Soon after Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story “Cat Person” became a viral sensation, a Twitter account called Men React to Cat Person began compiling male responses gleaned from Facebook and Twitter. But, of course, the conversations that the story sparked — including reactions from, yes, men — were more than just a punchline. And the male response to “Cat Person” was hardly monolithic. Here’s what a few men told the Cut about their thoughts.
Some names have been changed.
I spent a number of years meeting strangers on Craigslist for risky meet-ups, and have engaged in BDSM for close to 20 years (on both sides of the power dynamic) — so issues of consent, coercion, and limits are something I take an interest in. I related on both sides of the coin: I went through a situation very similar to Margot and Robert, where I was in his position. I traveled from New York to Virginia for a friend’s wedding and ended up spending the night with one of the other guests, who was actually moving to Brooklyn in a couple weeks. As I left, she handed me a card in a little gold envelope with my name on it, with a note saying she had a good time and her number. It was enough to leave the impression that she wanted to connect in some way when she made it to Brooklyn. I followed up with her, got no response, and left a voicemail referencing how we made out at the wedding and asking if she’d like to make out again. She left me a voice-mail after that saying that my message scared her, and not to contact her again. I called her back right away (I know this was disregarding her request) and apologized, because it was upsetting, and we had mutual friends who encouraged me to contact her. Then I never contacted her again and never asked our mutual friends anything about her. It was a shitty feeling all around, and I was sickened by the thought of making her scared. Simultaneously, I felt manipulated, like that was the worst thing she could say to me to make me leave her alone. I never said that to her or anyone else before this. — Chris, 38, artist and father of two
It was relatable for me, in the sense that I have done what Robert did. Not to the extent of calling someone a “whore,” but I have had situations where I thought everything was going well, and then suddenly it just doesn’t, which leaves me desperately seeking answers. It often devolves into me getting frustrated and becoming upset with the other person, to the point where I accuse them of wrongdoing in some way. I know it’s totally unfair, but it’s just my natural response. I don’t do this anymore, as I think a lot of it before came from insecurities I had with myself, most of which I don’t have anymore. Also, just being cognizant of the fact that if it’s not there, it’s just not there, and it doesn’t make her a bitch.
A friend of mine asked me, “Well, but couldn’t you relate to Margot at all?” I guess I hadn’t really thought about that, because initially I was viewing this all from Robert’s perspective. This question got me thinking: I have had instances where I have had sex with someone because I felt bad and didn’t want to feel like I’d led them on for nothing. It’s just that my experience with that has often been different. At worst, I am called an asshole when I take the approach that Margot took, and it doesn’t sting the way being called “slut” or “whore” would, I’d imagine. Also, I find that in my encounters where the sex enters this blurry line of consent, such as the one Margot and Robert had, I find it easier for me to show little interest, and it can fizzle out naturally. Literally, I had a situation where I just couldn’t get aroused, and it’s hard to hide it for a guy. But it’s harder for me to tell that with a woman — or easier for her to fake it — so you can think there’s something there when there might not be. — Kumal, 28, works in tech
My last relationship earlier this year was with a woman 15 years younger than me, and played out in an oddly similar way — so perhaps I related based on that very recent, very upsetting experience, which was similar right up until the last line (which I would never resort to using). We had a crazy good text relationship, but in person it was often difficult and stunted, only to revert to great text relationship. I hope she didn’t feel about me, physically, what the woman in the story did, but the point from my side is that there is always your own inner fear about what is going on in her head. She basically ended up ghosting me after a year (and ten years of friendship before that). I’ve never been willing to let myself be in a relationship like that before, where I knew that there were issues. I figured that it’s always me, so let it play out, and see what happens. Didn’t work out like that. I related to him as well, in that you’re happy when your feelings are reciprocated: He just didn’t know how to handle that, and tried to project an image that he thought she would like (I’m guessing). I related to Margot, too. I think she was looking for emotional intimacy but didn’t exactly know what that meant within the context of this relationship. — Michael, 52, wine-store owner
“Cat Person” shook me. It made me uncomfortable. It angered me and it made me sad. I saw Robert as a pathetic oaf from the get-go. Why was he by himself at the movies in the first place? He reeked of self-loathing and insecurity. I’ve been told, though I don’t agree, that there always seems to be someone with the “power” in any relationship. I think society has made me believe that the younger, more beautiful counterpart, who can easily go and find someone else, would be the individual with the power, and therefore, the control in a relationship. Especially when the counterpart is so clearly insecure and jealous. “Cat Person” made me realize this is not the case. That there is another power dynamic that exists, which is much less tangible, but drastically more powerful. There was this moment of absolute sickness when I felt how Margot had essentially withdrawn her consent to move forward in her mind, but went ahead anyways, because of this pressure she felt from Robert and the concern for what he would think if she stopped short. It was illuminating and absolutely sickening to me. I hate Robert and deeply hope that I’m not him, but I think we — men — all are. — Zachary, 30, product manager
I was fascinated by the story for the same reasons everyone was. It does amazing work to examine the way we fill in the holes left by people’s digital identities, and exposes the perils of that process. As a man, it’s also important for me to talk about the way Roupenian’s story stresses the need not just for consent, but enthusiastic consent. I can’t recall a piece of short fiction that dealt with that so explicitly. — Kaveh, 28, professor and poet
I was pretty terrified at Robert, and I was sad at the moment she said [of her dream boy] “no such boy exists,” or something like that. I’m thinking, I’m sure, I’m sure. I’m sure they’re out there. I’m sure there’s the complete opposite of Robert out there. That’s my optimistic side. I see Roberts every day, from my old offices to the people some of friends swipe on.
I was anxious reading the piece, though. And, honestly, I thought the story was nearly going to take a twist, and she would end up in an extremely dangerous situation. But I know that was the intention — that’s how she felt walking into this home with two cats and a mattress on the ground. Somehow we’re trained to perceive all of this as normal. But I felt like someone in a movie theater, shouting, “DON’T GO IN!!!”
Of course, you start to reflect and ask yourself if you’ve done this to anyone, if you’ve made anyone uncomfortable and been inappropriate. You wonder if somehow you’ve mistreated someone. I’ve been trained to be self-aware — I think any POC would agree to this. So I’ve always felt different navigating dating. I don’t believe I’ve ever been a Robert, but I’m glad I read the piece. I knew from my friends what dating felt like for them, but reading this — I felt privy to intimate details and thoughts, and how easily these dudes can ensnare someone, how I shouldn’t be too quick to judge others if they fall into similar situations, because I see it more clearly now: how they put this veil over you and lead you into darkness.
I related to Margot at times, honestly, especially when he drives up with his dirty-ass car. I’m thinking, Shit — my mom told me to judge hard, someone’s room, and someone’s car. I know that sounds silly, but if it ain’t true. Somehow, it struck me as a red flag. I think when I was younger that didn’t matter to me, and I was like, Well, some people are messy! Some people just don’t care about those kinds of things. I do believe it reflects who you are inside. That’s a generalization, of course. — Ignacio, 28, visual artist
I liked the same elements of the story I think everyone else did. It felt sharp, well-observed, Zeitgeist-y. But the ending struck me, compared to the rest of the story, as forced and heavy-handed. And in reinterpreting the story through the ending — which is a good approach to take whatever the story — “Cat Person” came to seem smaller and more ordinary and a little didactic. The story itself didn’t leave my jaw dropped or stay with me the way my favorite short fiction does. (This isn’t to say that men don’t behave like the male character in the story — far from it — only that rejection-prompted misogyny rates as too familiar to be arresting.)
And I guess that’s why I found the praise (and eventually defense) offered to the story a little surprising. The best fiction, to my mind, reflects universal concerns and values and dilemmas in unfamiliar and sometimes unexpected settings. With this story, though, people seemed to connect to it because the plot and setting reflected experiences they had lived. Which is fine, as far as it goes; it’s a good thing if people want to read and discuss New Yorker short fiction, not least because we’re otherwise stuck relying on the comments section of [the website] The Mookse and The Gripes. But I figure reading fiction that falls way short of certain higher aims ought to be defended, too. — Jacob, 27, journalist
I think the reason “Cat Person” has made such an impact is that it has held up a mirror to experiences that many women have had with a lot of men. I can only speak for myself, but the unfiltered inner monologue of the story’s main character, Margot, is something I’ve long suspected to be true. There have been so many dates where I’m sitting there, wondering what they’re thinking, hoping I’m doing everything right, hoping I’m saying the right things, hoping I’m not saying the wrong things. It’s kind of a relief to know you’re not the only one, because it’s usually only after you’re in a relationship that you share those initial nervous thoughts and hesitations.
The most important part of the story in my opinion is how it explores having feelings for someone you barely know. The dating culture we find ourselves in now is a very fragile system that’s trying to cling to the ways of the present and the past at the same time. While texting streamlines the process of getting to know someone, you’re only getting the base layer of who they really are as a person. You’re deceiving someone into seeing the best version of you, and it’s a lot easier to do that via text. I don’t think it’s intended to be malicious, it’s a deception of hope; you want to be the person that you’re representing in your texts, all while hanging on every word they say. We’ve all sat there wondering what to text back — if you should do it immediately or wait, wondering if your response will drive them away or bring them closer. This creates tension and confusion and the misreading of a lot of texts. You’re stuck trying to figure out their intention while projecting your own emotions into what they say. It’s playful and fun when you know the person, but it’s a confusing nightmare when you don’t. This is something that “Cat Person” does extremely well, and speaking from experience, it’s not gender-specific and the story shows that — which is a rare insight. — Stephen, 28, actor and director
I don’t personally relate to Robert, but I’ve known a lot of boys and men like him over the years. I’ve only ever seriously dated one person, and married her, so not a lot of experience to reflect on. But even in our relationship, we’ve talked before about how there were times when, for example, she wasn’t particularly interested in something, but just went along with it. Which surprised me at the time (a few years ago). I do it too, in my own way, but there’s definitely a gendered lens that all of this should be considered through. It’s interesting how much of it is projected, even in a long-term relationship with your best friend. So it must be so much more extreme when it’s with someone you’ve barely gotten to know.
You know what is a bit sad (but important)? Any story that’s about a heterosexual couple is going to invariably have this question of, “How have the toxic elements of the patriarchy shaped/influenced this?” Which is an important question! But also I’m so curious about the whole “projection” aspect. Someone once mentioned that Elena Ferrante’s female characters have those dynamics in their friendships. Haven’t read [her books] yet, but I’m looking forward to it. Like, think of how a close, same-sex friendship between cis straight friends might be damaged by such assumptions, or a lesbian relationship. There’s so much fertile ground to cover.
It’s sad how slow we are to clue in to all this, but it’s exciting how much potential there is for exploration and learning. If only we could be a little less defensive and more eager to listen and learn. And, of course, the greater tragedy is still that so many men obstinately miss the point and go on hurting people instead of pausing to reflect and ask, “How can I do better?” — Visakan, 27, marketing executive