The internet latches on to new obsessions all the time. Yet this weekend, the item being shared, debated, and dissected was not a Bad Take or a groundbreaking feature or a shocking sexual-harassment exposé — it was a New Yorker short story called “Cat Person.”
Written by Kristen Roupenian (her first piece for the magazine), “Cat Person” tells the story of a young woman named Margot who meets an older man named Robert while working at a movie theater in her college town. The two begin a drawn-out text flirtation, with Margot spinning out an ever more elaborate conception of Robert’s inner life. Yet when they finally meet and have sex, despite Margot’s misgivings, the experience is terrible — soul-crushingly awful, in fact. When Margot rebuffs him in the aftermath, Robert reveals a mean streak. According to data provided by The New Yorker, “Cat Person” is by far the most-read piece of fiction online this year, as well as one of the magazine’s most-read pieces overall.
“I anticipated that people would respond to the story, but this level of response has gone beyond what I’ve seen with fiction before,” New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman told the Cut. “Anytime that fiction is the most-read piece on our website for days, something unusual is happening.”
Online, much of the response has been from women who saw themselves in Margot:
Yet given that this was a short story, and that social media is generally not known as a space for subtle and nuanced literary criticism, others felt the piece was ripe for misreadings. Twitter user Larissa Pham analyzed what it means for a piece of fiction to attain the viral status usually afforded to personal essays, particularly on the feminist internet. (After all, unlike essays, fiction doesn’t lend itself to clear, didactic messages.)
Meanwhile an account called Men React to Cat Person has been compiling male responses, which are … well, see for yourself.
As part of the inevitable backlash cycle, some have criticized the story for what they saw as fat phobia (Margot makes multiple references to Robert’s weight — although, of course, a character’s feelings aren’t necessarily those of the author).
Amid the flurry of online responses, the question remains: What made this short story strike such a chord? It clearly spoke to women (young women especially), both in depicting the strangeness of getting to know someone over text, and in capturing the mental acrobatics of a new romance: that unique blend of projection and narcissism, idealization and fear. But perhaps most of all, in our current #MeToo moment — when women’s messy and uncomfortable sexual experiences are increasingly taken seriously — it provides a vivid account of the sorts of “bad” sexual encounters that don’t rise to the level of harassment or assault, but still merit closer examination.
“So much of our national discourse right now involves the lines of consensual and nonconsensual sex and where those lines are drawn,” said Treisman. “It’s not a story that involves harassment in the workplace or rape or any of those things, but it’s a story about how those lines can become fuzzy and about how vulnerabilities on both sides can lead to a complete misreading of the other person.”
In an interview Roupenian gave to The New Yorker about writing the piece, she gets at the heart of this:
The option of blunt refusal, doesn’t even consciously occur to [Margot]—she assumes that if she wants to say no she has to do so in a conciliatory, gentle, tactful way, in a way that would take ’an amount of effort that was impossible to summon.’ And I think that assumption is bigger than Margot and Robert’s specific interaction; it speaks to the way that many women, especially young women, move through the world: not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy. It’s reflexive and self-protective, and it’s also exhausting, and if you do it long enough you stop consciously noticing all the individual moments when you’re making that choice.
It’s in this context, Roupenian writes, that Margot chooses to have sex with Robert, despite all the red flags going off in her mind and body: “In order to avoid an uncomfortable, possibly risky exchange, she ‘bludgeons her resistance into submission’ with a shot of whiskey. Then, later, she wonders why the memories of the encounter make her feel so sick and scared, and she blames herself for overreacting, for not being kinder to Robert, who, after all, didn’t do anything wrong.”
While our current news cycle is full of stories about nonconsensual sexual interactions, the time is ripe for a broader discussion about what it means to be a sexual woman in the world. As Rebecca Traister wrote in a piece for this magazine last year, heterosexual sex is “rigged in ways that go well beyond consent.” And reflecting on “the sex we have that we don’t want to have but consent to anyway,” the writer Ella Dawson concluded, “too much of the time, bad sex is the norm for young women, not the exception.”
Still, Treisman said that when she first read the story, she didn’t see Robert as a black-and-white villain. “What [Roupenian] does at the end is not show that all men, if pushed, will call you a whore,” she says. “What she does is show that this one particular guy in a situation which has wounded him for obvious reasons — that this is the response he is pushed to at this point. It’s not an honorable response, but I don’t think it implies that he’s a monster. I think what she’s doing on both sides is showing what happens when people can’t deal with their emotions, simply cannot process them in a positive way, and they get overrun by them. There was wounding on both sides in this story … I think there’s a feminist message as well — I just don’t think that’s the only message there.”