‘Cat Person’: How a singular story illuminates collective modern womanhood

Illustration of a woman and a man sitting at the drive in theatre, with the man putting his arm around the woman in a way that makes her uncomfortable.
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The first time I read Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” spellbindingly scrolling down my phone in the last row of a monotonous film lecture, I felt like somebody had captured my most intimate thoughts, thoughts I hadn’t even fully processed, and beautifully expressed them in one heartbreaking, disgusting, cringe-inducing short story.

The minute I finished reading, I sent it to every woman in my life. “I’m sending this to all my past hookups,” a friend wrote back. “Margot is my inner voice as a character,” said another, but after I sent it to my mother, she simply texted, “That was disturbing and I didn’t get it. Why did you like it again?”

The Washington Post described the story, which depicts an ill-fated hookup between college sophomore Margot and 34-year-old Robert, as unique for The New Yorker because “for one of the first times, something in the magazine seemed to capture the experience not of print-oriented, older intellectuals but of Millennials.” Within days of being published in The New Yorker in December 2017, “Cat Person” became a viral sensation and one of the magazine’s most-read pieces of the year, sparking a debate around consent, power and sex in the midst of the Me Too movement. It also faced predictable backlash from men staying true to their long tradition of undermining women’s fiction.

Much like how we now seem to view the horrors illuminated by the Me Too movement as a historical footnote, a few years passed and I forgot about “Cat Person” until last week, when I rediscovered it after my creative writing professor assigned the story for class. Delving back into the story, I saw how “Cat Person” is still as relevant as ever and a necessary reading for pandemic life.

The story opens with Margot flirting with Robert to make her job, working concessions at the movie theater, less boring. He asks for her number and “over the next several weeks they built up an elaborate scaffolding of jokes via text, riffs that unfolded and shifted so quickly that she sometimes had a hard time keeping up.”

In an age when the coronavirus has almost exclusively shifted dating to online, Margot’s behavior serves as a cautionary tale for young women. While getting to know someone virtually, it is all too easy to fabric a false sense of who the other person is; a proclivity to give the benefit of the doubt in the face of the unknown.

“Cat Person” shows the dangers of overextending our empathy to fill in the sketches of men we don’t know.

The story is narrated in the close third person, filtering everything through Margot’s perspective. When the two go out to see a “pretentious Holocaust” movie Robert picked, Margot constantly analyzes Robert’s behavior, searching for hidden clues to confirm he’s the same person she developed “such high expectations for” while the two were texting.

Rereading these scenes felt like watching a poorly written horror movie where the girl, who’s conveniently home alone, gets up to go investigate the front door that’s mysteriously creaking.

I anxiously bounced my knees against the wooden underside of my desk so I wouldn’t blurt, “Don’t do it, Margot,” at the page in front of me when she decides to sleep with Robert despite their “terrible, shockingly bad kiss,” after “imagining how excited he would be, how hungry and eager to impress her.”

One of the first lessons my creative writing professor instilled in us is how every single detail in short fiction, no matter how seemingly trivial or minute, is deliberately included and often laced with multiple meanings due to short stories’ compact format.

How are we supposed to think of ourselves as anything other than the gatekeepers to sex after being told for most of our lives that men only want one thing from us?

So, when Robert pulls up to his house and innocuously reminds Margot that he has cats, which she never actually sees, and ominously phrases it “darkly, like a warning.” I saw it as Robert’s untrustworthiness instead of a line of plain dialogue this time around. (or, I read it for what it was this time around? )

This subtle siren is the closest the text gets to consent from either party. The next words Robert says to Margot other than “Well. This is my house,” are him “bossily” telling her to take off her bra.

When he strips off his clothes, Margot finds herself repulsed by Robert. She debates backing out but “after everything she’d done to push this forward,” she fears it “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.”

Margot had been taught to see sex like a business deal in which her previously expressed interest leaves her trapped into holding up her end of the bargain, and so have I and many other woman who read over this line with a sharp pang of recognition.

How are we supposed to think of ourselves as anything other than the gatekeepers to sex after being told for most of our lives that men only want one thing from us?

An article in “VICE,” in which four women described “their real life relationships with cat people,” opens with the distressing recognition that “if you’re a sexually active young woman, chances are you’ve had sex with someone for no other reason that just feeling like you should.”

However, this statement misses a crucial aspect of the inherited power structures that still plague modern relationships between men and women.

For much of the story, Margot — young, privileged and conventionally attractive — can be read as the primary agent between the two. However, this all flips in the visceral, oftentimes hard to read, sex scene when Robert treats her like an object during sex, throwing her around like a sex “doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head.”

Afterward, Robert drives Margot home, and she recalls how “she imagined that Robert might murder her” at the start of the date, and “thought, maybe he’ll murder me now.”

Her all too familiar nagging unease reminds me of the infamous Margaret Atwood quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

“Cat Person” even seems to allude to this inherent fear when Margot stops herself from laughing at Robert when he asks if she’s a virgin because she knows “he was not a person who would enjoy being laughed at, not at all.”

The story finally ends once Robert sends Margot a series of texts after creepily showing up to a student bar she once recommended. She feels “sick and scared” upon seeing him, and this is the last time we get access to Margot’s thoughts.

The narrative sharply breaks from her perspective, letting Robert’s texts stand on their own. After Margot doesn’t answer him, he grows increasingly aggressive, until it ends with him calling her a “whore.”

The first time I read the ending it felt inevitable, yet shocking. After being told she didn’t want to see him anymore, Robert cordially wrote, “I hope I did not do anything to upset you. You are a sweet girl and I really enjoyed the time we spent together.”

Robert hadn’t been painted as overtly sexist, he’s supposed to be just a regular guy, which is precisely why “Cat Person” is so successful. It isn’t until he’s been definitively rejected that he falls back on misogynist language to assert his power over Margot. Men don’t have to be horrible individuals for their systemic power to hurt women — as my friend so eloquently put it, “Sir, that’s, like, literally the definition of systemic power.”

Robert hadn’t been painted as overtly sexist, he’s supposed to be just a regular guy, which is precisely why “Cat Person” is so successful.

“Cat Person” shows us that any woman could be on the receiving end of Robert’s words. After being so intimately tied with Margot the entire story and then transitioning to the texts standing on their own, we feel as though we’re the ones being called a “whore.”

Roupenian said she was inspired to write the story after some bad dating experiences made her feel so alone “she couldn’t articulate it.”

After “Cat Person” went viral, in large part because of women who saw themselves and their experiences validated in this story, Roupenian said she couldn’t help but think that everything would’ve been different for her at Margot’s age if she “understood how collective some of these experiences are.”

I was 18 when I first read “Cat Person,” fresh off of finishing my first semester at Berkeley. A few months earlier, I ran into a boy I’d casually known from class at a party who was drinking beer in the corner. I hadn’t found him especially cute or interesting — the most attractive thing about him was that he liked me. I liked another boy from class who, for some reason, always brought strawberries from the dining hall to snack on during lecture.

The heaving, sweaty party from a past life dragged on, and beer boy came to dance with me and my friends. I let him, not thinking anything would come of it. He inched closer to me, grabbing my hips. I was being pushed and pulled in so many directions on the packed dance floor I barely even registered they were there.

Somebody pushed on my back while walking past, causing me to fall against his front. His tongue was pushing against the roof of my mouth before I could even register what was happening. I’d spent the past few days thinking about what it would have been like to kiss strawberry boy; I imagined it’d be sweet or gentle.

Instead, my mouth was invaded by warm stale beer. Foam dripped onto my chin. Teeth carelessly bit down on my lips. Hands dug into my skin. I let it go on for the next few minutes, afraid he might get mad and do something, or that I’d seem like a brat after I’d engaged with him thus far.

After reading “Cat Person,” I wished I could go back to that scared 18-year-old and tell her, “It’s okay, you didn’t want something bitter from the menu, you wanted something sweet. Say no, and send it back.”     

 

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].