Human muscle, fat, and tissue ripple under CGI cat hair.
A human face rises above thin, hairy shoulders, a tail flicking up, snake-like, from behind.
Dame Judi Dench, draped in what looks like the pelts of one thousand loyal subjects, whispers that she will judge others “by their souls.”
No, it’s not a nightmare. It’s a trailer for the movie-musical Cats.
Directed by Tom Hooper and starring half of Hollywood, Cats released a new trailer on Tuesday, November 19. “Tonight is a magical night,” promises cat-Dench in the latest look at the movie, which comes out December 20. But for many viewers, Cats, with its “digital fur technology,” is another opportunity to close any computer tabs marked “pet adoption” and lean into celibacy.
Just as viewers responded to the first Cats trailer, which dropped in July, with a mixture of revulsion and panic, social media blew up this week once again, spewing the digital equivalent of hairballs. “There’s a new Cats trailer…resumes screaming in terror,” joked one Twitter user.
What is it about the humanoid felines of Cats — with their suggestive stretching, sensual tail twitches, and pointed toes that turn out to be claws — that makes us say, “Uh, I think I’ll just wait until Little Women comes out”? Why are humans so deeply troubled by Cats?
“There’s a term ‘uncanny valley’ in artificial intelligence or robotics–when something is so close to reality that we almost can’t distinguish it, it creeps us out, it disgusts us,” says Denmark-based psychologist Debbie Quackenbush, an expert on the topics of human sexuality and cybertherapy. “There’s a point at which something becomes too realistic and makes us uncomfortable,” she says, urging me to look up a particular brand of sex doll to illustrate her example (I looked it up, unwisely, at work.)
“I’ve seen Cats — the musical — and I loved it,” she says. “But when they combine it with the CGI…” her voice trails off. Uncanny.
Psychologist and sexologist Vanessa Valentino thinks the response to the jiggling human breasts and butts on the cats is over the top. (“Why Do the Cats In Cats Have Human Breasts?” Vulture asked, while the Washington Post demanded “Cats Trailer: Can We Discuss These Cat Bodies?”)
“I mean, female breasts are not a bad thing,” Valentino says. “A female body is beautiful, it’s not shameful in the least.”
Quackenbush says that it’s not the breasts or the abs that are problematic, it’s the fact that they’re connected to, well, cats. “There’s a taboo for having a sexual feeling for an animal, and there is something a little sexualized about the characters in the trailer,” she says. That’s why it feels weird to lust after the silky-haired Idris Elba-cat, while audiences have been giving standing ovations to Cats casts for years.
The premise of Cats is undeniably insane–a cat community meets in a dirty alley to sing about themselves until, eventually, one cat is selected to die and go to cat heaven. And though many of the cats are supposed to be sexy (there’s one named “Rum Tum Tugger”) audiences have generally found human actors in face paint and fur leg warmers more charming than seductive. When Cats opened on Broadway in 1982 the New York Times review hailed it as “primal” and Variety called it a “pleasurable fantasy creation.” When it was revived on Broadway most recently in 2016, the Guardian called it “strangely adorable.”
So why are so many people going through it, with these brief, sensual showtune-y cat clips? Why does it feel like perky human butts covered in fine orange hair are etched on the inside of my eyelids? Valentino thinks the trailer is “like a Rorschach Test — people see things the way they see them due to their personal catharsis, or lack thereof.” She adds, “Sometimes a cat is just a cat.”
Daniel Quagliozzi, a cat behavioral specialist, disagrees. “Because of where we’ve come, historically, through our view of cats and internet influence, and projection, we want to put a human value on cats all the time,” he says. Humans are desperate to relate to cats, he argues. “But when we see cats that look more like humans—it disturbs our minds.”
“When we see cats dancing in human bodies and human faces…” his voice trails off, and we both think about furry tails looming behind a human skull, cheekbones stretching out hair-covered skin. Uncanny.
And yet, I will certainly pay money to see Cats in theaters.
For I would like to know the answer to the question, “What would it be like if all the Harry Potter characters looked like Hermione when she accidentally takes Polyjuice potion laced with cat hair?” It will also provide a much needed service to people who harbor fantasies about mixing their DNA with cats. And most important, it will test the limits of a culture that’s made cats its mascot. Hello Kitty, Grumpy Cat, and half the videos on YouTube have only been a warmup for this: over one hundred straight minutes of cat content, performed as a pop-opera, butt-hair and all.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer at Glamour.
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