Ask yourself this: Where were cats a decade ago? The surly domesticated animals were second best, purring listlessly in dark corners of your aunts’ homes, chasing laser pointers like a bunch of nothings.
The most exposure cats received in the early 2000s was courtesy of Meet the Parents, and in that trilogy, they were depicted as villainous assholes. Mr. Jinx the cat’s bathroom behavior was fussy and snooty, he was partially responsible for setting fire to an artisanal altar, and he pissed on the ashes of a dead woman. Greg Focker represented a nation when he lied through his teeth about being a cat person. And when things really went off the deep end and he spray painted a kitty’s tail, don't lie—you cheered. Meanwhile, dogs had Marley & Me (the book and the movie), the Air Bud series, and My Dog Skip—movies that more or less canonized the “other” household pet.
This is no longer the world we live in. Being a cat lady isn’t a bad thing anymore.
At some point in the last five to eight years, BIG FELINE® got together and made the momentous decision to revamp their publicity strategies. They had to change the conversation surrounding cats—the apparently soulless animals were in desperate need of a rebranding initiative. “We have to make America think that cats have personalities and the capability to astound us,” one executive said.*
The first coup for cats came when a deal was struck in 2007 to make them the official animal of BuzzFeed, a burgeoning website dedicated to viral content. Reps for cats were able to plant articles like “Your Morning Hangover As Told By Cats On Instagram” and “27 Pictures That Prove Cats Are Also Man’s Best Friend,” and with that, a shift was underway. Even though cats were doing things cats had been doing forever—being fucking weirdos, falling off pieces of furniture, staring at humans with their spooky eyes—it was getting spun in a different way. BIG FELINE was fighting a war against popular opinion, and the Internet was its battleground.
With the Internet, opportunists of niche culture had a podium—an ability to reach everyone—and no one flexed harder than Cat PR. With memes growing in popularity, cat constituents made sure they were at the forefront of the medium. Before you knew it, Lolcats had everyone—even non-cat supporters—saying “I Can Has Cheezburger.” Reddit, founded in 2005, allowed random cats from Omaha, Nebraska to garner 1,000,000 clicks; a video of a cat playing the piano hit 29 million views. Paired with the explosion of BuzzFeed and social media in general, cats became our most shared animal, and their stock just kept skyrocketing. At the same time, the people behind dogs like Lassie and Air Bud got complacent—just like how baseball rested on its laurels of being “America’s Pasttime,” so too did Dog PR get overly comfortable falling back on the title, “Man’s Best Friend.” You may not have even consciously noticed it, but America changed.
You could say the final nail was driven into Dog PR’s coffin this May, when a story about a “hero” cat saving a child from a “villain” dog attack made national news. Spliced-together surveillance footage showed a rapacious canine ripping at a child’s leg before Tara the cat came to the rescue. How could the old guard let this happen? For so many years dogs had a benevolent public image locked down, now national news outlets were portraying the animals as toddler-killers. And what's worse, cats were the only thing that could save the world from these vicious beasts. Tara became known as “Hero Cat” and got interviews on Today and Good Morning America. The dog got euthanized.
BIG FELINE hasn’t stopped. Cat publicists have been nailing down celebrity endorsements: Taylor Swift has cats named after characters from Grey’s Anatomy and Law and Order: SVU whom she cradles in her arms while out on strolls in New York City—a privilege once known only by chihuahuas; Katy Perry has a social media-friendly feline named Kitty Purry; James Franco came out as “cat person” in 2011. Who’s a cool celebrity dog you know? Sunny Obama? Last time he was in the news, it was because he made a toddler cry. Hmmm, I wonder who planted that story???
But what may be even more astonishing than Hollywood’s unadulterated support of cats is the fact that somehow, some way, the cats themselves became celebrities.
Lil Bub was born in June 2011 and taken in as a rescue by a family in Bloomington, Indiana under circumstances that sound eerily similar the origin story of Moses. After owner Mike Bridavsky posted pictures of the osteopetrosis-suffering dwarf cat on Tumblr, Bub became an Internet star. Her Facebook page racked up over 1.4 million likes and Vice made a documentary about her. Cat PR had become so good that the goal of reversing a stigma and rehabilitating public perception turned into something bigger—building a multimillion-dollar industry. The first wave of cat celebrities—Lil Bub, Nyan Cat, Keyboard Cat—paved the way for another famous feline: Grumpy Cat.
Originally known as Tardar Sauce, Grumpy Cat became an Internet celebrity when her natural-resting bitchface hit Reddit in September of 2012. Grumpy signed with Ben Lashes, the top cat representative in the game, of course, and in little over a year, her Facebook page was over six million likes and she had been featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and New York magazine. BuzzFeed—that website that’s been in cahoots with BIG FELINE for years—named Grumpy the Meme of the Year at the 2013 Webby Awards.
And speaking of awards shows, Grumpy Cat had a better seat than most celebrities at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards. "Why does Grumpy Cat have a better seat than Nick Lachey?" host Conan O'Brien asked. "Oh my God, check this out. I've been in show business over 20 years. This is the first time I've ever had to perform for a cat." Get used to it, Conan—it's a cat's world now, you're just living in it.
Then, in June of this year, Lifetime announced an original movie starring Grumpy Cat (voiced by Human Grumpy Cat, Aubrey Plaza)
Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever debuts tonight. It will almost definitely be horrible—not even Aubrey Plaza is pretending it’ll be worthwhile. For Lifetime, the Grumpy Cat movie is just the latest in a line of awful programming that makes you say, “What the fuck?” But for Cat PR, tonight's premiere is a rousing success, the latest massive accomplishment in a long-term rebranding campaign. That sound you’ll hear in the distance at 8 p.m. is of champagne bottles popping in celebration, because almost 15 years ago, cats were the bad guys. Now they’re the heroes.
A couple days ago I got an email from a cat publicist informing me that “New York’s Most Famous Feline,” Morris the Cat, was launching a new web series in which he “discusses” pop culture news. The email called Morris an “American icon” who goes on “catventures.” For Cat PR, the hustle never stops.
Andrew Gruttadaro is the Pop Culture news editor. His sister used to be a dog person, but SOMEHOW became a cat lady. He also tweets here.