Rest in Grumpiness: Cats as Refuseniks
(This is an unpublished piece I wrote five years. I'm offering it now, unmodified, as a tribute on the occasion of the passing of Tardar Sauce aka Grumpy Cat.)Names like Grumpy Cat, Henri, Lil Bub, and Maru may ring but the faintest of bells, you’ll have encountered at least one of these icons on social networks or by clicking an emailed link. Through videos and captioned images or ‘memes’ with viewing figures in the gazillions, these felines along with fellow celebs like Colonel Meow, Keyboard Cat, Business Cat, and Nyan Cat are the undisputed maestros of web culture. Dedicated sites like ‘ICanHasCheezburger,’ ‘Catster’ and, yes, The Fluffington Post proliferate but if you need a primer, the Guardian has listed the internet’s most influential cats.The question of why ‘the internet is made of cats’ has exercised digital punditry for a while now. Theories abound: felines are ‘weapons of mass cuteness’; cat-lovers can congregate online like dog people at parks; producers of internet culture are geeky introverts who identify with cats. Yet cuteness is not unique to cats and that their internet followings vastly outstrip their real life ones, where canines remain top dogs. Why do fibre optic felines garner more attention than their ‘meatspace’ counterparts?
It’s not a definitive answer—internet cat-mania entertains variety—but the startling rise and continuing reign of the virtual feline might also have something to do with our historical moment and the deeply felt but often unarticulated political hankerings it has produced in us. In the face of relentless pressure to conform and consent within a system of where freedom comes down to consumer choice, crotchety cats have come to embody naysaying. With science too indicating that cats, unlike humans, have evolved ‘to ignore’ demands, culture celebrates their recalcitrance. Routinely figuring cats as alienated and curmudgeonly dissenters from the status quo, many of the internet’s most popular themes and memes are quintessentially countercultural in aspiration. ‘I will be my own cat’, vows ennui-ridden Henri Le Chat, condemned to profundity in a world of ingratiating ‘morons’; Grumpy Cat’s famously scowling visage notes that she ‘had fun once. It was awful’; a glowering Colonel Meow wishes you ‘Merry KissmyAss’. And like many successful countercultural idols, all three have been swiftly co-opted by corporate entities and now act as spokescats for pet food giants, Henri protesting his ‘thieving filmmaker’s’ capitulation.
The representation of cats as rebels and refuseniks has a long history in popular culture: think of folktale witches and black cats, TS Eliot’s Macavity, or Ry Cooder’s Buddy traversing America with Lefty the Rat, ‘a red cat till I die.’ Theirs is a view from the unassimilated margins or, as Anthony Lane notes in this year’s Big New Yorker Book of Cats, ‘a new angle from which to pronounce, with a lightly modulated hiss, upon the infinite gradations of human sin.’ While drawing on this tradition, the internet’s many disobliging and sarcastic felines are also quite specifically products of our time, antidotes to distinctly contemporary malaises. Cocking a snook at ‘happiness indices’ and ‘wellbeing statistics’, which make contentment practically compulsory, the cats of the internet are defiantly displeased with the order of things. They are not unconditionally congenial, positive, or emollient, such disagreeability being culturally unacceptable for modern humans. Certainly no satisfied consumers, ‘kittehs’ scorn most offerings. Depression is not a disorder; it is a necessary response to a dispiriting world. Even moments of pleasure—say, at a patch of sunlight—are laced with lugubrious reminders like Class War Kitteh’s ‘shame that global corporations are trying to pollute our air and destroy our planet.’ While imperiously demanding ‘solidarity with workers’ ahead of strikes and demonstrations, internet cats, much like their real life counterparts, are notoriously disdainful of the work regimes which elicit our unhappy compliance.
From Occupy Wall Street’s ‘We are the 99 Purrcent’ to Civil Disobedience Cat crouching by a Do Not Sit Here sign, and from ‘Cats Not Cuts!’ to ‘Capitalism? U Gotta Be Kitten Me,’ displeased felines have become mutinous mascots, popularising dissent at a time when capitalism is in crisis but cogent popular alternatives still nascent. Minimally, they provide humorous outlets for disgruntlement with actual cats becoming ballot box draws, from tabby Hank who wants humans ‘voted out’ of the US Senate to Mexico’s Morris appealing to voters ‘tired of rats.’ Dissing established authority—grammar, gods and bosses— internet cats are turning into gurus of resistance even as they are appropriated, predictably enough, by the forces of merchandising. Film scholar Rosalind Galt argues that cats in visual culture are ‘not avatars for the human but contain a unique capacity to remove us from human vision.’ Perhaps by rejecting the human-made world as it exists while yet appealing to our ability to imagine alternatives, the internet’s feline dissenters hiss at us that another way to be--unreconciled, unconsoled, relentlessly immune to bullshit--is possible.