It took three texts, four headlines and a barrage of Tweets to finally get me to read “Cat Person,” a story published in the New Yorker on Sunday that sounds like a satire and reads like a novella. It’s by Kristen Roupenian and it’s gone viral. “The last time I can remember a short story in the New Yorker being as enthusiastically talked-about as Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’ was when Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was published by the magazine in 1997,” writes Slate culture column Laura Miller.
“Cat Person” tells the story of 20-year-old Margot as she meets, flirts and has unceremonious sex with 34-year-old Robert. From the text message banter that doesn’t exactly translate into real conversation to the endearing first date at a 7-Eleven, it has all the trappings of a relatable postmodern love story. But it’s not just relatable, it’s arresting, and what makes it sticky enough to share and re-share is the story happening below all that — the story in Margot’s mind.
Roupenian narrates Margot’s inner monologue in the third person. In doing so, she lends to the story a sort of disassociated emotionality. It’s never quite dramatic, maudlin or histrionic – the tale is one of everyday circumstance: a forgettable romance that starts slow and dies fast. And yet it’s this very nonchalance that makes it all the more harrowing. The gender-choreographed dance Margot and Robert perform is immediately recognizable and yet it’s one rarely brought to the page so matter-of-factly.
Inside their mutual charade, inequality gently blooms. After a disappointing date at the movies (he seems aloof), followed by a night cap that loosens her up (he’s warming), Margot’s inspired to sleep with Robert. Her winking suggestion that they “get out of there” is the final move in her chess game to win him over. The emotional labor she performed to make him feel big is now spent, and the reward is his earned affection, which turns her on. But as soon as she’s in his room, watching him peel off his clothes, she feels trapped by her decision.
“Margot sat on the bed while Robert took off his shirt and unbuckled his pants, pulling them down to his ankles before realizing that he was still wearing his shoes and bending over to untie them. Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled. But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon.”
Her tired assessment is part and parcel of a system that teaches women to value the feelings of others over her own — the mirror of which we see reflected in Robert: his confidence is bolstered only by her self-deprecation. Soon, though, she is turned on again by her role in his pleasure (“The more she imagined his arousal, the more turned-on she got…”). When they eventually have sex, her feelings oscillate between desire to leave, desire to please him and, only briefly, simply desire; she’s never quite present. After he comes, she leaves feeling gross and relieved she’ll never have to see him again.
There is so much about the story that feels salient and timely, but it’s this scene of sexual apathy that’s been the focus of “Cat Person”‘s viral fame. As New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum puts it, the story captures “terrible sex that isn’t rape, but is tied to sexism.” A type of sex, I’d wager, that is familiar to many women.
The 3rd thing is a social phenom that is not modern, something that happens again & again & again: Best of Everything, The Group, Girls. A witty, accessible graphic fiction about sex among single college-educated women goes WIDE, bc women share & identify in what it reveals….
— Emily Nussbaum (@emilynussbaum) December 11, 2017
I think “Cat Person” also succeeds on a visceral level because it sheds light on the internal mechanisms of womanhood — the wheels that delicately turn us into our own enemies, especially in our sex lives. The markers of female subservience may be less explicit today than they’ve ever been, but for many of us, the conditioning to placate men runs deep. Entire swaths of the feminist movement are dedicated to helping women unlearn these dangerous internal narratives (“I am not enough”), verbal tics (“I don’t know anything but…”) and value judgements (his orgasm is required; mine is optional).
“Terrible sex that isn’t rape, but is tied to sexism” is familiar to me. That I deserve to enjoy myself, that I ought to prioritize my own pleasure, is something I learned far too late in my sexually active life. For years, sex was something I owed the men I liked or loved because I liked or loved them. For years, my barometer for good sex was my partner’s experience and, by extension, my partner’s impression of me. When lacking the means or sexual fluency to wield my own power, I found it through pleasing those who had it. The prize was self-esteem; the cost was self-respect.
“As they kissed, [Margot] found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined [Robert] thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect…”
“Just give me time, I’m new to this, but I promise I’ll get there,” I remember saying to a boyfriend at 18, like I was auditioning for a role. A beginner to sex, I’d navigated his advanced expectations for a while, but I was losing steam. I remember hearing my own childish tone and thinking it sounded sad, but not knowing why it was sad. All I knew was his response — “Okay” — sounded nothing like, “You don’t need time. You’re perfect the way you are.” He resented my lack of enthusiasm. I resented the fact that feigned enthusiasm was part of the girlfriend job description.
He wasn’t an ungenerous sexual partner — our “bad sex” didn’t look like Margot and Robert’s, but I had no idea it wasn’t good until years later. And that’s what’s dangerous about a sexually illiterate culture. Just as I was not properly educated on the pursuit of pleasure and agency in sex, my ex-boyfriend never knew a world where his pleasure was not paramount. As such, neither of us truly understood the nuances of consent, or the contours of great sex.
“Bad sex is the result of a society that makes discussing pleasure, desire and consent impossible,” writes sex columnist Ella Dawson in response to the New Yorker piece. “In the US, we do not teach young people how to enjoy sex. We don’t teach them how to talk about sex before, during or after. We don’t teach people how to say no, and we don’t teach them how to say yes.”
Without proper education, toxic gender roles take the wheel. In Margot and Robert’s case, he receives pleasure, while she receives only the pleasure of his pleasure. It’s a tenuous trade — self-esteem in exchange for duty — because neither outcome, in the end, truly benefits her. As @jristen to succinctly put it, “women are expected/socialized to be emotional caretakers at their own expense & face outsized blame when the fail.”
Outside the airless confines of his room, away from a gaze she can’t help but empathize with, Margot is free to not choose him. For this, she’s ultimately punished. The final word of Roupenian’s story is Robert’s: “Whore.” And it serves as an ominous reminder of that which we’ve learned time and time again: When a woman fails to play her part, how quickly a “nice guy” can turn.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.