Sun, Dec 24, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Men versus cats -- have they ever stood a chance?

With the cat food industry in the UK valued at £700 million, and adverts costing £1 million to make, it could be argued cats are fast becoming a feminist issue

By Barbara Ellen  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Men versus cats -- have they ever stood a chance? Men, I mean.

In the latest round in the battle for female affections, the filmmaker Martha Fiennes has been hired to direct a "blockbuster." A £1 million (US$1.96 million) commercial for Sheba cat food here in the UK.

Based on Alice in Wonderland, it will feature a "Cheshire cat" prancing around heroically, only with whiskers and a tail ("And all because the lady loves fishy breath.")

Spokespeople have declared the ad is aimed at women drawn to "free-spirited feline mysticism," and that single female cat owners, who outnumber men four to one, tend to see a parallel between their pet's independent spirit and their own yearnings to be liberated, sophisticated and fashionable (a "Sex and the Kitty" kind of deal.)Tiddles, it seems, has arrived in fine Hollywood style to tick all the boxes of the feminine subconscious. That's if, for many women, he has ever been away.

I'm not sure whether I'm drawn to "free-spirited feline mysticism" (is that a branch of Kabbalah?), but I am a lifelong cat fan. Indolent, beautiful, arrogant, with "fuck you" eyes, that's my kind of animal.

Still, what does it say about British womankind that advertisers have decided that cat food is a way to get the ladies excited? The last time a huge sum was spent on a commercial aimed directly at women it was the Baz Luhrmann epic for Chanel No 5. Pretentious tosh that depicted Nicole Kidman wafting around in a couple of nice dresses, and cost £8 million.

At least, though, that was for perfume, which presumably means that, by and large, women were still interested in smelling nice, and attracting a human(ish) mate. By contrast, the Sheba advert is all but rubbing itself up against your leg, and purring -- "Forget men, they're bastards, they'll only let you down. Cats are where it's at for all your emotional and spiritual needs." The horrible thing is, even if it's not true, who can blame women for wanting to believe it?

Now, while there may be exceptions, the vast majority of single female cat owners do not tend to spend every night dressing their cats up in Victorian nightdresses, kissing them straight on the mouth and talking to them as if they were longed-for IVF babies. (That only happens on Saturday night.) And they don't love their cats because they are "substitute" boyfriends or children, they love them precisely because they are cats.

Were a cat to display "male" or "childlike" qualities (watching late-night cricket half asleep in their pants, or blocking the loo up with Duplo) we would be horrified. If anything, it is probably much more likely that a new man would find himself treated as a "substitute cat" -- fed, tickled, played with, cosseted but (eventually, sadly) passed on to another poor sucker when all the efforts to "house train" him just didn't work.

Which could go some way to explaining the longstanding male antipathy towards cats. Even in the context of a relationship, there always seems to be an awful lot of moaning about the slightly "fragrant" litter trays, or "the murderous way that thing looks at me."

In centuries gone by, they burnt women as witches for liking cats. Now single female cat lovers are simply branded "on the shelf" as they float by in the supermarket, with their trolleys full of Sheba. Though admittedly, there does tend to be a slight thawing in male-feline relations when actresses such as Halle Berry and Michelle Pfeiffer dress up in tight rubber catsuits (one wonders why).

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