Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)

Imagine you are a lonely 34-year-old with a beautiful young coed in your lap begging to fuck you. Imagine you’d texted this person for weeks and weeks, and by the time you finally went on a date with them their expectations were through the roof. Imagine you have serious feelings for this person and are deeply excited when it appears they reciprocate those feelings. Imagine the utter dejection and confusion you feel after they summarily reject you following a sexual encounter that they initiated. Imagine they don’t have the decency to explain why. Imagine that you accept this rejection with dignity and kindness and wish them well in spite of how badly they’ve hurt you. Imagine that you are still wrecked a month later and make the mistake of drinking in their favorite bar in the hopes of catching a brief glimpse of them. Imagine that you do catch a glimpse, that they catch you catching it, and then react in such an unnecessarily dramatic manner that you finally succumb to the yawning chasm of bewilderment and heartache lurking within you.  

This thought experiment is the secret, sick little heart of Cat Person, Kristen Roupenian’s critically acclaimed short story published by The New Yorker in 2017. I wrote the following when the piece was still a hot topic, but neglected to publish it because I feared judgment. It is clear that my analysis is Wrong and does not square with popular opinion. I’m supposed to read the story as a chilling snapshot of male rage, and a damningly accurate portrayal of the dangers intrinsic to heterosexual dating. Instead, it reads like thinly disguised incel propaganda. If we are going to treat this as more truth than fiction, if we are going to treat this as feminist literature, then some concerns need to be addressed.

For the most part, Roupenian’s story is a good enough exploration of a dating dynamic that often results in both parties feeling used. It’s a tense read, and I applaud her achievement. Unfortunately, the decision to end it with Robert calling Margot a whore shifts the entire narrative to a weird kind of “saved by the bell” scenario in which Margot’s immaturity and callous treatment of Robert are retroactively justified. Robert’s devolution into Bye Felipe fucknuttery at the story’s conclusion makes it seem like Margot’s creep detector sense was functioning properly the whole time, even though there was no foreshadowing to corroborate it. We are then invited to feel that she dodged a bullet, even though she clearly fired the gun herself.

A 20-year-old woman doesn’t have enough life experience to always know how to navigate delicate situations, or understand her own biases and fears. Roupenian really nailed that part of Margot’s character. It is painfully truthful. On the other hand, Roupenian also goes to great lengths to show us that Margot is intelligent and sensitive to Robert’s emotional state, which complicates things immensely. That she basically toys with him and ducks responsibility by playing the “I’m too young to know what I’m doing” card destroys any sympathy I might have had. She leads the titular cat person on to a degree that is inexcusable. Obviously, anyone is entitled to change their mind about wanting intimacy, but breaking things off through a text message sent by someone else is unnecessarily cruel. She recognizes this, but does nothing about it. The prevailing attitude here seems to be that because Robert possesses a Typically Fragile Male Ego (TFME), rejection in any form would have shattered it, so there was no point in trying to be kind. Might as well do whatever is most convenient because it’s all the same, right?

[And I won’t even get into the ageism, fatphobia, sex-negativity, and persistent undercurrent of, like, loneliness-shaming that laces this whole narrative.]

In her brief attempts to compose a breakup text in her own words, Margot’s only concern is that Robert might try to wriggle through a “loophole,” and request more sex. She refuses to acknowledge that he genuinely cares about her. Why? What excites her is the memory of their tender moment outside the 7-Eleven, and how reluctantly he accepted her advances following their round of drinks at the bar, yet she later embraces the idea that he views her as a sex object. Following that, she then feels disgusted that he appears to fuck her as if she’s a sex object and internalizes the belief that’s she’s an object even though nothing Robert says or does reinforces that belief. To be sure, women are bombarded with conflicting messages about sexuality from the moment they’re born, and confusion is a natural response to that, but Margot doesn’t try to unpack any of this. She just obeys impulse and passively notices the contradictions as if she has no agency. Her response to realizing what a confounding jerk she’s being is to simply think “LOL, perhaps if Robert were young and cool and conventionally attractive I could find it in my heart to treat him like a person. Alas!”

Robert’s nervousness and sensitivity are not unfamiliar. He’s terrified of being rejected, of having wasted so much time and energy on a dead end (a valid fear in one’s thirties), of being humiliated by someone younger and hipper than him (which is exactly what happens), of failing to accommodate a young person’s vulnerabilities, and any number of idiosyncratic things relating to his past relationship experiences. It’s not all TFME; there’s some regular human stuff in there too, and the author doesn’t bother to differentiate. Instead, misogyny is imposed upon Robert until he eventually cops to it. That isn’t satisfying. It feels cheap. He actually does respect Margot’s wish not to be contacted when he’s of sound mind. He’s far more polite than the situation warrants, frankly. If I were him, I wouldn’t respond to the roommate’s text with a heartbroken “Ok, I am sorry to hear that. Please let me know if you change your mind.” I’d be demanding an explanation. Not because I think anyone owes me their time, body, or affection, but because after months of nonstop texting and an intimate encounter that meant something to me (and that I assumed meant something to them), I would feel entitled to a bit of closure. I’m a person, not a plaything. Robert’s string of texts at the end of the story are obviously a product of the helplessness and frustration he feels. In a world in which men often say such things unprovoked, one has to wonder why Roupenian chose to paint this behavior with the most sympathetic brush possible.

It is incumbent on every human being to get woke, understand society’s power structures and their place within it, and try to Do Better. While women should not perform emotional labor for others, they do have an obligation to uphold their end of the wokeness bargain. Frequently we do much more work than men, but the answer is not to stop doing the work altogether. Margot feels that once she changes her mind about Robert, that’s it. Because no means no and isn’t up for negotiation, she thinks ghosting is okay. It isn’t. It’s a dick move, and everyone, regardless of their position within society’s power structure, is responsible for their actions.

What this story has the potential to do is open up a nuanced discussion about the ways in which the patriarchy harms all genders, and how the perceptions and expectations it creates poison our ability to feel empathy for one another. Margot’s fears about Robert are not unjustified. Men rape and kill women all the time. However, this fact clouds her judgment to the point at which she fears Robert no matter what he says or does. Additionally, her revulsion is almost exclusively centered around his age and waistline. Does that lead us to believe that if he were younger and slimmer she wouldn’t have been afraid? It’s unclear what Roupenian intends to say here.

Robert lacks the vocabulary to express his fragility just as Margot lacks the vocabulary to speak her mind. These are not personal failings, but impositions made on them by a culture of toxic masculinity. Women are taught not to stand up for themselves, and that once the ball is rolling it can’t be stopped. Men are taught that women are capricious creatures that need to be handled in a special way or they’ll disappear in a puff of smoke and fairy dust. Robert’s informed-by-porn sexual prowess strikes me as more pathetic than creepy. Maybe he hasn’t had sex in years. Maybe his last partner genuinely enjoyed his dirty talk and brusque foreplay. We don’t know anything about his history, yet are invited to shame him for his bedroom antics. That doesn’t feel feminist to me.

[Side note about Robert’s fragility: it is implied that he should be less sensitive to Margot’s rejection because it’s to be expected. After all, as we are repeatedly told, he’s a “fat old man,” and how could such a person really believe that a cool young coed would really want him? We’re invited to sympathize with her thought of him “shattering like glass,” even though his insecurities are totally valid. What’s the message? Unattractive people should damn well know how unattractive they are and expect to be treated accordingly?]

I too have been in a situation in which I thought I wanted sex but later realized I didn’t. I too have been in a situation in which I did not know how to let someone down gently. I too have gone on dates with men far older than me and found myself unexpectedly horrified by the depressing minutia of their lives. While all of that is relatable, so is Robert’s meltdown at the end of the story. I hate to say it, but his character is more sympathetic than Margot’s. I’m not excusing his bad behavior, nor the misogynist epithets he directs at her; I’m drawing a distinction between saying something regrettable in a moment of drunken anguish and sexually preying on someone, because they are not equivalent. This feels important to say in our current social climate. Men should be held accountable for their misdeeds, big and small. Period. I don’t, however, see any benefit to equating sexual violence with mildly repellent behavior. That this story elevates Robert’s cringe-inducing dirty talk to a red flag signalling possible danger is irresponsible storytelling and contributes to the inevitable #MeToo backlash.

So the question is “why does the author have an obligation to explore these things? Can’t she just write a damn story?”

My answer to that is no, she can’t. Feminist literature needs to do more than simply tell a story. This is one of the many reasons I took issue with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. At the time of its release, women were still laboring under the assumption that sexual assault was rare, and that most allegations of such are false. To write a novel about a woman who makes such false allegations and turn it into a blockbuster movie felt irresponsible to me. No disrespect to Flynn, who needs to make a living like everyone else, but that whole project left a bitter taste in my mouth. You just know there were rape apologists watching Gone Girl and thinking “Ah-ha! I fucking knew it! Liars, all of them!” Perhaps the author is comfortable with that. I, personally, am not.

One of the stickiest parts of feminism is acknowledging that some women do, in fact, suck. Sometimes, men’s complaints ring true. For every accusation that a misogynist shit whistle has lobbed at Women, some individual woman has been guilty of it, because women are people, and people are fucking terrible. There’s little opportunity to explore the ways in which women compound both male misery and their own without appearing to agree with the misogynists, so most of us just steer clear of the subject altogether and pretend the human condition doesn’t apply to us. It would be nice to see that change, though I admit I don’t know how to go about it. At present, there’s too much at stake.

The patriarchy poisons us all. Women are often complicit in misogyny. They can also be insensitive clods that use misogyny to justify inconsiderate behavior (i.e. “why should I even attempt to care about a man’s feelings or empathize with him on a human level when he’s probably a rapist anyway?”). That isn’t woke. That isn’t helping. This story, whether the author realizes it or not, validates many of the fears misogynists have. Chief among them are the ideas that sex is a weapon women use against them, that humiliation and rejection are ever-present threats, that women will turn on you for the shallowest reasons, that we are inscrutable, that we are unknowable, that we lack empathy, etc. Perpetuating these myths is the last thing we ought to do, yet in Cat Person they are presented with unflinching starkness. In an era of honor killings, spree shootings, decades-long abuse scandals, predatory presidents/supreme court justices, and the steady erosion of our reproductive rights, that’s a fairly dangerous road to traverse. In fact, this whole story faintly reeks of incel ideology.

Scary.