'Cat Person' is a short story by Kristen Roupenian that went viral this week after it was published in the New Yorker.
In it the protagonist Margot enters into an initially promising text-based relationship with an older man Robert, which turns sour after their first date ends in a problematic sexual encounter. Its themes of gender power imbalance, consent and male aggression have resonated powerfully during a year of news in which all three have been constantly in the spotlight.
Here, two Esquire writers - one female, one male - offer their perspective on the most talked-about piece of fiction for years. Naturally, plot spoilers are abound.
WHAT I LIKED ABOUT MARGOT IS HOW SHE SHARED SOME OF MY LEAST ADMIRABLE PRIVATE THOUGHTS. – Abi Wilkinson
The themes of heterosexual dating, gender, power imbalances and the blurry edges of sexual consent mean 'Cat Person' feels very of the moment, so its unsurprising many readers engaged with it almost as they would a political think piece.
As a woman in my twenties, I found myself identifying with the protagonist, Margot, in a way that was sometimes uncomfortable. Not everything was relatable (her mother booking her and her high school boyfriend a BnB to lose their virginity together felt particularly alien) but so many of her thoughts and feelings were things I’d thought and felt. Margot wasn’t me, exactly, but she was someone I could imagine having a meaningful heart-to-heart with.
Because so many women felt similarly, it was inevitable there would be a backlash. Thousands shared the story and announced “read this if you want to understand me”. Because it so accurately captured some of the everyday difficulties young women face when dating men – the instinctive managing of your date’s ego, the nagging awareness that they could, potentially, physically hurt you, the feeling that, despite changing your mind, you’ve gotten to a point where it would be rude to back out of sex, so it’s easier to just go along with it – it began to be heralded as a feminist triumph. But as a simple morality tale it falls short, because there is no straightforward conflict between good and evil.
What I liked about Margot is how she shared some of my least admirable private thoughts. She was, at times, more than a little self-centred and vain. I related deeply to her decision to consent to sex she didn’t really want, for fear of social awkwardness, but it’s dishonest to pretend to want to sleep with someone while secretly finding them physically repulsive. Women are socialised to flatter men in this way, but there’s no way of knowing if individual men would prefer to be deceived. Maybe Margot’s date, Robert, cared more about getting laid than his partner’s inner life. But maybe his own consent was secured under false pretences. Her desire to avoid conflict also led her to drag things on unnecessarily in the following days, causing more pain in the long run.
None of this excuses Robert’s own behaviour in the final section, where he bombards her with text messages and quickly moves from friendly to pleading to abusive, ending with a single word: “Whore.” And there are other red flags throughout the story, though the unreliable nature of Margot as a narrator makes it hard to know for sure. Is he consciously emotionally manipulating her, or just nervous and fragile like she assumes? The version of him she builds in her head seems partly a product of her own narcissism (she is beautiful and sophisticated, he is under her spell) but that doesn’t mean it’s totally inaccurate. And though the fourteen-year age gap raises immediate questions, Margot frequently feels like she’s the one with more power.
In an accompanying interview, the writer explains she deliberately left space for Robert to be understood as “clueless, but well-meaning” – and for “that version of Robert to exist alongside the possibility of a much more sinister one”. She admits she feels “more genuine sympathy for Margot” but also points out several of her character flaws. Which makes much of the criticism she’s received seem deeply unfair. Many readers appear to have assumed the story is basically autobiographical, something which disproportionately happens to female writers. More than that, they’ve taken it as a statement of the author’s moral and political values, and have found them lacking in multiple respects.
Perhaps this judgement is less on the writer herself than on women who shared the story as highly relatable, but even that seems a misunderstanding. What makes Cat Person feel politically significant is how warts-and-all the portrayal of the female protagonist is. She’s not a passive, innocent victim. She’s not even an especially nice person. Her private thoughts about Robert’s appearance are casually cruel. She also gossips to friends about their encounter, and there’s no reason to assume she’s particularly tactful when doing so. Maybe some of this can be put down to immaturity, but it’s also partly just a product of her personality.
It resonates because most women are not, in fact, always nice. And when men treat us badly, we’re not necessarily entirely blameless, even if our own transgressions are comparatively lesser. The version of ourselves we aspire to be is rarely who we actually are. When feminists write factual articles, we’re often wary to discuss such complexities because we’re acutely aware of the social context we’re operating in. When you’re pushing back against a culture which routinely blames women for even severe violence against them, you don’t want to cede even an inch to that narrative. It’s refreshing to read fiction precisely because the author feels no such obligation. Margot was a product of the writer’s imagination, and that's what allowed her to be so very real.
EMPATHISING WITH ROBERT IS POSSIBLE - FOR ANY MAN HONEST ENOUGH TO TRY. – Sam Parker
Furore aside, 'Cat Person' is a great short story: like all the best examples of the form it is paced beautifully, carried (in this case) by a mounting wave of dread and full of memorable zingers like: “she felt a twinge of desire pluck at her belly, as distinct and painful as the snap of an elastic band against her skin.” The narrator Margot reminded me of 2017’s other much talked about literary invention, Frances, from Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. Both seem to be introducing an exciting new style of millennial female voice – or perhaps, as a man, just one I’ve not noticed until now.
That aside, it is the furore that is, for this week at least, most interesting. While women seem to have been united - not for the first time in 2017 - in a collective cry of recognition and a release of righteous gratitude towards it, men on a whole have responded with knee jerk defensiveness, the literary criticism (ha!) equivalent of #notallmen, which has been immediately mocked by a Twitter account called Men React to Cat Person.
Quite right, too. 'Cat Person' has revealed a predictable deficit of empathy, self-effacement and – well – imagination from men, who have on a whole rushed to condemn Margot’s failings (which Roupenian is careful not to obscure or dismiss) and look at what they can’t relate to in Robert’s behaviour rather than what they can. In doing so they’ve treated this piece of fiction as they would a hot take: just another chance to participate in the endless slog of reductive online tribalism, the ‘us v them’ of the Twitter gender war, an approach which not only misses the point of fiction as a whole but in this case turns down a rare and perhaps important opportunity.
Robert, a character I regarded broadly as arrogant, patronising, terribly pathetic and - after the story’s chilling if somewhat on the nose denouement – a total fucking arsehole, is far from impossible to empathise with for any man honest enough to try.
The interrogative jealousy of his post-coital probing into whether Margot had slept with an old boyfriend – a scenario he’d concocted entirely in his own head – speaks to that peculiarly male sense of sexual entitlement we’ve all felt flare up at some point (whether we would act upon it or not, particularly on a first date, is another matter). Similarly, when Margot panders to Robert's self-importance in the bar and remarks: “The effect of this on him was palpable and immediate, and she felt as if she were petting a large, skittish animal, like a horse or a bear,” I thought immediately of the many times a girlfriend has at some time had to manage the more erratic lurches of my fragile ego in a way I rarely ever had to for them, whether during some ultimately pointless argument about culture or politics or something more meaningful.
Others may relate more or less to Robert, but here’s the real opportunity missed, I think, by those dismissing 'Cat Person' as an attack on men, or as some sort of agenda-driven personal essay rather than the work of fiction. Thousands of women are reading it and going: yes, I can relate to this. Not because Margot is perfect or blameless, but because she speaks truthfully to their experience of sex and dating in a world we’re navigating together. Margot’s instinctive sense that she has to misrepresent her character and desires in order to appease a man – and that this is also true for many women in real life - isn’t our ‘fault’ as individuals, but it should be our concern.
During their excruciating sexual encounter, Margot imagines one day laughing freely about the whole horrible mess with a sympathetic boyfriend, before concluding: “but of course there was no such future, because no such boy existed, and never would.”
For me it’s the most powerful line in the story. At first I balked at Margot’s brutal assessment that she’ll never find a man with whom she feels comfortable being herself and sharing her past without judgement (what about me! Surely I could be that guy!). But then it made me stop and think about whether this may actually be true, and what this says about how male empathy and understanding must always seem conditional for women, whether we intend it to be or not.
It shouldn’t need reiterating that this is what good fiction like 'Cat Person' offers us: the chance to see the world through another person’s eyes, and in this case an insight into topics – gender privilege, sexual consent - that could scarcely be more relevant or important. Many men in 2017 are feeling bewildered by what they're being told about the female experience, and hopefully with that, a desire to understand. 'Cat Person' feels like a great place to start.