Cat person was published by the New Yorker in 2017 and became the first ever short story to go ‘viral’, inviting discussion concerning its major themes of consent, gender roles, porn and patriarchal conditioning in sex. Its popular reception on Twitter, and seemingly innocuous plot – a 20 year old woman called Margot having bad sex with an older man called Robert – initially lent itself to categorisation as a commentary on ‘modern day dating’ (awful term), or worse, a ‘millennial response to #Metoo’.
Perhaps this is unsurprising – part of Roupenian’s genius is her accessible, unmistakably modern language – her ‘lowbrow’ references (“that smiley-face emoji whose eyes were hearts”) that enhance the eery realism of the piece and suitably disguise the disturbing undercurrents of each minute social interaction: the fact that Robert continues to call Margot ‘concession-stand girl’ (“though of course he knew her name by then”) is more than an example of his dim wittedness (his inspiration for this ‘nickname’ being simply her job title) – it demonstrates his detachment from her identity independent of him and the dynamics of their meeting – her literally in a service role to him.
Crudely put: what is the line between ‘bad sex’ and assault?
It would be disingenuous and perhaps too easy for me to map these dynamics straight onto the sexual encounter that comes later. Nonetheless the story has awoken in women feelings of powerlessness, or at least, experiences of underwhelming sex – and most interestingly, how these encounters relate to the discussion about consent. Crudely put: what is the line between ‘bad sex’ and assault? Margot appears to consent verbally, indeed, it is her suggestion to go to Robert’s house after their date – and yet it seems even this is tentative at best (“Can I . . . come over?”). Even less heartening is Margot’s emotional response to arriving at Robert’s house – not excitement or intrigue but “relief”- she has speculated that he that he could have rooms full of “corpses or kidnap victims or chains.” Sure, she has no particular evidence that he would be violent towards her – and this shouldn’t be congratulated. And yet this is essentially what happens – Margot, almost unbelievably, finds solace in minor details that corroborate Robert’s basic humanity: “It was new, and a little frightening, to be so completely on someone else’s turf, and the fact that Robert’s house gave evidence of his having interests that she shared, if only in their broadest categories—art, games, books, music—struck her as a reassuring endorsement of her choice”. For Margot, this is enough to flesh out a figure who, in the bar, she thinks of as “a large, skittish animal, like a horse or a bear,” that she is taming, coaxing to eat from her hand.
The crucial question becomes what would happen if she relinquished this programme of seduction and flattery – if she bluntly stated that she didn’t want to have sex with him. This option seems to be one that Margot can’t even fathom -“It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.” It is this particular feeling that proved painfully relatable as women recalled the times they broke their own boundaries in order to accommodate a man’s desire, or because they were afraid to deal with his hurt feelings.
Perhaps Cat Person jarred some men into defence mode. They interpreted it as a critique of their own kissing.
(Almost) as if to prove this point – a highly embarrassing twitter page ‘Men React to Cat Person’ catalogued, unsurprisingly, men’s hurt feelings in relation to Cat Person. Their groundbreaking comments are best encapsulated roughly by ‘‘why didn’t she just say no?’’ Of course, responses such as these have missed the subtleties of the point entirely. Margot is an example of the culture in which women are trained not to be honest about negative feelings, certainly those concerning their own sexual pleasure. A lifetime of women never telling him otherwise has led 36 year old Robert to confidently “practically pour his tongue down (Margot’s) throat” resulting in a “terrible kiss, shockingly bad; Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing”. Perhaps Cat Person jarred some men into defence mode. They interpreted it as a critique of their own kissing. They may have asked themselves whether they have been as creepy (‘instead of kissing her on the mouth he took her by the arm and kissed her gently on the forehead, as though she were something precious. “Study hard, sweetheart,”) or as patronising (‘He teased her about her highbrow taste, and said how hard it was to impress her because of all the film classes she’d taken, even though he knew she’d taken only one summer class in film’) as Robert.
I take particular issue with this kind of reception because beyond undermining the female protagonist, this line of critique takes on a rather more insidious line of attack by reducing the female authors’ capacity to construct fiction and to read their female characters as lesser than fully actualised. Margot is not intended to represent every women just as much as Robert isn’t intended to represent the evil of men everywhere. Whereas in general the literary short story is celebrated as one of the highest forms of artistic expression and skill, responses to Cat Person implicitly assumed the form of a personal essay – a woman moaning to the internet about her own bad date. Thus, even people who liked the story subconsciously put it in a different realm to ‘serious’ literary work. Roupenian is cognisant of her own radical supervision of the ‘chick lit’ genre, resulting in something unmistakably from a female point of view without being ‘feminine’, at least in limited way femininity has traditionally been conceived (‘by her third beer, she was thinking about what it would be like to have sex with Robert’).
In a particularly poignant section, Margot desperately arouses herself by imagining how Robert imagines her: “Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking… she’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly”. She has literally internalised the male gaze and its fixation on youth to a disturbing degree, and Robert mirrors it back to her: ‘During sex, he moved her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again’. This moment encapsulates the tragic miscommunication between Margot and Robert at the crux of Cat Person – in which ultimately ‘no one is the goodie or the baddie, born from a culture of lies about what we should be, from fairy tales to romcoms to porn’ (Dolly Alderton).