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Curse of the cat women: the trope of the werecat

Contributed by
Nov 23, 2018

Although nowhere nearly as extensively mythologized as werewolves, werecats have been a major part of folklore across the globe. Many are familiar with the Egyptian deities Bast and Sekhmet, sun protector gods that over time transformed from one being to two, with Sekhmet’s followers emphasizing the warrior and Bast’s focusing on healing and protective capabilities. Both female and both bipeds, these were early examples of what could be generally referred to as a werecat, although of course their status as religious symbols differentiates them slightly from the werecats of fiction.

In the modern era, werewolves lend themselves to comprehensive genre studies. The threat of a person losing control of themselves and becoming animalistic, thereby monstrous, has haunted many a folktale, comic, film, and urban legend. The specific terror inspired by a monstrous dog-like creature that is still somehow disturbingly human has been commented on extensively, and how they are used in fiction has had time to evolve and change and become a meta-commentary upon itself in such movies as the Howling sequels, An American Werewolf in Paris, and Ginger Snaps.

In legend, cat people are not generally gender-specific, but in genre, they are consistently female. Indeed, the perceptions of dogs as being masculine and cats being feminine appears to mostly be a construct of the Western world. Modernized takes on cat people almost always portray them as feminine and highly over-sexualized, which implies commentary about how our culture views expressions of female sexuality.

Cat People

Cat People is considered one of the most important films of the early era of horror, particularly due to the fact that its surprising financial success saved RKO from bankruptcy, but also for introducing new tricks to scare audiences that are still used by filmmakers to this very day. The story itself is classic werecat, in which a woman named Irena marries a man named Oliver she’s afraid to give herself to emotionally or physically. Irena sincerely believes that she will transform into a monster if she becomes aroused or angry. Although she does make great efforts to appease her husband’s need for affection, he almost immediately moves on, falling in love with his more “normal” assistant, Alice. Of course, things don’t end well for Irena, but she has the audience’s full sympathy, if not her husband’s.

catpeople

The sequel, Curse of the Cat People, goes far off the rails from the original film in a way that is seldom seen in sequels of the present day. Rather than repeating the formula, the film steers completely away from using cat people at all. Oliver and Alice are happily married, but their daughter Amy lives in a daydream and is unable to function in school. Alienated from her parents, she begins interacting with the ghost of Irena, whose motivations are as mysterious as they ever were. Rather than playing up the existence and influence of feline metamorphosis, the film quite brilliantly focuses in on what manifested as an inherent misunderstanding of Irena to begin with by reflecting it through an innocent child. The theme touches on how society rejects those who don’t fit standard definitions, and it’s incredibly effective in a way that few horror sequels have managed to be either before or since.

In 1982, there was a Cat People remake, which plays around with the themes of the original, but rather than playing up the subtlety of the sequel it goes full-out in the other direction and hyper-sexualizes the cat people. Irena is confronted by her brother Paul, who insists that they must become lovers to avoid taking on human lovers, which can only lead to tragedy. She refuses and instead initiates sex with this film's version of Oliver with the full knowledge that she will transform into a panther when it’s over. Oliver goes on to keep her at the zoo he works at while pursuing a relationship with Alice. In short, Irena is so overwhelmingly sexy she becomes a man-eating panther and must be kept in a cage for the rest of her days by the one man she’s ever slept with. Female sexuality is safer when caged.

Pantha

There are several cat-human hybrids in mainstream superhero comics, although telling them apart isn’t always easy, as they tend to be defined by the characteristics of uncontrollable sexual appetite and barely checked rage. Pantha from the Titans possessed many traits familiar to characters on this list, including a desire to alienate herself from others and push her friends away, seemingly only able to connect with others sexually. This made her more or less the mirror image of the Marvel character and longtime Avenger Tigra, who had been struggling against her own animalistic urges and tendency to root dissent among her fellow superheroes for a good 20 years prior to Pantha’s first appearance. Although both characters have been occasionally revisited, the new takes have proven fruitless when it comes to defining either of them outside of the stereotype.

Cheetah

Wonder Woman's arch-nemesis Cheetah has undergone several different interpretations, beginning as a jealous debutante with a fondness for print patterns but developing eventually into Doctor Barbara Minerva, an archaeologist who is disrespected repeatedly by her male peers and who is cursed with the powers of the Cheetah, the downside of which are an all-encompassing desire to feed on human flesh. In the comics, these powers are connected to menstruation and are put upon her when she refuses to become the bride of a petty god. In Cheetah, these powers are truly uncontrollable, and she sequesters herself away from the rest of the humanity to spare them her rage.

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Feral and Thornn

X-Force’s Feral and her sister Thornn aren’t specifically announced as being cat hybrids, but they possess the characteristics that cat women are often saddled with, including unjustifiable fits of anger, an inability to function in a partnership or team dynamic, and constant bouts of inexplicable moodiness. The two sisters, almost identical, experience a feud with one another over convoluted family drama and murder, then both of them more or less fade from continuity. As with so many characters introduced in the early ‘90s, there was never a strong vision for their development. Feral mostly played the role of rage monster on X-Force, but development beyond that has proved difficult for the writers who have handled the character since. As with many of these entries, this stark one-dimensionality appears to be reflective of an inability to understand feminine anger.

Catseye

Of all the superhero or supervillain cat hybrids, perhaps the most unique was Catseye, a character that frequently appeared in the ‘80s run of Marvel’s New Mutants. A student at the rival school, Emma Frost’s Massachusetts Academy, and a member of the Hellions, a sort of supervillain response to the New Mutants, Catseye stood apart from the general depictions of cat women in some significant ways. To begin with, she was a teenager, and she was not sexualized. Beyond that, her expressions of frustration and anger were no more or less uncontrollable or outrageous than those of her peers. Perhaps the most interesting element of her character came in the implication that she was not a human who possessed cat qualities, but rather a mutated cat that possessed human qualities. Of all the characters on this list, Catseye was the only one that was in touch with a more playful side of the "female cat" persona.

There are some kinder takes on the theme of cat women. Fred Perry’s anime-influenced comic Gold Digger focuses on women in STEM existing in a fantasy world in which most characters are werecats of some kind. Divorced almost entirely from the previous examples, Gold Digger takes werecats in an entirely different, fantasy-oriented direction.

It’s interesting to think of what has been done with the feminized werecat in fiction, but it’s vastly more interesting to consider what might yet still be said. With only a skeletal background of a few distinctly unfeminist tropes, most of which revolve around an intrinsic distrust and fear of feminine power, anger, and need, there’s still quite a bit of potential to turn the trope around and find a more inspirational and empowering message for women who have too long been shamed for their self-expression via such unwieldy metaphors.

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