October 5, 2022

Imagine you hear the following story from a friend. You’re both in college, in a town full of boarded-up shops, where you refer to the “county residents” as if they are another species. Both of you think of yourselves as being on the sophisticated side. Your friend works at the artsy movie theatre downtown. One day, she started flirting with a customer. He was kind of cute — a little chubby, around 30, but she was bored.

They ended up exchanging numbers, and texted constantly for the next few weeks. She was surprised at how funny he was. Eventually, he asked her out, but on the date he was quiet and she was a little worried he wasn’t into her. Abruptly, she asked to go home with him. Grabbing his hand, she was excited to feel it get clammy, to feel how excited he was. He said she was probably drunk and offered to drive her home, but once in the car, she started to make out with him desperately, pawing him all over. He took her back to his.

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When she saw him awkwardly perched on the side of his bed, half undressed, his belly looked like a “fat hairy shelf”. She noticed his “fat old man’s finger”. She was grossed out. But she couldn’t think of a way to not sleep with him that wouldn’t be awkward, so she ended up doing it. Was it good? Yes and no. He was a clumsy kisser, and kind of porn-y in bed, and, well, just fat! Still, your friend explains, it was nice that he seemed so into her. She kept imagining how hot she seemed to him — how young and flawless and out-of-his-league. In a way, your friend explains to you, she liked that he was a little gross.

Afterward, he was sweet. He covered her arms with little kisses; he wanted to make her eggs in the morning. But your friend asked him to drive her home. He texted her hearts before she even made it to her door. The next day, she wanted nothing more than “that he would disappear without her having to do anything, that she could just wish him away”. To ghost him, in short. But he sent her messages, “each one more earnest than the last”. She responded with nothing, complaining constantly to her friends. She acted like he was much worse than he was. She admits that to you. She admits that he hadn’t done anything wrong, except like her too much and be bad at sex.

Eventually, her roommate grabbed her phone and texted him: “Hi im not interested in you stop texting me.” He responded: “O.K., Margot, I am sorry to hear that. I hope I did not do anything to upset you.” A month later, she saw him in a bar, and made a speedy, conspicuous exit. He got in touch, first apologising for texting her, then saying she looked pretty and that he hoped she was well. She didn’t respond. Then he sent a few messages asking what had happened between them. No response. Then the texts got grosser: when he had asked, in bed, if she was a virgin, had she laughed because she was actually so experienced? Eventually, he just sent: “whore”.

Who’s the bad guy?

This was the question posed by Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”; when it was published during the heady heights of MeToo, the answer was unequivocal: the guy was a borderline rapist, Margot a vulnerable everywoman. Fanatically hailed as a portrait of the ambiguities of consent, it launched over 10,000 tweets and think pieces in which women said: it happened to me too. Per the Guardian, it “sent the Internet into a meltdown”, and is still the only short story to ever legitimately go viral. Seemingly overnight, “Cat Person” became water-cooler talk, a seeming skeleton key to a universal female experience: where an earlier generation of feminism said, “No means no!”, this one was saying “Yes might mean no!” Or, as the Financial Times glossed it: “Robert and Margot presented emblems of the murkier grey zones of relationships. Sex that was ostensibly consensual, but still felt really bad. Weinstein was easy to label as a villain, but what about Robert?”

Today, “Cat Person” reads like a satire of 2017: Margot’s friends anxiously escorting her out the bar where Rob calmly sits drinking a beer; Margot’s own admissions that he’s done nothing wrong and she’s exaggerated everything to her friends; Margot’s casual insults about his fatness, ugliness, and clumsiness, as if being unattractive automatically means being a “creep”. Nobody but the feminist of the moment, Roxane Gay, dared ask why the story was so full of fat-shaming. And just about the only response that recognised anything wrong with the story’s interpretation was a condescending National Review piece titled “Dear ‘Cat Person’ Girl”, which seized on the fact that Rob was Margot’s seventh partner to harp about the evils of casual sex.

Indeed, Margot seems like a caricature of female narcissism: she treats Rob with icy cruelty, any affection explicitly described as attempts to push him into further submission and herself, consequently, into victory. By contrast, Rob is funny, sweet and unrealistically polite. And what does he do that’s bad, apart from that final, half-page crescendo of text messages, by far the weakest part of the story and a cheap attempt to stick the landing? In 2021, the real-life “Margot” revealed that the story’s character was based on her, a younger ex-girlfriend of a man Roupenian had also dated (and who had no such negative feelings about him). One almost wonders if Roupenian’s depiction of a callous and calculating Margot is motivated more by intrasexual competition than feminism.

Looking back, it’s strange that the story was read as a straightforward cautionary tale of fragile masculinity, more an educational tool than a work of the imagination. For me, what is compelling in “Cat Person” — what drew me in, five years ago — was that a certain ugly female feeling had been put on the page. It was the feeling of having sex not out of desire, but instead out of desire to be desired, to be validated in one’s beauty and allure.

I knew one girl who said that during sex all she imagined was the view of herself from above; another, who said she usually avoided attractive guys, bewildered everyone by cheating on her boyfriend with a socially-stunted virgin; and countless girls, of course, find something both intoxicating and terrifying in cat calls, compliments, and, in that ever more capacious term: creeps. I recently saw a short film by model Taylor Jeanne, the title of which put it succinctly enough: I Love Creepy Guys. But these are all shameful, whispered-about feelings, whereas “Cat Person” was frank about the rarely acknowledged narcissism in female desire, and abjection’s strange relationship to it: “her revulsion turned to self-disgust and a humiliation that was a kind of perverse cousin to arousal.” You wanted to seduce, but not exactly to cash in. If you do, you hate him a little bit, and hate yourself more.

“Cat Person” should have opened up truly difficult questions about our sexual culture. As the million think pieces stated, it did upturn any simple idea of consent, especially the one, increasingly popular in the 2010s, of “affirmative consent”: that “Yes means yes”, and therefore must mean everyone’s happy. And yet, pieces in The Atlantic and The New York Times entirely missed the boat, with dull think-pieces about how “Cat Person” showed the importance of “enthusiastic consent”. The Washington Post translated Roupenian’s twisted portrayal of a young woman’s power over an older man — and her deeply conflicted feelings about that power — into a nice, neat tale of misogyny: “Robert is older than Margot, as is the custom in heterosexual relationships, calling most of the shots in their interactions, and therefore has the power in their fledgling relationship”.

But the whole terror of the story is that she does beg him to have sex with her; that he does check in with her; that she does enjoy much of it — and yet still, at the end of it, is sickened. The question wasn’t why Margot didn’t say yes — it was why she did. Our problem was, and remains, a culture in which women are so alienated from their own bodies that sex, for them, is mostly autoerotic, imbued with a violent need for validation, and cut with deep self-loathing. Rob didn’t pressure Margot — if anything, she pressured him — but they were interacting in a culture where, without the excuse of virginity or religion, immediate sex is the default. And Rob wasn’t evil for being “bad in bed”; it’s just that, usually, men want and enjoy casual sex more than women do. Roupenian’s story got at this hard, painful dilemma — at the way our culture provokes both men and women to both hate and despair. But the publicity machine of literature, at the height of MeToo, had to flatten “Cat Person” into a tale of a spotless victim and evil perpetrator.

Roupenian certainly benefitted. She received a $1.3 million advance for a hastily-commissioned collection of short stories. It performed terribly, even after it was renamed Cat Person, perhaps disappointing because critics had gotten Roupenian wrong from the start. She has always been a horror writer, and the stories in her debut are gruesome tales of mutilation and sadism, set in a bleak landscape with fear on all fronts.

Yet those frenzied first months of MeToo coincided with the tail end of the personal essay era. Women writers were beginning to demur from divulging their darkest experiences for $150. The media machine was starving for content and needed a viral “piece” — something not-too-challenging, not-too-long, and above all, relatable. For “Cat Person” to sky-rocket beyond the fiction pages of The New Yorker into the clickbait realm of the “MeToo piece”, the protagonist needed to be bland enough for any reader to self-insert and realistic enough to believe.

But what about that inconvenient cruelty of hers? What about her delight in Rob’s nervousness? What about her arousal, imagining her own inappropriate youth? By 2019, the New Yorker would be ready to touch those tensions, publishing Mary Gaitskill’s “This is Pleasure”, a provocative piece shifting between the perspectives of a MeToo’d editor and one of his “victims”. But in 2017, it was taboo to challenge the roles MeToo had firmly delineated. And editor, author, and reader were all ready to play along — even if, later, we came to confess the contradictions.