‘Cat Person’ is a short story published on ‘The New Yorker’. Within days of its publication, it has been widely circulated and discussed in the internet. I came across the story on my Facebook feed, shared by a friend who I know has a sophisticated taste and critical mind. I read it in the morning, still in my pyjamas in bed on my iPhone. It continued to occupy my mind throughout the following days - which is why I decided to write about it here and touch upon some of the themes that occur in the story.
Here is what happens in a nutshell: Young girl, 20, flirts with a customer in the cinema, she gives him her number and they start developing an intense exchange of texts over a period of time. Finally, they go on a date, it does not go well, she still decides to continue, they have sex which goes quite badly, too. She rejects him afterwards, he does not take it gracefully.
Perhaps the story sounds quite obvious, bland or even familiar? But what makes this story compelling is the simplicity of the story line, ‘girl meets boy’, or, as it actually is in this case, ‘girl meets older man’ and the multiple layers of subtext and intricacies beneath it. The story shows how complex human interaction and relationships are.
In the story, Margot starts talking to Robert because she is bored and he seems just about cute enough to flirt with. They start conversing via text messages and mostly joke around, trying to outwit and impress each other. Still, she never gets to know much about him, yet anything personal - which leaves it up to her to fill in the blanks with her own fantasies and imagination. She starts puzzling together an image of him based on the texts and the few other indicators of him, such as his tattoo, a ‘too long beard’ and clothing style that give him a ‘lumberjack aura’.
There are many questions that come up to mind: How much can you get to know a person through electronic communication only? How much fantasising is at play here? The author, Kristen Roupenian said that she was inspired to write ‘Cat Person’ after a nasty online encounter. She writes about dating in general:
Our initial impression of a person is pretty much entirely a mirage of guesswork and projection. When I started writing the story, I had the idea of a person who had adopted all these familiar signifiers as a kind of camouflage, but was something else—or nothing at all—underneath.
Online dating websites seem almost outdated in the era of instant-hook-up and dating phone apps. With electronic communication, one is at complete control of what is being revealed. You can choose and edit the most glamorous picture of yourself (which for an app like Tinder is the most crucial factor), and you can choose your words wisely before you send them off (how many of us have agonised for hours over how to reply to a text or email to a person we liked? And there are so many things to consider: Not sounding too needy or desperate, how to convey you want to see him/her again, but in a cool and casual way, not flirting too obviousy, creating a desirable image of yourself etc.)
Eventually, Margot and Robert go on a ‘real’ date. She starts getting nervous as she gets inside his car. As they are for the first time in his territory, behind closed doors, she realises that her life is completely at his mercy. He could be a rapist or murderer, for she knows nothing about him. Once they go inside his house, she has the same fears briefly again. Some readers were perplexed about her reaction and commented it was absurd. But it is reasonable: First of all, Robert is still a stranger who hardly talks and does not give anything about him away, and secondly, as a woman, it is more likely that a male stranger would attack her, and that does not even need to happen behind closed doors.
The writer Roupenian was also inspired by a quote from Margaret Atwood:
Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.
Margots thoughts echo the fears, inequalities and violence acted upon women throughout the world. Perhaps Margot already has a gut feeling that he would not take it lightly if if she says ‘No’. Would he let her go? Or would he try to convince her, teasingly first, then getting angry? Would he force her? Would he hit her? Throughout the date, she is less and less attracted to him, but she continues, partly because her anticipation was so high she does not want to end it so quickly, but also because she doesn't know how to get out of the situation:
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.
The fear that a lot of women face is also fed from the horror stories of abuse against women that are circulating - with even much more prevalence now with the #MeToo movement, where women share their experiences from sexual abuse to unwanted, persistent advances that often lead to violent and threatening reactions (verbal and physical) from men. Almost daily, you can find a new story of sexual abuse: of young, vulnerable girls being trafficked for sex, women and men being captivated as human sex slaves, a jealous husband killing his wife, underage girls being married off to older men.
So is it still far off when Margot realises she fears Robert could be a murderer or rapist? Just a weeks ago, I travelled to a small, suburban German town. I arrived at a nearly deserted train station around midnight and had to walk 600 metres to the accommodation. The streets were dark and almost empty and I saw a few men lingering around. For a brief moment I was scared: Anything could happen to me and no-one would notice or even come for help. As I steadied my pace, not knowing whether this street was safe or not, I came closer to a building with loud noises inside. Some men were just about to get out and had not noticed me. With a sinking and quickly beating heart, I saw the exterior images of the building: It was a brothel or at least, a very dodgy bar.
In an article after ‘Cat Person’ was published, Ella Dawson defined bad sex: ‘I mean the bad sex we have that we don’t want to have but consent to anyway.’ She talks that bad sex is often the norm for many women, who consent to having sex, not for their own but for the man’s pleasure or for fear of hurting his feelings, or because it is expected.
Margot consents having sex with Robert. Until then, the date went pretty badly, but she continues anyway. The details of their sexual encounter seem almost painful to read and yet familiar. By now, Margot is already disgusted by Robert and only manages to get through by imagining the scenario as Robert sees her: Young and beautiful, frail and precious, whereas he is the ‘fat old man’ who now turns and moves her around in different positions like a lifeless doll in a porno.
I think it’s telling that the moment of purest sexual satisfaction she experiences in the story is the one when she imagines what Robert sees as he looks at her: she’s seduced by the vision she’s created of herself—of someone perfect and beautiful and young. So much of dating involves this interplay of empathy and narcissism: you weave an entire narrative out of a tiny amount of information, and then, having created a compelling story about someone, you fall in love with what you’ve created. (Roupenian, Kristen)
How does the story end? It is in the last sentence, or the last word that the reader and Margot no longer have to guess or hazard what type of person Robert is. Although there were already quite a few hints, but Margot chose to overlook them or reframe in such a way that it would flatter her.
The story is also interesting because it shows the familiar male fantasy of ‘young girl/ older man’ from the young girl’s point of view. Her narrative, which is already seldomly represented or heard of, depicts sex in a way that is not intending to satisfy men’s pleasures and fantasies. The journalist Gaby Hinsliff wrote on the pervasiveness and acceptance of it in western culture:
And that’s the dark underbelly of the “hot younger woman falls somewhat implausibly for older man” trope so deeply embedded in western culture, where it drives everything from grand literary midlife crisis novels to chirpy romcoms in which a craggy male lead plays opposite a woman young enough to be his daughter. The reassuring message it sends insecure middle-aged men is that hey, they’ve still got it. But more queasily, it also teaches them that even when women their own age reject them sexually (...) there’s always the option of one too young to know better.
There were also a lot of critiques, many from men which you can read on a Twitter account called ‘Men React to Cat Person’ #MenCatPerson and there were also some accusations of ‘fat shaming’. But that’s a different topic that could be discussed in a different report. Did Robert even have cats? The answer is probably a No.