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Diane with one of more than 100 cats with whom she shares her home. She’s one of four women whose lives – and female-feline connections – are followed in the documentary Cat Ladies.

What makes a crazy cat lady? Is it the number of cats, the amount of cat-hair-covered sweaters she owns, or simply the intensity of devotion between female and feline?

A new documentary explores the world of four CCLs (crazy cat ladies) and explodes some of the uglier stereotypes that cling to these women like the faint stench of cat urine.

The appropriately titled Cat Ladies, which will air in Ontario on TVO Sept. 23, 27 and 30, documents the lives of Margot, a receptionist whose life revolves around her three cats; Diane, a former banker who shares her home with 123 felines and fears that her life is slipping out of control; Sigi, who pursues cat rescuing with the grim determination of a soldier; and Jenny, 35-year-old woman with 17 animals who is fighting the siren call of full-fledged cat-ladydom.

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It's an emotional story about solitude and love, but it's also a tale of the nasty undercurrent of misogyny that runs through our culture.

"The stereotype is so dismissive," director Christie Callan-Jones says. "I was surprised at their feistiness, their independence. They chose to buck social trends. I thought it would end up being this film about sad lonely women but it's really not. These women are more than who you think they are."

"Most people would never know I have a cat problem," Jenny says. Indeed, as an attractive woman with a successful career as a real-estate agent, she is the most outwardly "normal" of the bunch. She has friends, she has hobbies - she just also has a whole lot of cats.

The significance of that is not lost on her. "I have this sickness where I need to take care of someone, and I don't have a husband and kids to take care of. I've always only had my animals," says Jenny, who grew up with an alcoholic father and learned early on to take solace in the constancy of felines. "These guys take care of me by letting me take care of them."

Almost by definition, being a cat lady means that a woman has chosen to shun the social norms of marriage and childbearing, which may be one reason why society so harshly judges the fur-covered. While the moniker crazy cat lady is sometimes used fondly or humorously, when examined, it's a clear example of feminist backlash.

Throughout sexual maturity, women are referred to in feline terms - from sex kitten to cougar, and of course there's the popular vulgar slang for female genitals. Only when they step out of line are females referred to in canine terms, as bitches. Women are expected to identify a bit with cats, but there's an invisible line that, when crossed, triggers the cat-lady stigma. Tellingly, there's no corresponding crazy dog man (or woman) stereotype.

"It's this idea about male appreciation," producer Jeanette Loakman says. "Dogs are faithful, and they're obedient. If you have a lot of cats you're uncontrollable and unpredictable. You're not going to be obedient."

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For the most part, the women profiled in the documentary are incredibly self-aware.

At first blush, Margot seems like a cheerful eccentric. She collects shed whiskers in a special box and unabashedly shares that she once had a dream about breastfeeding her cats. But then a darker truth emerges. Adopted into a high-achieving family as a toddler, Margot says she always felt different. "My cats, that's what saved me. ... They accepted me for who I was."

In a heartbreaking moment of candour late in the film, she says, through a tight smile: "I think that a lot of people don't know that I'm as lonely as I am."

For Diane, the cat-rescuing habit spiralled out of control after she was laid off from her professional career. "I used to be a business person. Now I'm a cat lady," she says. "It's not good," she adds, recounting how she's given up friends and travel. Echoing Margot, she says, "It saves the cats but it doesn't save me."

Of the four women, Sigi is the most militant and least apologetic about her cat-collecting ways, to the dismay of her neighbours in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., who can't use their backyard without being assailed by the odour of hundreds of cats. She'd like to adopt out the animals, she says - but only so she could bring another 100 into her house.

"I think I'm a lot more sane than the people that can handle leaving a cat out in the middle of winter to freeze to death or starve to death," Sigi says. "I think that's crazy."

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