Are you a cat or a dog?
You don’t need to be a sociologist or a researcher of artificial selection to know that the domesticated cat and dog (Felis catus and Canis lupis familiaris, respectively) are humanity’s most important, if not most favorite, pets throughout our history. Before you anticipate this post devolving into a diatribe on which type of pet I prefer or which pet most people believe is the “better” companion animal, let me steer the conversation toward two seemingly disparate themes: (1) Most people are drawn to cats or dogs as pets because they “relate” to them as companions on some level; cats and dogs represent two broad archetypes, or personality profiles that fit most people. (2) By extension, most character-driven stories, including those told on film, elaborate on these two archetypes through their respective protagonists or ensemble casts.
What I mean by this is that most people own dogs or cats because they are, for all intents and purposes, cat-like or dog-like in the archetypal sense (more on that in a moment… ); because of this, most stories — at least those dependent on characters to drive their pacing, story progression, and personify overarching themes, which are the majority of stories in popular culture — are based on these cat-like or dog-like personalities.
What does it mean to be cat or dog-like? Well, my non-scientific, highly subjective thesis simplifies the human condition into what are popularly considered attributes of dogs and what are considered typical of cats. What are some common, dare I say universal features of dogs and cats?
- Dogs are pack hunters; they follow orders, are team players, and are structured around a social hierarchy by natural and artificial design (i.e. their wild ancestors were hierarchical, and humans further streamlined this adaptation to suit our needs); in any population or group, there are a given number of alphas, but for the most part, most dogs are somewhere lower on the pack continuum. Whether at the top of the pack or the omega dog, canines know their place, and are proud of it. Conversely…
- Cats, at least the majority of those in the wild and those that were domesticated into the modern house cat, are independent, relatively solitary creatures. They are sociable with humans and can be conditioned to accept other cats or animals, particularly when resources are abundant, but for the most part go their own way. They are also associated with cool rebelliousness, suavity, and taking their time doing just about any ole thing. This can also be interpreted as “brooding.”
Most stories in film are either cat-centric or dog-centric, espousing the philosophies of either the former or the latter. Given how these feline or canine characters are driving their story, their personality types determine their arcs.
For example, common arcs for “cat-like” characters include journeys of the self, such as abandoning one’s cynicism about people/oneself/the world, finding a small, tight-knit surrogate family as a compromise between lonely independence and stereotypical canine “fitting in,” or a more general, healthy acceptance of one’s independence, a celebration of independence, if you will. The point is that cats are independent and notoriously difficult to control, whether for good or bad intentions, and thus stories about them are told on their terms. A cat’s arc concerns the tradeoffs of living by one’s own code, going the lone
wolf tiger route, and how keeping (most) others at arm’s length becomes the lens through which they see the world.
A dog’s arc is all about finding a “pack” in which to belong; much of this arc has to do with an accepting or championing of responsibility, either as a role-player in or a leader of a team. Remember, a dog’s identity is tied to their pack in a way a cat’s seldom is; this is why these arcs have so much to do with themes of responsibility, of not running away from one’s problems, because responsibility most always implies an obligation to someone else or a larger group. A cat’s sole responsibility is to themselves, which simultaneously makes them more interesting, complete characters, yet also more vulnerable to repetitive storytelling; there are only so many ways you can pitch a dark-and-brooding character, where as alpha dogs, underdogs, and ensemble casts yield a variety of narrative premises.
Examples of Dogs, The “Superman Extreme”
If you’re taken with my hackneyed classification of film characters as extensions of their attachments to humankind’s most stereotypical companions, a shorthand method to identify dog characters is their relationship to a team, a crew, or cohesive pack unit. As the most common film examples will include war films, sports dramas, or political dramas — all stories with an intimate focus on hierarchical organization or teamwork — these stories and their protagonists tend to have a more conservative (re: old-school) bent.
- Almost any Arnold Schwarzenegger role, ever — The Austrian Oak’s penchant for action movies, military characters, and police officer roles is the most obvious explanation for his canine archetype dominated career. His imposing physique and charismatic demeanor make him a natural alpha dog, perhaps most notably in my personal favorite Schwarzenegger role, Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer, in Predator (1987). That whole movie is an interesting example of a team of uber-masculine “dog-characters” sparring against the ultimate solitary “cat-villain” (the titular Predator).
- Simba, from The Lion King (1993) — An ironic twist on the dog archetype is the classic Disney tale about the most social feline; though lions are cats, they are an outlier in both small and big cat social dynamics, showcasing strict, consistent hierarchical organization and pack hunting like most canine species. Likewise, the protagonist of The Lion King fulfills his arc by learning not to run away from his problems and accepting his patrilineal responsibility of becoming King of the Serengeti.
King T’Challa, from Black Panther (2018) — A more recent thematic misnomer in the vein of Simba’s arc in The Lion King, Chadwick Boseman’s titular role deals with the near identical tension of living up to his father’s legacy, as well as confronting the consequences of that legacy and his country’s responsibility to not just itself, but the world.
- Tom Hanks et al., from Saving Private Ryan (1998) — A classic example of an ensemble cast led by the capable, yet less on-the-nose alpha dog, Captain Miller (Hanks). This “pack of dogs” showcases a strict yet respected hierarchy via military rank and tactical specialization, operating as a cohesive unit to combat “rival packs.” The focus of this film is less on any one dog (soldier) and more on their ability to survive as a pack (group).
- The majority of the cast of Game of Thrones (2011-2019) — Game of Thrones is a collective action story, a complex, dizzying epic about various disparate yet intertwined story threads and sectarian tribes that must put aside their differences to overcome common foes. One of the final memorable lines of the most recent season (of this writing, Season 7 ) was spoken by Sophie Turner, emphasizing my point, “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies… but the pack survives.”
Examples of Cats, The “Batman Extreme”
A shorthand way to identify feline characterizations in film is to think “dark and brooding,” “wisecracking smartass,” or “anti-hero” over conventional do-gooders. Picture Batman, Deadpool, or Wolverine over, say, Superman.
While possessing a sour disposition is not enough to qualify as a cat (our friendly felines are often noted for their spunky attitude and playful nature, and the light-hearted Deadpool is as independent and transgressive as they come), arguably the most common feline character archetypes are descendants or hybrids of the classic film noir detective. Noir protagonists are, by definition, outsiders to the settings and conflicts they inhabit and investigate, respectively; this outlier or 3rd-party status allows them to analyze situations from a less biased, but also more jaded and lonely perspective. In many ways, these figures are ciphers, circling higher-profile figures before outside forces or happenstance draws them into a given conflict, often in ways that challenge their cynical loner philosophy.
- Mad Max, from the Mad Max (1979, 1981, 1985, 2015) franchise — The first film in the series aside, the iconic role inhabited first by Mel Gibson and later by Tom Hardy, exemplifies the dark, brooding outsider to a “T.” In The Road Warrior (1981), Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Fury Road (2015), Max is initially unconcerned with the horrific sectarian violence around him, sensitive only to his immediate survival, which usually involves procuring basic resources (food, water, fuel, etc.) before leaving a given area. In all three films, Max is persuaded by a combination of necessity, sympathy, and empathy to lend a hand to one side of a conflict, however reluctant he may be. This is best illustrated in Fury Road, where Hardy’s portrayal of Max is won over by the trials and tribulations of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and her liberated former sex slave compatriots, even gaining a surrogate family of sorts before returning — fittingly, I would say — to the lonesome badlands from whence he came.
- Richard B. Riddick, from Pitch Black (2000), The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), Riddick (2013) — Perhaps my favorite anti-hero of the bunch, Vin Diesel’s sardonic, brooding science-fiction serial killer turned savior is one of the more ambitious arcs of any feline archetype on this list. Diesel’s Riddick doesn’t give a shit about any of his costars at the start of Pitch Black, even stalking them like a puma throughout much of the first act before reluctantly teaming up with them to face a greater threat.
Steve Rogers, from Captain America (2011, 2014, 2016) — Often mistaken for a straight-laced canine archetype, Captain Rogers (Chris Evans) as portrayed in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise (2008-present) is an outsider who learns to embrace his outsider status, rather than an underdog who finally gets accepted into the fold of a pack.
- Ellen Ripley, from the Alien (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997) franchise — Similar to Captain America in a way, Sigourney Weaver’s iconic character is ejected from a dog pack in which she never fit, the cutthroat private sector, and resorts to fighting her alien nemeses through her own inventiveness, survival instincts, and sheer determination… and a little Colonial Marine firepower, too.
My ultimate interest in this novel classification system is determining where each of us fits. Everyone may not fit into my two-species system, but I’ve hypothesized people tend to gravitate toward cats and dogs for reasons beyond mere boredom or companionship; we connect with these ubiquitous animals because we see ourselves in them, and their dichotomous personality profiles are comparable to classical human profiles in many respects.
I believe this is the basis for people connecting with certain characters and stories more than others. While great, well written characters are relatable to most viewers on some level, there’s no question in my mind that different people are predisposed to certain characters and character arcs based on their personal experiences and self-actualization. I’ve discussed before how our tastes in the arts — not just the particular media we enjoy, but the specific projects within a given medium — tell us much about ourselves and how we view the world. This personification of feline and canine archetypes is reasonable, I argue, given those animals have been a bedrock of humankind for some time now, despite flaunting such disparate lifestyles and personalities. Like dogs, most people are fine giving or taking orders as part of a structured organization, a reliable team, while plenty others, like cats, strike a unique, somewhat lonelier style. Our cinematic narratives reflect this.
So, are you a dog, or are you a cat?