Like their hair, cats are everywhere. Even just a cursory glance around the internet reveals one big furball-sized insight into modern society: We’re obsessed with cats. Felines rule the web, making headlines — even accidentally — inspiring countless memes, and becoming famous for simply being grumpy. We live in a world where a clip of a Pop-Tart-bodied cat flying through space goes viral. Where Lil' Bub and her friendz win Best Feature Film at the online arm of the Tribeca Film Festival.
But why? Cats are cute (or not), sure — but there’s something deeper that draws us to these furry (or not) creatures: We want to be like them. We can relate to (and envy) cats' inherent nature in a way that we can't with any other animal. Cats pull off something that most humans can only dream of doing: to be exactly who we are and do exactly what we feel like at every moment, without shame.
Our fascination is nothing new. T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats from the 1930s spurred Andrew Lloyd Weber a few decades later to compose an entire musical devoted to cats. Even further back, an Irish monk and a poet in a mental asylum penned odes to their beloved pets. In the late 1800s, this guy and this guy were anthropomorphizing cats long before Reddit made it slightly less weird. Today, some 86.4 million Americans own a cat (versus 78.2 million dog owners). In 2010, Sanrio, one of the biggest shillers of cat paraphernalia, had a gross revenue of $969.6 million. The company relies on Hello Kitty for 80% of its overseas licensing revenue and 60% of its revenue in Japan, and that cat can be found on more than 50,000 products worldwide.
The kitteh sensation exploded on the internet simply because the web provided the best forum for cat-lovers. “In the world of cats, there is no dog park,” Steve Dale, a cat-behavior consultant and pet journalist, told The New Republic last year. “For cat owners, the dog park is the internet.” The web is where crazy cat ladies and mild feline enthusiasts can collide to squee over the strange activities that excite our four-legged friends. Curiosity isn't so much what killed the cat as what drives one: Like humans, cats want to know everything — What is this? Why is it here? What benefits does it offer me? No matter if it's a catnip mouse toy or the meaning of life, investigation cat will investigate.
Cats do whatever they feel like, and they own it. They eat half a lizard and leave the rest on your bed. They're fickle with their affections. They watch you get undressed. They sleep on your head. They freak out over boxes, and they don’t give a shit if anything they do isn't cool or appropriate.
"Cats seem totally comfortable being exactly what they are, and they are totally alive to the moment, which is something we, as humans, have lost sight of, though we are trying to get back to that enlightened state," mused Burnell Yow!, Nora The Piano Cat's personal assistant, in 2010, the year Nora was featured on the syndicated TV show Wild About Animals.
They're private hedonists. They're selfish. They don't want to please you — you have to earn their respect. Cats have tapped into an ultimate lifestyle, with no rules, no social restrictions, and no boundaries, to which we can only wish for access. Humans may never achieve the same enlightenment. For now, we must simply be content with obsessing endlessly over their purr-fection.