Pop culture might lead you to believe that becoming a crazy cat lady is a life outcome to be avoided. For confirmation of this belief, you have only to think back to the 2017 fake viral news story of the elderly woman who trained 65 cats to pilfer the neighbors’ homes for jewelry she could pawn. Brooklyn-based photographer BriAnne Wills, however, is on a mission to rewrite the stereotype on feline-friendly females with her wildly successful Instagram photo series. Not only that, she’s part of a long artistic tradition of depicting women with cats.
“You don’t really see a lot of positive representations of cat ladies in the media,” Wills told ABC7NY News recently. Indeed, many famous contemporary characters in some of the most successful TV shows of the last decade fall into the cliché, suggesting getting a cat is synonymous with being unsuccessful. Consider 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, who in a moment of dating destitution gets a cat and joins a seniors-only book club, or Eleanor Abernathy from The Simpsons, who once pursued careers in medicine and law but then burnt out, hit the booze, and wound up with naught for company but countless kitties.
According to Wills, she didn’t set out to capture women with their feline companions. Instead she was doing a nude photoshoot at a model’s home when the master of the house—the cat—barged in and “stole the show,” she said in the interview. Watching this “beautiful woman and her beautiful cat” interact, the photographer decided she wanted to shift the perception of cat ladies the world over. But, as it turns out, what Wills is crafting is not so much a new image, but more a return to one of old.
This idea of the cat-coddling old maid is relatively new development in modern visual culture; what we see from art history is that many an accomplished artist has painted less dour pictures of women fond of their felines. Perhaps one of the more famous examples is Edouard Manet’s iconic Olympia (1863), which presents a young woman—believed to be a Parisian courtesan—in the nude reclining on a bed while a servant delivers her an admirer’s flowers and a black cat stands guard at the foot of her bed.
The work made waves in its day not for its nudity, but for its subject’s unabashedly brazen eye contact with the viewer. In fact, crowds reportedly had to be restrained from ripping it off the wall. Why? It was one of the first instances in the history of art in which a real working woman was depicted as independent and in your face about it—gone were the days of demure demoiselles.
Scholars have spent the last 150 years parsing the meaning of this painting, and most agree the various symbols in it all speak to the sitter’s command of self. This particular quality is emphasized especially by her cat, which historians suggest a sign of prostitution or even witchcraft. Either way, that means she’s a woman in command of her own money, body and mind. And as Kristen J. Sollee points out in her recent book, Witches, Sluts, and Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, misogynist culture has always conflated sexual liberty and magic with radical female independence.
Manet painted plenty of other women with cats, though—his Woman with Cat (1880) is a brushy portrait of a (fully clothed) woman in pink with a tuxedo cat in her lap. Around the same time, Renoir also made his Girl and Cat. The French Impressionists weren’t the only ones to paint kitties with their female sitters, either. Dutch Fauvist Kees von Dongen captured an anonymous short-haired redhead tenderly cuddling her black cat in his Woman With Cat (1908). Even Mark Rothko, one of the leaders of the midcentury American Abstract Expressionist movement, painted a lady with a ginger tabby in his early work from 1933, Woman and Cat.
Wills’ depictions of cat ladies certainly counter the sad, success-less spinster connotations the phrase has taken on over the last century. Her images of young, ambitious and accomplished women playing with their furry friends at home return us to the former and more favorable artistic depictions of self-possessed women with cats from the last turn of the century.
And the “Girls and Their Cats” series, started in 2014, continues to grow at a rapid rate. The photographer now has over 27,000 followers on her Instagram account and she’s bombarded daily with emails from women around the country seeking their picture taken with their favorite felines. But Wills takes it one step further than the white male modernists did, and even provides a necessary and overdue update to contemporary pop-culture caricatures of women fed up with the social rigors of patriarchy and capitalism like Liz Lemon and Eleanor Abernathy—she captures intrepid and independent females and felines having fun.