In a time when the 24-hour news cycle rages and events become memes before we’ve had a chance to fully digest them, I didn’t think it was still possible for something as simple as a short story to send the internet into a frenzy. But, here we are. Thank you 2017 for proving me wrong.
Meet Cat Person: the New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian. Since its publication earlier this month, Roupenian’s tale of modern dating and sexual politics has caused the internet to take sides, inspiring a snowstorm of tweets, a litany of think pieces and (now) a book deal for the author.
Said to be inspired by “a small but nasty encounter” the author had online, Cat Person follows Margot, a 20-year old college student and her brief relationship with Robert, a 34-year old man she meets at her part-time job working at an artsy movie theatre. Their relationship is predicated on witty banter over text. However, when their chemistry doesn’t translate to real life, what follows is an awkward date and even more cringe-worthy sex.
The story has since spawned a multitude of debates over Margot and Robert’s behaviour towards each other, whether the story has any literary merit – and most importantly, whether Robert (the titular Cat Person) actually owns any cats. I’m not about to jump into any of these debates (despite being curious about Robert’s pet situation) but I will say this: as far as subject matter goes, there’s nothing groundbreaking about Cat Person, but that’s exactly what makes it work.
Anyone who’s ever had a less than satisfactory sexual encounter will likely find Cat Person painfully familiar. Robert is an awkwardly aggressive kisser, paws at Margot clumsily in bed, makes ridiculous comments about her breasts and never once checks in with her to see if she’s enjoying herself; choosing to instead slap her leg repeatedly while declaring, “Yeah, yeah, you like that!” But despite these hallmarks of bad sex, Margot goes through with the sexual encounter.
The story teleported me back to when I was newly single and dating for the first time in five years. Without a clear idea of what I was looking for, I dated several “Roberts” — men who weren’t inherently bad, but also weren’t that great either, which resulted in a series of lacklustre sexual encounters. If probed, I couldn’t really tell you why I slept with these people, just that I wish I hadn’t. I told myself that I was gaining “experience” but a lot of the time I said ‘yes’ simply because it seemed easier than saying no.
As Margot explains in the story, “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. 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.”
Margot’s reluctance is relatable. Even when done tactfully, there’s always the fear that these kinds of conversations will go sideways – like the otherwise kind and doting man who became enraged when I told him I’d changed my mind about wanting to have sex; throwing pillows, clothing, while calling me a “tease” as I gathered my things I fled his apartment. On the other hand, Robert’s rejection-fuelled name-calling is a scenario I’ve seen played out so many times that it feels utterly mundane – and maybe, that’s the point.
Until these kinds of stories stop being relatable, Cat Person provides a reminder that there’s still a lot to talk about when it comes to issues surrounding consent, sexual politics and how we relate to each other as humans.