As a very short case study of the changing social, emotional and economic status of pets in the West, I turn here to the example of Animal Planet reality series My Cat From Hell (2011-). The series’ narrative strategies exemplify the ways we are now called upon to cultivate and monitor the emotional wellbeing of our pets and to take part in an animal-centered economy on their behalf. Featuring animal behaviorist Jackson Galaxy (born Richard Kirschner) each hour-long episode of the series chronicles two segments showcasing a problem that arises with cat behavior, moving through a predictable cycle of the reporting of that problem by the owners, observation and diagnosis by Galaxy and a program of change proscribed. Episodic closure is arrived at when having followed Galaxy’s recommendations, the cat owners’ (Galaxy prefers the term “cat guardians”) behavior modification and/or purchase of needed commodities to alleviate the problem leads to establishment of domestic tranquility.
My Cat From Hell has emerged in tandem with the rising cultural and economic profile of cats of which there are more signs than I have room to show here. As we discuss in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, when a Reddit user in 2014 asked Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, to name one use of the internet that he did not anticipate, he answered with the single word “kittens.” Pet ownership has become a critically monetized social bond and the devotion to pet care a showcase of the self In this hybrid of self-help, life coaching, lifestyle tv and animal tv a centralizing concern with the cross-species conduct of conduct is consistently displayed. Our gaze is trained on the movement of the cat from confounding to gratifying household member.
A program like My Cat From Hell, which disciplines both feline and human subjects, suggests some of the ways that the achievement of domesticity is increasingly linked to interspecies harmony. With its recalcitrant feline subjects who fail to display cuteness and instead manifest wildness (in contrast to domestication) the series speaks to the role of pets in securing a sense of home and the shifting sense of home itself in an era of economic and spatial precarity. Of interest for me here is the fantasy that cuteness has the capacity to re-center us in the anthropecene through a formulation in which elaborate care for domestic animals compensates for species decline and elimination on a broad scale.
As more and more human populations become expendable norms of pet ownerships have been revised, now entailing a level of particular care and concern unimaginable to most even a generation ago. In My Cat From Hell the restoration of a cat to cuteness is a means of bringing about order after domestic disturbance; intervention is required because a cat has become un-cute. Cuteness, among other things, underpins a fantasy of environmental normativity and the durability of benign human agency and centrality. The narrative charge in a series like this one is feline unruliness, specifically the notorious unreliability of the cat to fulfill our behavioral expectations/hopes for it. In this way, the series calls our attention to the discipline required to elicit correct performances of cuteness.