Can we agree that one of the good things that came out of 2017 was the fact that people (specifically: men, the establishment, entertainment, news) started to listen to women more? Time magazine named the silence breakers around the area of sexual harassment their “Person of the Year.” Even though there’s a lot of work to be done, even though in India women’s voices are largely dismissed, there’s a glimmer of hope that all the buzzing will turn into a swarm that can no longer be ignored.
The right story at the right time
Into all this, with great timing, plopped the short story Cat Person, by Kristen Roupenian, which is the only piece of short fiction I have ever seen go this viral. Published by The New Yorker this past week, the story became hugely popular, I think, because of a sweet spot of contributing factors. One: what I just mentioned about women’s voices. In a year where people are increasingly disposed to take women seriously, the story’s female twenty-year-old narrator is no longer just another protagonist of a chick-lit-gone-wrong plot, she’s a Voice that an audience is willing to listen to. The New Yorker revealed that including Cat Person, which was its most read short story of the year, four of the five most popular pieces of fiction it published in 2017 were by women – the only man on the list is F Scott Fitzgerald.
Two: it’s December, and after a year of bad news followed by worse news, this is when people typically tend to relax a little. They are more open to clicking through on pieces of fiction, to be diverted as it were from the business of living. The everlasting popularity of end of year lists and gift guides speaks to this as well.
Three: the magic just happened. One popular person shared it, probably, another popular person happened to see it, enjoyed what they read and re-shared. Whatever the reasons for its virality, the end result is that everyone is scrambling to hot take about it (myself included).
A relatable story
Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian (remember that name, because my prediction is we’re going to hear it a lot very soon) is not about a cat/human hybrid (sorry, but I’m sure one of those will pop up in the wake of this one) but about Margot, a college student who works at a movie theatre. It is there that she meets the much older Robert and starts up a text flirtation with him, eventually going out on a date and winding up back at his apartment. In his apartment, while having sex, the descriptions of Margot’s feelings and thoughts are merciless – searing inner monologues of the kind that perhaps so many women have had when on a bad date which we’re unsure about ending. Because so much of Cat Person is about Margot’s reluctance to reject Robert, she first hesitates when he is a bad kisser:
“He kissed her then, on the lips, for real; he came for her in a kind of lunging motion and practically poured his tongue down her throat. It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad; Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing.”
And then later:
“It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, 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.”
If I could underline that entire paragraph and send it back to myself circa 2006 or 2007 I would do it in an instant. For Cat Person is about that date, that date with the “may as well” sex, that date when you kiss him back to be polite, even though you desperately want to go home, that date before you read and learned that you could say no even when you had initiated it, that date before you realised that a kiss was not a contract.
The shocking discomfort you feel on Margot’s behalf is perhaps why half the internet is erupting with rage. A Twitter account called Men React To Cat Person was created just to post screenshots of men who have very strong feelings about it. Maybe because fiction has never gone quite so viral before, people are unsure how to react to it. Like a joke? Satire? A personal essay? Forgetting all along that the idea of fiction is to provoke and excite, to make you feel complicated things about a story, to take your reflection and toss it back at you, distorted like a fun house mirror.
“Every man should read this,” said my partner, after I shared it with him, and he sent it on to his friends. Maybe it feels too close to the bone to some. If I, a thirty-six-year-old Indian woman, can slip so easily into the skin of an American twenty-something in college, then maybe it could sound like a judgement: Do I kiss badly? Have I done that on a date? Do women feel that way about me?
“That option, of blunt refusal, doesn’t even consciously occur to her – she assumes that if she wants to say no she has to do so in a conciliatory, gentle, tactful way, in a way that would take ‘an amount of effort that was impossible to summon.’”— Kristen Roupenian in an interview about the story
Margot is not meant to be Every Woman, just as Robert is not meant to be Every Man, but it reflects on the quality of Roupenian’s writing that the reactions to Cat Person have been so extreme. It’s a good story to end the year on, and also a good way to reflect on the woman you’d rather be: Margot or her roommate, who, after hearing about the bad sex, takes Margot’s phone and messages Robert: “stop texting me, I’m not interested.” Let that be our 2018 as well and let men read the story and learn that the correct response is not the one you read in the story.