It was impossible to open Twitter this weekend without seeing people – and I say people, but really I mean women; woman after woman after woman – sharing Cat Person, a short story published in The New Yorker. Its online popularity was reminiscent of Patricia Lockwood’s incredible poem, Rape Joke, and that’s for one simple reason: it does what all the best stories do and articulates feelings you’ve had that you couldn’t fully grasp, or that you were keeping at arm’s length because they were too confusing and painful to confront head-on.
In the story, Margot, a 20-year-old woman, meets and goes on a date with Robert, a 34-year-old man who is witty and charming over text, but confusing and awkward in real life. While some men puzzle over the story’s popularity – there’s even a Twitter account, @MenCatPerson, to keep track of their confusion – women can’t stop talking about how relatable it is. After all, what straight woman hasn’t had the experience of getting to know a man and not knowing how you feel about him, not knowing how to act around him and, most crucially, not knowing how he’d react if you were just honest about your lack of enthusiastic interest?
These are the themes the author of the story, Kristen Roupenian, wanted to explore when she wrote it. She said in an interview: “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. That Robert is smart and witty is true, but does the fact that someone’s smart and witty mean that he won’t murder you (as Margot wonders more than once), or assault you, or say something nasty to you if you reject him? Of course it doesn’t.”
Do men often get into a car and not know whether they’ll get out alive? Do their friends instinctively know to surround them in a bar to protect them from a dodgy one-night stand?
Spoiler warning if you haven’t read the story yet: this sentiment leads us, neatly and painfully, to the sex. Despite a fairly bad date and a truly terrible kiss, Margot is the one who pushes to take things further despite still not being 100 per cent certain of him or what she’s doing. She gets to his house and briefly worries that this is all an act and “the other rooms in the house were empty, or full of horrors: corpses or kidnap victims or chains”. She sees him getting undressed and physically recoils, but proceeds with sex because “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”.
Earlier in the story, Margot speaks of feeling like Robert is “a large, skittish animal, like a horse or a bear” that she’s “skillfully coaxing to eat from her hand” – but what happens if she stops? She feels like she can’t say no, so she doesn’t. She “bludgeons her resistance into submission” with a shot of whisky and has sex with him. Later, she wonders why thinking about the date makes her feel so sick, and feels guilty for overreacting and not being kinder to Robert – after all, he didn’t do anything wrong.
It’s this feeling, most of all, that makes Cat Person so impactful. One in five women in the UK has experienced some form of sexual violence, but the number of women who have had this kind of experience – of going further than they’re comfortable with a man purely because they’re scared of how they’ll react if they don’t – feels much higher. And, after years and years of these worries being accepted as an uncomfortable but inevitable part of life as a woman, there is a reckoning taking place. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, women are reexamining the experiences we previously held at arm’s length and it is painful, but also reassuring, to be able to hear other women say, “I know what you mean. I’ve felt the same way. And it’s wrong. And it wasn’t your fault.”
Perhaps that’s why lots of men can’t understand why women love this story so much. Do men often get into a car and not know whether they’ll get out alive? Do their friends instinctively know to surround them in a bar to protect them from a dodgy one-night stand? How many men go on dates wondering whether they’ll meet the love of their life, be murdered or be called a whore for ignoring a string of texts afterwards? These things will happen to some men, definitely. They happen to almost all women.
Essentially, Cat Person is going viral because it’s articulating another step in the sexual-power imbalance we have to fight – namely, that the ways in which women are hurt isn’t limited to open bathrobes and a body forced upon yours. Sometimes it’s just ignoring your own boundaries in order to please someone society says you should – or because you’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t.