Of stereotyped animals

There are clear patterns in the use of gendered animal metaphors and images that mirror larger societal prejudices of thinking and acting. Most animals, I suspect, are thought of as male, the unmarked sex. Where the female term is prominent or at least current in everyday language – cow, heifer, mare, sow – its metaphorical application to human females is unflattering, to say the least. An exception is the fairly recent cougar – not on the face of it female when referring to the animal – to mean attractive older woman in search of a younger lover. But even that image has overtones of predatoriness and stealth (cougars are  ‘big cats’ after all) that might not be considered wholly desirable or positive.

Turning to one of our two most popular pets, cats too are an exception in that the unmarked term seems to be female, the marked term being tomcat. Dogs adhere to the norm, ‘male’ being unmarked, since you have to specify female as bitch, which is never a compliment (except in the Halestorm song ‘You call me a bitch like it’s a bad thing’).

The qualities stereotypically attributed to the two animals in literature and language tend to follow stereotypical gender lines and contrast starkly. Cats are seen as self-centred and self-preserving (the cat would eat fish but would not wet her feet), pleasure-loving (like the cat that’s got the cream), fickle and possibly deceitful or spiteful (bitchy, catty), and erotically indolent. Or they are mysteriously erotic, as in one of Baudelaire’s two Le Chat poems reproduced below.

The exceptional cat portrayed as male in the Tom and Gerry cartoons has a completely different character: hyperenergetic, loyal (to Gerry, when it counts), and less resourceful than Gerry.

Dogs, generally speaking, are viewed as loyal, determined and resourceful (Lassie; it’s dogged as does it), easily pleased (like a dog with two tails), even a bit blokeish (Churchill the bulldog in the ads for the British insurance company of the same name, and bulldogs in many other ads historically.)

Of catfights and dogfights

These stereotypes play out where you might not expect them, in catfight (1824 in literal sense) and dogfight (1656, literal). A Martian might be forgiven for thinking that the two should be equivalent and simply mean a fight. But each has developed differently connoted metaphors. Catfight meaning ‘a vicious fight or altercation’ and,  as the OED notes, ‘esp. between women’ came thirty years after the literal meaning, in 1854 from a U.S. source:

The object is to keep the women and babies, as much as possible, apart, and prevent those terrible cat-fights which sometimes occur.
B. G. Ferris, Utah & Mormons xviii. 308

That first citation is definitely feminine, but the next two seem to be gender-neutral (1888 & 1931). In fact, the later one refers to something as serious and masculine as wars, while seeking to trivialize them by using the term:

History is the recital of wars, the peaceful years are but pauses between the cat-fights.
R. A. Tsnaoff Nature of Evil xi. 289, 1931

Then the next one, in 1964 is definitely female, referencing The Marriage of Figaro:

Act I especially seemed heavily overproduced, with (for example) the courtesy duet between Susanna and Marcelina [sic] becoming all but a cat-fight.
Times, 196415 Aug. 10/5

as is this cracker from Julie Burchill:

The noble thespian lesbian tradition of the celluloid catfight, from early James Bond films to late Duran Duran videos.
Sex & Sensibility, 1986 (1992) 59

From its seventeenth-century literal meaning, dogfight took centuries to sprout its ‘extended’ meaning, as the OED calls it, of ‘a disturbance or mêlée; a ferocious struggle for supremacy’. Like catfight, it too is first cited in a U.S. source:

Anxiously the two men watched the political ‘dog-fight’ between Douglas and Buchanan, hoping for a disruption in the Democratic party.
J. F. Newton,  Lincoln & Herndon 139, 1910

The subsequent OED citations all suggest what are traditionally male milieux, such as parliament, annual general meetings and employee–employer relations.

A second new meaning was hatched towards the end of the First World War, namely, ‘an aerial battle between military aircraft at close quarters’:

Now a general combat ensues, in which each man must fight independently. All semblance of formation is lost; the mêlée is called a ‘dog fight’.
Popular Science Monthly, 1918 Dec. 27/3

Modern data strongly suggests that the gender dichotomy for the two words has intensified. Not to mention the U.S. all-girl tribute band and the 2016 film, Catfight: a black and blue comedy.

To put it bluntly, men don’t usually take part in catfights, nor women in dogfights. And if men do take part, there is a sneering twist to the word, as in examples 5 & 6 below.

The words that typically associate with each of the –fight compounds overlap hardly at all.

Catfights may be unseemly, topless, celebrity, drunken, literary, verbal and even erotic, but dogfights are none of those things. Instead, they are fierce, tense or intense, online and political.

People love catfights (shades of the male lesbian fantasy, perhaps, as embodied in the cover of Real Men) or get into them whereas they merely witness dogfights, or are embroiled in them or survive them. Sport is the field (sorry) in which most dogfights occur, particularly end-of-season dogfights to avoid relegation.

  1. The number of women who are seeking treatment at hospital casualty units after being injured in drunken catfights is rising sharply, consultants warn.
  2. A celebrity catfight may soon take place between Harry Potter author JK Rowling and quiz show host Anne Robinson. Both have been nominated by students as potential rectors of St Andrew’s University in Scotland.
  3. It means Yorkshire [sc. cricket team] are sure to be involved in a fierce dogfight over the coming weeks and the scrap starts on Friday at Headingley
  4. Rarely has a so-called relegation dogfight deserved its do-or-die billing more than this one did for Thistle’s [sc. football team] young managerial duo of Derek Whyte and Gerry Britton.
  5. This week, Kimbo and superbitch John get into a catfight over taxation, while Pete gets jealous because it was all his idea in the first place.
    From a satirical piece about an Australian election.
  6. We love a good catfight, which is why we were delighted to see former Out publisher Henry Scott let loose with a few hisses against the merging gay-media triumvirate of PlanetOut, Gay.com, and the Advocate.
    Publishers of gay media being implicitly feminized.

Viens, mon beau chat, sur mon coeur amoureux;
Retiens les griffes de ta patte,
Et laisse-moi plonger dans tes beaux yeux,
Mêlés de métal et d’agate.

Lorsque mes doigts caressent à loisir
Ta tête et ton dos élastique,
Et que ma main s’enivre du Plaisir
De palper ton corps électrique,

Je vois ma femme en esprit. Son regard,
Comme le tien, aimable bête
Profond et froid, coupe et fend comme un dard,

Et, des pieds jusques à la tête,
Un air subtil, un dangereux parfum
Nagent autour de son corps brun.

A freeish translation by Roy Campbell that mirrors the original rhyme scheme:

Come, my fine cat, against my loving heart;
Sheathe your sharp claws, and settle.
And let my eyes into your pupils dart
Where agate sparks with metal.

Now while my fingertips caress at leisure
Your head and wiry curves,
And that my hand’s elated with the pleasure
Of your electric nerves,

I think about my woman — how her glances
Like yours, dear beast, deep-down
And cold, can cut and wound one as with lances;

Then, too, she has that vagrant
And subtle air of danger that makes fragrant
Her body, lithe and brown.

Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)


  1. Thank you for the Baudelaire, Jeremy; I’ve been dipping into Fleurs du Mal a bit lately, but hadn’t got to this one yet. The translation does not do it justice, but I love the original.
    The sex of the cat is only alluded to (‘Je vois ma femme en esprit’) rather than given the female gender in French, which is in some ways clever because ‘chatte’ in French is also pussy, as in slang for vagina. It’s an interesting one, given that many (neuter in English) terms are used for female genitals – beaver, pussy, and so on. I can’t think of any for the male genitals.
    I wonder why?


      1. I’ll reply more fully by email Jeremy, but for the moment, my thoughts are:
        I would say that un chat in French is completely neutral and generic. As in, appeler un chat un chat. Or, better, La nuit, tous les chats sont gris. If you have a cat in France (I did for a while in Brittany, many years ago,and she was female) you’d still say le chat, even knowing the gender. But that’s the same as in English – if you met a friend who was walking a female dog, you wouldn’t say ‘How’s the wee bitch today?’


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