24% more likely than the average man to vote Greens in the next federal election
29% less likely to believe 'homosexuality is immoral'
14% more likely to identify as 'a bit of an intellectual'
More likely to play board games and read books
Less likely to play sport or visit nightclubs
Source: Roy Morgan Research
This makes sense to Mr Loughran, for whom it has always been perfectly normal for men to like and own cats.
"I've known guys who have owned cats exclusively, and don't like dogs," he says. "To me, it's quite common to go to a guy's house for a beer and find two or three fluffy Persians roaming around."
"Then again," he adds, "that might just be my strange group of friends".
The collective hundreds of thousands of fans of countless social media pages dedicated to cataloguing men's relationships with cats, however, would suggest otherwise.
There's no one way to be a cat man
Take, for example, Brooklyn-based photographer David Williams's Tumblr project-turned-glossy photo book, Men With Cats, which "celebrates cat-owning men and the precious kitties who have stolen their hearts".
Mr Williams, 27, started the project when he was in college in 2009. But when the online community blossomed and he was inundated with photo submissions of men and their cats, he knew he'd tapped into something big, and this year published a book of the same title.
"I found the way society genders animal ownership very compelling," Mr Williams tells ABC News over email.
"Our culture has a weird and terrible habit of assigning gender to pretty much everything — colours, cars, toys — and it's no different for animals. Cats are for girls and dogs are for boys."
Indeed, turning the pages of the book, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no one way to be a 'cat man' — it features portraits of men of all ages and backgrounds and their moggy mates; there are gay cat men, straight cat men, bearded cat men and black cat men.
"Anything that backs away from the stereotype of gender is important," Mr Williams says of the growing acceptability for men to embrace their love of cats.
"Aligning things, animals or people into specific genders is problematic because gender is not always black/white or blue/pink."
Cat men an 'antidote' to toxic masculinity
In fact, Dr Fraser believes this rejection of "old fashioned" gender stereotypes is partly why cat men, many of whom have no qualms revealing their affectionate side, are so attractive to women.
(And it's at least partly why Instagram accounts like Hot Dudes With Cats have so many followers, or why Vanity Fair had Australian actor Chris Hemsworth pose for a cover shoot last year with several handsome long-haired cats.)
Chris Hemsworth's Vanity fair cover shoot
"Usually you have to work to get a cat's affections, and because cats are quite fussy [about cleanliness, for example] you have to think about their needs," says Dr Fraser. (And maybe also accept their independence.)
"Historically, it's always been that men shouldn't have to work hard for anyone's affections — we [women, animals] all just rush to them."
But the rise of cat men is especially significant, Dr Fraser says, because it's an "antidote" to the kind of toxic masculinity which, at its most extreme edges, has been linked with mass shootings and violence against women.
Certainly, when it comes to mainstream representations of 'manliness', the tenderness and vulnerability a man reveals when he poses with a sleepy kitten, and boasts of its cuteness, is rare.
"I think that's a beautiful thing," Dr Fraser says.
"I like to see men defying the narrow straight-jackets of the 'he-men' of the past.
"In amongst all this," she adds, "it's also fun, it's good. And it allows boys that are growing up to have better relationships with cats and, by extension, other kinds of creatures."