Thursday, January 15, 2015

Pointlessly Gendering Cats and Dogs

Last December in Aldi (an Irish grocery chain), my partner and I were looking for a Christmas present for his dog. While sifting through the pet section, we noticed that perhaps it was a good thing his dog isn't female, because the only doggy stockings for sale were for male dogs. 

According to Armitage Pet Care ("The largest independent manufacturer and distributor of branded pet accessories and treats in the UK"), kitty treats are for "good girls" and doggy treats are for "good boys." The cat and dog caricatures and packaging colors appear to be gender neutral, but the labels are unnecessarily gendered. Upon further investigation, the gendering process extends beyond Santa's workshop: "Good Boy" applies to their entire line of canine treats, and "Good Girl" refers to their line of feline treats. What's more, this gender assignment is presumed to be implicit. The Armitage website does not clarify which product line refers to which species.

Here, the gendered identity of companion animals is taken for granted

Sociologists have noted that humans tend to transfer their gender role expectations onto nonhumans (and nonhumans also become extensions of human gender expressions). Dogs tend to be masculinized; cats tend to be feminized. Regardless of the animal's actual sex, they will be socialized according to the gender of their owner. My brother's pit bull is female, for example, but she plays rough and rowdy. She practically jumps off the walls because of how my brother has socialized her and how he engages play with her (as other pit bull guardians can attest, many pits are quiet and gentle). We also know that that many men are hesitant to have their male companion animals spayed for fear of emasculating them (a serious problem given the high death rates in kill shelters for discarded and homeless animals). Gender may be socially constructed, but its consequences are real indeed.

Dr. Lisa Wade of Sociological Images regularly deconstructs "unnecessarily" or "pointlessly" gendered cultural artifacts on the website and its corresponding Pinterest page to demonstrate how powerful gender roles are on the social imagination. Of course, gendering products is not "pointless." This action has a very intentional social purpose: to maintain and reproduce difference (which, in turn, maintains and reproduces social inequality). Nonhuman bodies are often politicized in the process, becoming representations of human stratification.

In many cases, the aggravation of these differences is much more conscious because it also serves to increase consumption. A heterosexual couple can't just share body wash, for instance. He has to have the forest-scented, blue soap in the black bottle labeled "For men;" she has to have the pink strawberry soap in the flowery bottle. Not surprisingly, there is often a feminine tax as well, with women's products costing more than equivalent products for men. As sociologists understand the economic sphere to be the origin of social structure (and inequality), it is no surprise to see such heavy representation of difference in the marketplace.

My male cat is not going to care either way if he is a good "boy" or "girl" as long as he gets his paws on that catnip. My partner's dog probably doesn't care if he is a good "doggy" or a good "kitty" either, and would gladly chomp down on anything and everything in the "Good Girl Christmas Cat Stocking." In the end, we settled on a gender neutral (and, subsequently, a much less annoying) chew toy.


Adams, C. and J. Donovan. 1995. Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ramirez, M. 2006. "'My Dog's Just Like Me': Dog Ownership as a Gender Display." Symbolic Interaction 29 (3): 373-391.

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