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Feline Darlings and the Anti-Cute

By Sasha Archibald

“YouTube speaks a tale of catness thoroughly at odds with feline history,” writes Los Angeles–based curator Sasha Archibald. For this contribution to the book, Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong (Coffee House Press, 2015), she looks to art, literature, and pop culture—from Carolee Schneemann to Manet’s Olympia to Felix the Cat—to show how the cat’s status as “cute icon extraordinaire” is recent, supplanting its early role as a symbol of “magical metamorphosis, potent danger, sexual provocation, and impervious autonomy.”


In reply to online cat videos, artist Carolee Schneemann’s Infinity Kisses (1981–1987) arrives like a missive from the past. The piece comprises a nine-by-seven-foot arc of Schneemann kissing her cats, 140 times, in close-up color photographs. These are not sterile pecks on the cheek, but full-throttle French kisses, the kind that distend the neck and leave glistening saliva all around.1 The kisses are framed by pillows and bedclothes, intimate objects on a night table, and Schneemann’s mussed-up hair. Infinity Kisses landed with a silent thud in the art world, seemingly too eccentric and repulsive to warrant attention.2 The piece proved an heir to the cautious repugnance relegated to cat women, those self-elected pariahs who have exchanged human company for feline and carry the molt to prove it.

Schneemann, the creator of the infamous Meat Joy, a 1964 performance involving animal carcasses, and the 1975 Interior Scroll, in which she read from a manuscript extracted from her vagina, has always had a knack for intuiting the point at which contemporary art’s tolerance for transgression shudders and snaps. And yet on the surface, Infinity Kisses seems hardly so outré as these earlier works: no vaginal fluid and no raw meat, only methodical documentation of a cat’s belovedness. In fact, like Schneemann, we love our cats, kiss our cats, and film our cats. Cats play an outsize role in our emotional lives. The puzzle of Infinity Kisses is not that it is a paean to cat devotion to which we can’t relate, but a paean to cat devotion that thoroughly evades the aesthetic of “cute.” Cute is the affect cat photography tends to produce nowadays, and it is certainly the lingua franca of the online cat video. Schneemann’s piece results rather in a squeamish gulp. Like a musty tropical fruit or a beloved cat in heat, Infinity Kisses tips the line between delectable and revulsive.

A handful of writers and critics have recently turned their attention to the cute, plumbing it with the sort of gravitas usually reserved for the beautiful or the just. The provocative sum of these analyses is that the characteristics of cute belie its true essence. Appearances to the contrary, cute is neither petite, sweet, nor vulnerable, but bombastic, evangelical, and sadistic. William Burroughs wrote about control as having an inherent quality of boundless propagation, such that exercising control has the paradoxical effect of begetting more control. Cuteness shares this tendency toward explosive proliferation. As a visual experience, it has the characteristics of addiction; looking at cute things breeds the desire to look at more cute things, such that icons of cute are pasted on points of constant contact: calendars and screensavers, refrigerator magnets and bulletin boards. Moreover, the apex of cuteness is a flexible point, spiraling out further and further. Eyes grow bigger, features rounder, texture more uniform, colors more soft. There is always one critter cuter than another, such that cuteness implies an interminable search and a contest for the ultimate cute, albeit a contest of biased judges who unabashedly proselytize.3 The highest level of praise in the cute lexicon—“Isn’t it cute?”—is a judgment disguised as a question, to which there is only one acceptable answer. Devotees of cute coerce agreement, thrusting their cell phone before your eyes, chirping in a sunny way that silences dissent.

Eventually, cute’s ravenous appetite eclipses functionality. The child is so gussied up she can’t eat or play, and the kittens are wearing bonnets and socks. In Japanese, “kitten writing” describes handwriting so extremely rounded it’s no longer legible.4 Cuteness does not pause and rest content.

The finale of this crescendo effect is the transition from cute as a mode of apprehension to a mode of tactility, from looking to touching. Cute theorist Sianne Ngai argues that touchability is a core property of cuteness, one of its definitive characteristics. Whether animate or inanimate, cute things emit a recognizable siren call, signaling (in their cute way, with a squeak or a whisper) that they want nothing more than a good fondling.5 The commonplace expression of cute, the plush toy, is designed for such bodily manipulations, built for squishing, pressing, squeezing, dragging, and stroking. For a time, my daughter insisted on carrying her stuffed monkey layered beneath her clothes, tucked inside her underwear, a gesture that expressed her great affection even as it suffocated and cannibalized her animal friend. This sort of loving molestation—the very response cute seems to demand—is rooted, argues Daniel Harris, in the sadistic. Cute dolls and animals and toys are specifically deprived of the appendages that would let them fend off touch. In the course of the twentieth century, the arms of stuffed teddy bears grew shorter and shorter, cuter and cuter with each amputation. “Although the gaze we turn on the cute thing seems maternal and solicitous,” writes Harris, it “will stop at nothing to appease its hunger for expressing pity and big-heartedness, even at the cost of mutilating the object of its affections.”6 Poet Frances Richard makes a similar point, employing a kitten to demonstrate (and confess) that the stirrings of the sadistic often follow on the heels of the cute. “It is horrifying,” she writes, “to feel the fragile bones and heartbeat warmth of the actual kitten in one’s hands, and to feel those hands flexing, as if of their own atavistic accord, to crush.”7 Cuteness and cruelty are bedfellows more often than we care to admit.

By positing a cat with agency enough to consensually kiss, Schneemann’s photographs refute cuteness, whereas the ordinary online cat video stokes its fire. The cutest videos are those that depict a cat in a predicament, just as the most beautiful women are those, according to Edmund Burke, who “counterfeit weakness, and even sickness.”8 The index of cuteness is the degree to which an object sheds its power. Nothing possessed of full sentience can be cute, at least not simultaneous to it achieving cuteness.

The aesthetic brokers no autonomy; an objectified subject is prerequisite. No wonder cute’s operational mode is so often photography and video. How, then, did cats become the cute icon extraordinaire? Unlike Hello Kitty or Beanie Babies or Pillow Pets, not only are cats alive— already an impediment to cuteness—but they scratch and bite, use urine as a form of protest, and, perhaps worst of all, kill other cute things. They command attention and accommodation, shamelessly exerting control over an entire household. Cats are notoriously conceited, supremely confident of their dominance. When a cat deigns to offer comfort and companionship, the relationship remains of the cat’s design, contingent on its capricious inclinations. As most cat lovers acknowledge, the cat’s imperviousness is key to its charm. Knowing the object of our attentions will never be subjugated makes its pursuit enjoyable: In chasing the cat’s exquisite not-need, we allow ourselves to need. The tension between human agendas and kitty self-determination lies at the very heart of feline devotion. In a cat-and-mouse-game of our own invention, we attempt subjugation, and the cat resists, over and over and over. With the online cat video, however, our attempts at mastery have acquired their most powerful arsenal to date. Camera in hand, the cat is forced to yield its dignity, abandon its claims to privacy, and finally acquire a reputation wholly counter to its ancestral roots. The ancient cats of myth, literature, art, and even early twentieth-century popular culture bear little semblance to today’s bigeyed kittens. YouTube speaks a tale of catness thoroughly at odds with feline history.

The shift is recent. Even just two hundred years ago, cats were operative symbols of qualities antithetic to cute: magical metamorphosis, potent danger, sexual provocation, and impervious autonomy. Take for instance, the feline’s long-standing association with feminine sexuality. Whereas cute suggests a virginal and yet available sexuality—the aesthetic is a placeholder for the eroticization of succumbing to another’s desire—cats were historically the indicator of women’s self-determined sexual prerogative. The links between pussy the cat and pussy the cunt extend over centuries of folklore, a connective tissue that binds the contemporary Russian punk-protest group Pussy Riot with ancient Egyptian celebrations that honored the cat goddess Bastet. In Herodotus’s account of these festivals, thousands of women crowded onto barges and traveled down the Nile, wildly dancing and drinking wine (more wine, Herodotus noted, than at any other annual holiday). As the barge passed by men on shore, the women flipped up their skirts to reveal nothing underneath. To celebrate the cat was to tout the pussy.

The fairy tale cat is almost always a syllogism for pussy as a provocation. In a Romanian fairy tale, for instance, when a young woman refuses to yield to her lovesick suitor, he is so brokenhearted he commits suicide, and she is punished for his death by being turned into a cat.9 Her feline form becomes a warning to other young women of the dangers of nonconformity; by threat of cat transformation, women yield their bodies. Just as a woman who refuses sex becomes a cat, so does a woman too eager for sex, or a woman who seems to love cats more than sex. Or a spell might command that a young woman become a cat the day of her eighteenth birthday, the symbolic moment at which she could exercise her sexual autonomy. In the reverse, a man who demonstrates kindness to a cat might be surprised with a beautiful lover—a lover who may or may not retain the head of a cat.10 So permeable was the boundary between feminine wiles and kitty cats that in the Salem witch trials, a woman wasn’t considered completely dead until her pet was also murdered.

It is no surprise then that the consummate scene of feminine come hither-ness in art history—Édouard Manet’s Olympia—includes an enigmatic cat. Manet’s nude is in placid repose, her body there for the taking but her sentient feeling concealed. Just as Olympia’s diffident gaze ignores the servant handing her flowers, so does she rebuff the viewer’s attention. Bored and aloof, her tidy hair and rouged cheeks suggestive of perfunctory, rather than amorous, coitus, Olympia’s internal self is pointedly hidden. In Manet’s time, Olympia’s ambivalence was less decodable, and his contemporaries instead seized on the cat at the foot of the bed. It was the pet cat, they decided, that made plain the subterranean gist of Manet’s intention. The animal that punctuates the scene in Manet’s model for the painting, Titian’s The Venus of Urbino, is a fluffy white lapdog nestled in the sheets—a symbol, art historians report, of marital fidelity. Manet’s animal accent is Titian’s opposite: a black cat. Hair on end, tail stiff, back arched, with electric yellow eyes, the cat appears agitated or even aroused, the sort of matted-fur, caterwauling animal more at home in an alley than a lady’s bed. The cat was exaggerated in cartoons that mocked the painting, depicted as much larger and more central to the composition, the spike of the fur exaggerated and the tail shooting straight up. Chat noir had since the Renaissance been a euphemism for women’s genitalia, such that Manet’s audience directly linked the private parts clamped beneath Olympia’s palm with the arching black cat by her dirty ankles. Given the symbolic import of chat noir, the painting was indeed as pornographic as its detractors claimed. Manet’s friend Émile Zola, one of the painter’s few defenders and himself no stranger to calculated provocation, marveled at the audacity of it: “[T]o have put such a cat into that painting, why, [Manet] must have been insane. Imagine that! A cat—and a black cat at that!”11

As Zola perceived, it was the cat in combination with the nude—a nude depicted as a naked woman rather than an idealized female form— that signaled the degree to which Manet was flouting convention. And flouting convention, in turn, became the enduring reputation of the cat. Although “pussy” is still crude slang for a woman’s sex, cats in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were more likely to be used as symbols of nonconformity—when the powerful labor union Industrial Workers of the World needed an emblem of strike, they chose a cat. This symbology helps explain the cat’s enduring alliance with artists and writers, and why certain gatekeepers of high culture have no qualms contributing to the schmaltzy genre of cat books and cat art. Many times over, catloving literati, particularly Francophile cat-loving literati, have been tallied, photographed, and quoted; their ranks include the most accomplished of thinkers. The cat is the preferred pet of the cultural elite, naturally gifted with qualities creatives like to claim for themselves: insouciance to public opinion, for instance, and unshakable self-assurance. In the famous title essay of Under the Sign of Saturn, Susan Sontag describes writer and critic Walter Benjamin with terms that might have been just as well applied to Benjamin’s (imaginary) cat: “secretiveness,” “feelings of superiority,” a tendency toward “scrupulous manipulation,” and “faithlessness.”12 Sontag herself so successfully emulated the cat that she was pictured in memoriam as “a big lady she-cat [basking] in the sun.”13

The qualities intellectuals celebrate in the cat are the same ones others denigrate. Whereas the nineteenth-century American relationship between slave and master, for instance, had been commonly understood as that between a man and his dog—a dog had to be trained, disciplined, and controlled and would render useful service in return—blacks who exercised new freedoms upset this imagery; as a result, they were suddenly characterized as cats: ungovernable, disobedient, uncomprehending of order and decorum. The feline comparison was extensively used to discredit progressive social thought that advocated racial equality. In Thomas Dixon’s 1902 novel The Leopard’s Spots, a white reformer is mocked when her interlocutor, a Southern preacher, points out that she endowed a home for homeless cats before she took up the Negro cause, the implication being that both projects are equally stupid. “Training black men,” writes Jennifer Mason, was perceived to be “as futile and idiotic as training cats.”14 Cats and blacks were almost interchangeable in the writings of scientist Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, the author of several influential books on racial difference, who also published on the animal kingdom. Shaler hated cats—“the only animal which has been tolerated, esteemed, and at times worshipped without having a single distinctly valuable quality”—for the same reason he hated blacks. Both exhibited, he said, a lack of loyalty, an “inability to be trained,” and a stubborn resistance to domestication.15

Whether an honorable or dishonorable rebel, the cat was ready at hand when cartoonists began experimenting with animation cells. It was a perfect marriage: a genre that could graphically depict changeability and a notion of cats as freewheeling, capricious rogues. Felix the Cat debuted in 1919 with a combination of genre, style, and species that was pitch perfect. “It seems as though the cat’s personality,” writes animation historian Donald Crafton, “was understood and appreciated almost overnight.”16 For nearly a decade, Felix cartoons were screened near constantly in cinemas around the world, inspiring merchandise spinoffs, sports mascots, military insignia, mixed drinks, pop songs, bars, and restaurants. (It was Felix who evidenced the creative potential and audience appeal of animation, paving the way for Disney’s menagerie, which began, incidentally, with a short-lived character named Julius—a cat who looked so similar to Felix that Disney scuttled the character after a lawsuit and staked its fortunes instead on the cat’s rodent nemesis.) In these early cartoons, Felix is unfettered by home or family, geography or time. Conveyed by a wisp of smoke or a surge of volcanic magma, Felix travels the world and beyond, visiting outer space, the depths of the sea, fairy tale land, and back in time. Even his bodily integrity is provisional; he melts, dissolves, and coagulates, detaching his tail to use it as a knife or a toothbrush or a scooter and becoming something other than a cat whenever escape is paramount: a lady’s hat, a can of salmon, a dirigible, a block of ice.

Despite the comedy of his predicaments, Felix cartoons often hint at their firsthand war experience of animator and audience, particularly in Felix’s many journeys beyond the pale. Felix’s capacity for reincarnation— a holdover of the fairy tale cat of seven lives—must have softened the misanthropy of a character who finds so many ingenious ways to commit suicide. Compare Felix’s suicide mission to that strange figment of twentieth-century catness: Tigger, of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Striped like a tiger but with a character clearly modeled on a kitten, Tigger is best known for his spastic enthusiasm and paean to durability (written by Disney, not Milne): “Tiggers are wonderful things! Their tops are made out of rubber, their bottoms are made out of springs!” He chants this rhyme on repeat, punctuating it with a hysterical giggle. Whereas Felix feels the burden of living, Tigger, with a coiled spring attached to his rear, would no more wish to die than a pogo stick.

Many animated cats followed, but Felix was the swan song of a metonymical relationship between a fictive, personified cat and an age-old understanding of catness. Cats were on the cusp of a momentous transition toward greater passivity—if not in their actual disposition, then in relation to their human companions. In the next few decades, a series of scientific innovations (vaccines, insecticides, reproductive surgery), in tandem with the birth of the pet industry (cat food, kitty litter, pet accouterments), brought about great changes in pet-keeping.17 The shift was quietly presaged by Charlotte Gilman’s Herland, a 1915 account of a futurist utopia. Among the peculiarities of Herland, Gilman explains that the inhabitants have only cats as pets (no dogs), specifically only cats that do not cry. In Gilman’s fantasy, Herland’s felines have been bred as perfect pets: they purr but never meow or howl, register pleasure but never request it. In 1915, the notion of a made-to-please cat was as radical an idea as female separatism, and yet far closer to becoming reality.

First, a vaccine for the common and fatal disease of feline distemper dramatically extended cats’ life spans and presumably made cat owners more inclined to attach to their pets. Feline-human intimacy also became more profuse with an insecticide for fleas. Without threat of fleabites, cats were welcome to sleep in the family bed and sun themselves on the couch. Veterinarians turned their practices from livestock to pets and began to offer spaying and neutering, relieving cat owners of the annoyances of an animal in heat and the nasty task of murdering kittens. Cat food appeared on supermarket shelves in the prosperous years after WWII. At about the same time, kitty litter was first marketed. In the space of just a few decades, cats that had taken regular sojourns outside—to mate, hunt, and use the bathroom—now took none at all, their cosseted lives beginning and ending inside the front door.

In tandem with newfangled inventions like dry pet food, public health initiatives in family planning resulted in smaller families. Choosing to abstain from the demand of a child did not, however, ameliorate the need to have something to love, and cats—small, tidy, low maintenance— proved the perfect candidate. The emotional rapport between cat and keeper was further deepened by the animal welfare movement. Clubs for children that promoted animal kindness (Bands of Mercy), and a surge of popular literature written in the animal first person endowed pets with sentient selves, albeit of human design. The conceit of dressing animals in human costume was astoundingly successful in curtailing animal abuse—Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty ranks among the best-selling books of all time—but there were other, less happy consequences. By invoking Christian notions of charity and mercy, the animal welfare movement necessarily positioned felines as defenseless and vulnerable. On the upside, cats were no longer drowned; on the downside, they were perceived as creatures that had been rescued from drowning. Cats play this role awkwardly; feline grandeur does not mesh well with the humility expected of a supplicant. Yet absorbing such tension is precisely where cuteness shines: “the conventions of cuteness,” writes Harris, “are the residue of unfulfilled wishes.”18 In sum, the pet cat was bridled by human heartstrings and tugged further from the wild and closer to the hearth, until finally— contained in the home, cosseted from discomfort, served a special menu, stripped of sexual prerogative, and subject to the same degree of devotion as a child—the cat was primed for viral stardom.

The original online cat video is not a video, but a little-known art film, produced the same year kitty litter hit the supermarket: Alexander Hammid (née Hackenschmied) and Maya Deren’s The Private Life of a Cat.19 In their twenty-five-minute silent short, Hammid and Deren film their cat, Glamour Girl (or Gigi for short), giving birth and tending to five kittens. Gigi’s cardboard box labor is as lowly and sublime as a biblical birth in a manger. She cozies up as her kittens spool out from folds of pink flesh, ectoplasmic bundles of slime. She licks them into life and their fur spikes up; they flop about, nosing for a teat. When a placard indicates two weeks have passed, Gigi carries each by the scruff of its neck to an unused fireplace, where the kittens learn to walk and climb and lap cream from a saucer. Deren is deservedly celebrated as the grande dame of avant-garde film, and even this whimsical piece is stately and honorific. The shots are beautifully framed—shafts of light in a Hollywood bungalow—and the editing is witty and charming. Yet, like its less-polished cousin films, The Private Life of a Catprojects a version of catness that has little to do with cats. In peeking in on the cat’s interior self, Hammid and Deren find no trace of alterity, but rather the familiar saga of an idealized mother. For all its delight, The Private Life of a Cat trespasses the privacy of a cat to satisfy the vanities of a human. Coddled and cuddled and photographed ad nauseam, cats like Gigi will soon be pressed in the mold of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Pray we don’t return to a time when children are indulged in setting cats on fire. And yet, are the sticky moans of cuteness endemic to cat love? Are there other ways to treasure an animal?

It’s a dangling question, unresolved even in regards to human babies, let alone cats. There is, however, one apropos suggestion by the late philosopher Jacques Derrida. The cat could be restored its dignity, he suggests, by occasionally reversing the spectral terms of the human-feline relationship. In a late lecture, Derrida analyzes the primal scene of his adulthood: he is undressed, preparing to get in the shower, and his cat appears. The animal stares at Derrida’s naked body, gazing like a sphinx, or “an extra-lucid blind person.”20 The cat’s gaze induces a cataclysm of discomfit. Derrida feels mortification and shame, he writes, but also a sense of momentousness. The encounter stages a threshold. He and the cat are frozen in space and time, eyes locked in a quiver of interspecies communication. “Something happens there,” writes Derrida, “that shouldn’t take place.”21 (Indeed, a similar scene, described in Edgar Allen Poe’s 1843 story The Black Cat, is the stuff of horror. The narrator becomes so unnerved by his cat’s gaze he savagely puts out its eye.)22

It is only when this moment dissolves, Derrida reflects, that he can visit animals in a zoo, or enjoy paintings of animals, or stroll through dioramas at the natural history museum, or read about animals in a book, or, presumably, gorge on online cat videos. Gazing into the cat’s eyes holds in abeyance these other forms of looking, such that the cat is allowed, briefly, to be something other than a toy or a surrogate or entertainment, something more majestic, peculiar, and potent … something more cat. Henceforth, a new requirement: Before producing or consuming a depiction of catness, one must first submit to the gaze of the cat. Assume the posture of “a child ready for the apocalypse”: naked, no camera allowed, ego tucked between the legs.23 Don’t be surprised that should the apocalypse arrive, the cat will take its vengeance on cute. Brace yourself for an interspecies French kiss.


Notes
1Infinity Kisses I (1981–1987) was followed by a second photo grid, Infinity Kisses II (1990–1998), and by a video, Infinity Kisses—The Movie (2008), which incorporates images from the two photo works.
2Infinity Kisses builds on explorations Schneemann took up twenty years earlier with Fuses (1965–1968), the premise of which, as Schneemann describes, was to visualize her sex life through the eyes of her cat, Kitch. Schneemann filmed herself with her partner at the time, composer James Tenney, and then assiduously marked the 16mm footage with heat, water, paint, and ink. The final product is a sex film that lacks the hallmarks of a sex film—no fetishized nude and no drive toward climax—and instead captures the texture of lovemaking, rendered as a series of flickering affects. Human sex from a cat’s perspective seems innocuous enough as a description, but for two decades, Fuses outraged audiences. At a screening in Cannes, theatergoers ripped apart the seat cushions in disgust. At another in El Paso, Texas, the projectionist was assaulted and arrested. As recently as 1988, the film was cancelled from the program of a film festival in Moscow.
3 Artist Nina Katchadourian’s Continuum of Cute literalizes this contest by arranging one hundred animals in a linear trajectory (least cute to most cute) and inviting viewers to do the same.
4 Frances Richard, “Fifteen Theses on the Cute,” Cabinet, Summer 2001, 96.
5 Sianne Ngai, introduction to Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 1–52.
6 Daniel Harris, Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 6.
7 Richard, “Fifteen Theses on Cute,” 95.
8 Edmund Burke, “On the Sublime and Beautiful,” in Harvard Classics, vol. 24, ed. Charles W. Eliot, LL.D (New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company, 1909), 29–137.
9 This fairy tale is the subject of a book-length Jungian analysis by Marie-Louise Von Franz, The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1999).
10 Sylvia Townsend Warner cleverly scrambles these fairy-tale motifs in her novel The Cat’s Cradle Book, in which a woman stumbles upon a remote cottage inundated with cats and inhabited by an enigmatic man. To atone for a past sin—he was so irritated by his cat in heat, he dumped water on her head and she subsequently died—the man has taught himself cat language in order to study cat folktales. He makes love to his visitor (with a decidedly feline technique), and asks her to share the burden of his task.
11 John F. Moffitt, “Provocative Felinity in Manet’s Olympia,” Notes in the History of Art vol. 14, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 21–31.
12 Susan Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Macmillan, 2013), 18–19.
13 Terry Castle, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” London Review of Books vol. 27, no. 6 (March 17, 2005): 17–20.
14 Jennifer Mason, Civilized Creatures: Urban Animals, Sentimental Culture, and American Literature, 1850–1900 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 142.
15 Ibid., 141. The creators of Felix the Cat exploited racist stereotypes to increase the comedic appeal of the character. Felix was the brainchild of Pat Sullivan, whose first venture into the business was an animated version of Little Black Sambo, from the eponymous 1899 children’s book by Helen Bannerman. Sullivan depicted Sambo with inky black skin, thick lips, buckteeth, and a swollen belly. Sullivan’s commercial success with Sambo was interrupted by a jail sentence—he was convicted of raping a fourteen-year-old—and upon his release, he set the character aside and launched Felix the Cat. His depiction of Felix, however, also relied on various stereotypes of African American culture, albeit of the exotic type. The cartoons established Felix’s edgy sensibility by drawing on hallmarks of 1920s Harlem. Felix’s nickname, for instance, is Jazz Baby, and in a print advertisement for the cartoon, Felix learns the “Black Bottom,” a dance from the rural South that made its way to Hollywood via Harlem. See Patricia Vettel Tom, “Felix the Cat as Modern Trickster,” American Art vol. 10, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 64–87; and John Canemaker, Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World’s Most Famous Cat (New York: Pantheon, 1991). 16 Donald C. Crafton, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898–1928 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 307.
17 Katherine C. Grier, Pets in America (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books, 2006).
18 Harris, Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic, 15.
19 Hammid is credited as the director, but later said the film was Deren’s idea and that they worked together. Deren is the sole author of an introduction to the film included with the dvd Maya Deren: Experimental Films (Mystic Fire Video, 2002).
20 Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry vol. 28, no. 2 (Winter 2002): 369–418. In the scene Derrida describes, he is frontally naked, and the cat, he emphasizes, is not an abstraction or an archetype but a singular cat with a singular personality: his cat. Peter Trachtenberg writes about the exact same moment in his memoir, Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2012), describing it as one of exquisite vulnerability. Stroking the cat while naked combines two postures—defensive protectiveness and demonstrative affection—that are otherwise inimical.
21 Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” 369–418.
22 In several respects, Poe’s story draws on real customs of seventeenth-century France, detailed in Richard Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre (New York: Basic Books, 1984). For instance, it was believed that the trick to disabling a cat’s powers of sorcery was to maim it: “Cut its tail, clip its ears, smash one of its legs, tear or burn its fur, and you would break its malevolent power” (92, 94). In the same period, live cats were bricked into the mortar of new homes, a custom believed to protect the hearth. Poe’s feline character suffers an identical fate, except it remains alive, meowing from inside a wall to betray his master.
23 Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” 369–418.


“Feline Darlings & the Anti-cute” is reprinted with permission from Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright ©2015 Sasha Archibald

Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong

Inspired by the Internet Cat Video Festival and published by Coffee House Press, this new collection of 14 essays invites a conversation about art, technology, and what makes cats the Internet’s cutest despots. Edited by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz, it features writings by David Carr, Jillian Steinhauer, Alexis Madrigal, Carl Wilson, and others.

Carolee Schneemann, Infinity Kisses II (Vesper), 1990–1998

Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York

Aubrey Beardsley, The Black Cat, 1901

Library of Congress General Collections (NC1115.B43)

Vogue ad, 1969

From the collection of the author

Vintage Pussy Flip Up Peep Book, c. 1894, view when closed

From the collection of the author

Vintage Pussy Flip Up Peep Book, c. 1894, view when open

From the collection of the author

Vintage postcard

From the collection of the author

“Felix Learns the Black Bottom,” from Photoplay, January–June 1927

Digitized by the Internet Archive in 2009 with funding from Media History Digital Library

Unknown photographer, Felix the Cat toy—Nielsen Park Beach, Sydney, NSW, 1926

Courtesy State Library of New South Wales

Play Girls on Parade, date unknown

From the collection of the author

Still from Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s The Private Life of a Cat, 1947

Carolee Schneemann, Infinity Kisses II (Vesper) (detail), 1990–1998

Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York