The Internet loves nothing more than cats, but it’s rare that we look beyond the cute photos and memes to more seriously consider their place in our world. Flavorwire’s Highbrow Cat Week is an attempt to remedy that, with a series of pieces devoted to analyzing their impact on the cultural realm.
The Siamese cat, as canonical as it is controversial, has developed a legacy in American cinema for embodying undeniably racist stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans — most notably through the Siamese duo Si and Am of Lady and the Tramp, often cited as one of the most racist cartoon characters ever depicted on film.
But despite achieving 20th-century celebrity through its depiction as a gratuitously racist caricature of Asians, the Siamese cat’s rise to prominence is a trajectory rife with sociopolitical and historical significance. As early as the 14th century, the cat accrued fame when it was given its name by the absolute monarchy — known then as the Kingdom of Siam — that governed the land we now know as Thailand until the 1930s. The cat’s fame waxed as it became known as the esteemed pet of choice among Siam’s political and social elite, marked by the breed’s charisma and distinct physical characteristics. Both regal and canonical, it symbolized an acclaimed dynasty of military and governmental authority, distinguished all the more by the notable fact that Siam was the only Asian nation never formally colonized by any colonial power — Asian, European, or otherwise. The cat’s legacy is connected to a socio-historical climate of nationalistic idealism and aristocratic prosperity, one that burgeoned in the face of modernization and colonial procedure, remaining self-directed in lieu of external political, social, and moral forces.
This history could explain how the Siamese’s remained culturally significant for long enough to make its mark on cinema, and Disney’s 1995 hit Lady and the Tramp in particular. In that film, the Siamese appear once the heroine of the story, the ingénue of a Cocker Spaniel known as Lady, is left with her Aunt Sarah, a steadfast cat lover with two Siamese of her own named Si and Am. After Sarah leaves with the baby to run errands, the cats surreptitiously skulk at the frightened Lady from within a picnic basket, looking at her as if she were a delicious meal, or a toy to play with and manipulate, their baleful expressions suffused with impish inquisitiveness. The emergence of their large, blue eyes — accentuated by their distinctive and exaggerated slant — is prominently accompanied by the bang of a gong, as Si and Am make their way out of the basket and begin singing their infamous song, “The Siamese Cat Song,” performed by Peggy Lee.
Si and Am move in perfect symmetry; they have no individuality; their innocent blue eyes bend into a sinister glare as they cave at the slant. They are jaundiced and sly; sick and feral; domesticated, though nevertheless propelled by their mischievous, impish nature to deceive and intimidate. They sit on the proverbial throne that is Aunt Sarah’s chic Upper East Side apartment, giving no care to the havoc they cause therein, knocking over vases, cutting up drapes, and attempting to snag a bite out of whatever delicacies they can find. As they say themselves, “Now we’re looking over our new domicile/ If we like we stay for maybe quite a while,” suggesting that they’re only sticking around for what they have left to pillage from Aunt Sarah (who loves them so much, bless her ignorant heart). When they get bored, they’ll move on to their next unwitting victim. They are, in other words, a colonial nightmare.
While the esteemed pet of choice among the Kingdom of Siam’s elite, the Siamese’s status, however famed and luxurious, turned out to be relatively short-lived in the United States, where the cat was transformed into an emblem of the pernicious racism — most of which was directed towards Eastern Europe and Asia — that gripped the United States for most of the early 20th century, leading up to and following the Second World War.
You could argue, if you tried very, very hard, that these racial associations are nothing more than arbitrary, but the division between Axis and Allied powers during World War II — during which Thailand was a firm supporter of Japan after waging war against France during the Franco-Thai war of 1940 — firmly suggests otherwise. The Japanese internment camps of the early ’40s — in which over 100,000 Asian-Americans, 62% of whom were US citizens — were both a symptom of and further inspiration for a sharp increase in anti-Asian sentiment, and merely augmented the perennial American habit of painting Asia as a monolith comprised of fungible ethnic and cultural heritages. Si and Am of Lady and the Tramp, which premiered just a decade after the war’s end, were undoubtedly conjured by the remaining prejudices of this milieu, emblems of an era when anything categorically or characteristically “Asian” was met with misplaced fear and intemperate hostility used to create a dehumanized image of the “Other” and frame it as a direct affront to Western hegemony, justifying the prejudice against it.
In the case of Tramp, this image of the Other comes through via the age-old dichotomy between cats and dogs (dogs are, after all, a man’s best friend — cats, not so much), and the enduring Disney habit of making their villains phenotypically distinct (generally darker and speaking with an accent) from their implicitly white protagonists.
Beyond preserving violent myths about a group of people historically subject to racially incentivized violence, the persistence of these stereotypes is lamentable because research shows that the Siamese cat is actually an anomaly within the cat world, known as one of the more affectionate breeds available to loving owners. My friend has one, and her Instagram makes a strong case that he’s super cute.