A History of Pop Culture's Obsession with Human/Cat Hybrids
It's kind of surprising that in the year since Avatar appeared, the cultural aftershock has been "EVERY MOVIE MUST BE IN 3D NOW" instead of, "WE NEED MORE MOVIES STARRING HUMAN/CAT HYBRIDS!"
After all, mankind has been obsessed with the idea of combining humans and cats into a new fictional creature for as long as written records exist. Look at the old Egyptian gods and goddesses:
The Goddess Bastet, seen here in a housewife's dress,
about to club a burglar with one of the figurines from the mantel.
This obsession seems to be based on the assumption that cats are adorable and graceful, but not very useful, while humans are versatile and intelligent, but not very cute. So if you combine the two, you get ... the best of both worlds, I guess?
That might be the theory, but over and over again what we find instead are creations far creepier and/or ridiculous than what either species is on its own. Just look at ...
The Cast of Cats
For those of you unfamiliar with Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats, it ran for 18 years on Broadway in the 80s and 90s and was immensely popular, mostly appealing to people who enjoyed its catchy pop showtunes and were willing to stare uncomfortably at people prancing around in disturbing costumes while listening to them.
It was based on a book by T.S. Eliot, who died in 1965 and could have done nothing to stop this.
If you think about it, they are taking an actor who was probably hoping to star in Les Miserables or A Chorus Line or something, painting their face like a cat, putting a clown wig with pointy ears on them, then asking them to prance and wiggle around while they sing their solo. I find aspiring actors as insufferable as the next person, but that is just cruel.
As you can see, they went to a lot of trouble to paint the cat faces to be as feline as possible. But in this middle ground between cat and human, you get neither the cute face of an actual cat nor the handsome/beautiful face of a Broadway actor. You get something about 180 degrees in the opposite direction from both, in the general direction of mimes.
And by that I mean, you get the stuff of nightmares.
Uh oh. I know there's a cult following of Thundercats, but I have to ask how much of that is an actual enjoyment of the show and how much of that comes from (1) the nostalgia rush of seeing something you remembered as a kid becoming popular again now and feeling good about having been in on the "ground floor," or (2) being British.
Surprisingly, Thundercats was way bigger in the UK than when it was first shown in the U.S., where it only got two seasons. I don't exactly understand how this happened, but somehow they showed the first season over the next five years in the UK (if this is correct) and the Brits also got a ton of new merchandise never sold in the U.S. Almost all the Thundercats fan sites you'll find today are hosted in the UK somewhere.
My point here is that despite the buzz from the recent Thundercats revivals, the original show was to He-Man as Go-Bots was to Transformers. We kids weren't high-falutin' animation snobs, mind you. We watched this, fairly unironically:
... and still we sensed that Thundercats was something to make fun of. We would say, "Thundercats, ho!" and giggle because we had no idea what a ho was but we knew it was a dirty word. Other than that, I don't even remember what the show was about, so our only actual criticisms were the "ho" thing, and their creepy-ass cat faces.
I like how they even actually threw in a bit of mime-eye there in case it wasn't creepy enough. Anyway, bad animation with beefcakes running around in disturbingly homoerotic undies, we could handle. Bad animation with cat-faced beefcakes in undies, that was crossing the line.
Halle Berry as Catwoman
It's important to make a distinction here between Halle Berry as Catwoman, and Catwoman in general. Catwoman is normally a sexy female thief who happens to wear a burglar suit with cat ears. She doesn't go "meow" or lick herself any more often than Batman goes "eeeeeEEEeee" or eats a fly.
But Halle Berry's Catwoman (and Michelle Pfeiffer's to a lesser extent) really pushes the "cat" part. She actually dies and is reincarnated as some kind of avatar of the Egyptian cat goddess, which gives her catlike abilities and actual feline behaviors, like an orgasmic reaction to catnip:
... and a sudden desire to order milk at bars:
The makers of these Catwomen are always going for some kind of connection between cats and female sexiness, but the only real connection you've got there is the slinky walk. Pretty much no other cat behavior is sexy when you have a woman do it (well, outside of very niche audiences I guess). The makers of this film keep bringing up different alleged "catlike" behaviors with the clear indication that the audience should find this sexy or mysterious, but it always just comes across awkward and creepy.
I think they should have stuck to giving her powers that cats don't have, like the scene where she catches burglars in a museum and surfs on one of them.
Ron Perlman in Beauty and the Beast
Most of Ron Perlman's live-action career has consisted of gamely putting on 10 pounds of makeup or so and being the best demon, neanderthal, mutant or man-lion he can be. One of his most famous roles was Vincent in the TV series Beauty and the Beast, where he played, as you can see, a man-lion guy who lived in the sewers of New York.
"But ladies swooned over that show," you might say. "They had a pretty young lady fall in love with Mr. Catface there." Yes, but the whole basis of the show was the unquestioned assumption that if you have a catface you have to live underground, because it freaks people the fuck out. The whole premise of the show (and the Beauty and the Beast fable it's based on) was how awesome and special the girl is to look past his hideous catface and see who he really is on the inside. If people thought catfaces were awesome, that wouldn't be much of a storyline.
All right, that's not so bad, you might think, looking at the pic above. But I really can't link you to any proper examples. Let's just say that on the first page of a Google image search; there are a lot of catwomen with their private parts prominently displayed as the focal point of the artwork.
Clearly some people want to be cats really really bad. How bad? Well, if you haven't heard of Warriors yet, it's a big series of 24 books about cats, if cats lived in clans and had an honor code and tried to accomplish things. Whatever, they're children's books about an imaginary animal society. Might as well criticize Watership Down, right? Well, that's not the weird part.
The weird part is the massive amount of role-playing forums apparently populated by adults trying to role-play the characters from Warriors. One excerpt from a player profile:
"During the birth of New-leaf, in its coldest days, the daughter of ThunderClan's leader gave birth under the watchful eye of the Medicine Cat. Gingertail bore a Tom and a She-cat without naming the sire. This choice was made because the cat she loved was not a part of the clan. He was not even a loner or Rouge, but a Kittypet with a blue-blooded pedigree known by the name Socrates."
Anyway, now that we've learned that cat-humans always land somewhere between laughable and outright nightmare fuel, are there any circumstances where you can get away with it? Yes, a couple:
A) You Can Put Cat Ears On a Hot Woman
If it's clearly basically just a hat, and you don't mess around with what makes a person a person, you won't enter Dr. Moreau's world.
B) Don't Call Them Cats
Let's go back to Avatar for a moment. When the first screenshots of Avatar were released, the Internet ripped into them. Half of the comments were Smurf jokes and the other half were about how they looked like cat people.
Because they do. But when the movie came out, people loved it. It broke every box office record, and people stopped going on about cat faces and Smurfs. Why?
Because while the Na'vi were clearly cat-based, no one said as much in the movie. It wasn't like the story of Pandora was that once upon a time a zoo ship crash-landed and the crew was forced to repopulate the empty planet with the help of the pumas in the cargo hold.
Now compare that to the Thundercats. Every character is named after a type of cat (Lion-o, Panthro, Tygra, Cheetara). The characters in Avatar just pretended like they didn't even know cats existed, and with all the other stuff going on, it was easy for the audience to forget too, beyond noticing that the characters were graceful, quick, athletic and beautiful. You got the aesthetic of a cat-like creature without calling the movie Avatar: Planet of the Noble Cat Warriors.
Hell, maybe James Cameron just accidentally made them look like cats, like George Lucas keeps accidentally making aliens talk like stereotypes of various Earth ethnic groups. Maybe he was just trying to make an improved version of humans, and accidentally wound up in the same place.
Either way, why don't we just declare Avatar to be the pinnacle of human/cat hybridization and let it stop there? After all, look at this guy:
That is an adorable, stupid kitten without a brain in its head, and it's perfect the way it is. Let's end this weird-ass compulsion to merge them with us, before genetic scientists start getting weird ideas. You don't want your grandchildren to walk down the streets 100 years from now and see this:
For more modern ideas that were here before us, check out 4 Reasons 3-D Movies Don't Have to Suck and 5 Multiplayer Video Games That Will Destroy Your Marriage.