Mitchell, R. W., & Ellis, A. L. (2013). Cat Person, Dog Person, Gay, or Heterosexual: The Effect of Labels on a Man’s Perceived Masculinity, Femininity, and Likability. Society & Animals, 21(1), 1-16.
Since the late 1800s, English speakers have been thought of cats as female and feminine, and dogs as male and masculine, regardless of the animals’ actual sex. Bem’s Gender Schema Theory, developed in 1981, offers explanation for this phenomenon by identifying the pairings based on expected qualities that dogs and men are culturally expected to share, as well as qualities that cats and women are expected to share. For example, men and dogs are perhaps both viewed as hunters, protective, aggressive. On the other hand, qualities of cats are expected to be shared with women, such as being soft, graceful, uncontrollable, and sneaky.
Studies suggest that other qualities attributed to an animal can also be passed on to people. In light of the generally positive attitudes toward dogs in the United States, it is not surprising that a man paired with a dog appears more likable than the same man does without a dog. By contrast, studies have also shown that a man paired with a cat in a photograph was viewed as nicer, and thus perhaps more likable, than the same man paired with a dog. It is speculated that based on their gender-related attributions to dogs and cats, English-speakers in the US tend to attribute feminine qualities to people who apparently prefer cats or who are considered “cat people”, and masculine qualities are attributed to people who show an affinity for dogs, considered as “dog people”. A previous study tested this notion and found that after reading a brief verbal scenario about a male “dog person” or “cat person,” undergraduate students rated men who liked cats as less masculine and more feminine than men who liked dogs. These gender based stereotypes have also been extended to the gay male stereotype, assuming that the stereotype of homosexual men has been considered as gender “atypical,” as found in research. Previous research on gender-related stereotyping was based on labels usually using written scenarios describing a character. Understanding gender-related stereotyping using actual men, rather than written scenarios, may further shed some light on the effect of labeling by using such words as cat person, dog person, gay, and heterosexual have on perceptions of their gender-related attributions.
A study was conducted to examine the effect of labeling two white men as a cat person, dog person, gay, heterosexual, or adopted. The study consisted of 192 male and 521 female undergraduate students in the US. The students were asked to rate the masculinity, femininity, and likability of two men (one highly masculine and unfeminine, one normally masculine with low femininity) from a videotaped interaction. Participants were informed that both men were either a cat person, dog person, heterosexual, adopted, or gay, or were unlabeled.
Results showed that participants rated the men less masculine when labeled as cat persons than when labeled as dog persons or unlabeled, and less masculine and more feminine when labeled gay than any other label or unlabeled. The more masculine man received lower feminine ratings when labeled a dog person than when labeled a heterosexual. The same man received higher masculine ratings when labeled a dog person than when unlabeled. Labels did not affect ratings of likability. Overall, the gay label consistently promoted gender stereotypes, the dog person label encouraged somewhat heightened gender-appropriate attributions, and the cat person label produced normative attributions.
Compared to the gay label, the cat and dog person labels appear to have less influence on masculine and feminine ratings of men. Labeling a masculine man gay seemed to diminish his male attributes, indicating that stereotypes of gay men are embedded historically and culturally in expectations and belief systems. The finding that the dog person label significantly influenced some ratings of masculinity but not femininity raises questions about the set concepts of masculinity and femininity in U.S. culture. Findings suggest, as do previous studies, that American men, and perhaps women, may generally view being masculine as the antithesis of being feminine inasmuch that men’s masculinity and femininity are often perceived as contrasts. This study showed that none of the labels were perceived to be detrimental to a man’s likability, therefore contrasting previous research that links associations with dogs or cats, or being gay or heterosexual with perceptions of likability.
Future studies might employ an array of presentations of dogs and cats in relation to various presentations of men and women to examine how current cultural conceptions of masculinity and femininity are tied across cultures and subcultures.
Summary by Effie Heotis