It was only a week ago that Cat Person, a short story by emerging writer Kristen Roupenian, was published by The New Yorker and immediately shook the Internet. Though the story is fictional, its casual relatability has readers across the globe completely spooked. While the viral piece has earned itself the site’s most popular read spot for eight days, Slate culture columnist Laura Miller pointed out: “The last time I can remember a short story in the New Yorker being as enthusiastically talked-about as Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person was when Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain was published by the magazine in 1997.”
But it begs the question, why have so many of us found ourselves and our own lives in the words of this elemental yet messy love story?
Cat Person tells the rather short love story of Margot, a young college student and Robert, the mysterious older guy she meets while working at the local movie theater one winter. As their courtship unfolds over flirtatious, surface-level text exchanges and two lackluster dates, the real romance becomes the imaginary one each of them constructs in their minds. Ultimately, it is their affinity for the projected “perfect” partner they’ve each dreamt up that drives them apart.
Though Margot and Robert meet IRL (which may seem like a foreign concept today), the story paints a familiar picture of the digital romance so many of us have grown accustomed to — it brings out some of the dark, muddled aspects of dating that we’ve often overlooked, and renders them into sharp view. What we ultimately see are the despondent, misogynistic ways today’s dating rituals are failing all of us: we’re left in awe of this simple fiction story that leaves us with something we’ve been avoiding and craving — some truth.
From the moment twenty-year old Margot meets thirty-four year old Robert, he shows her his true colors: he demands she give him her phone number instead of nicely asking for it. He doesn’t initiate any conversations over text or in person. When he asks to take her to 711 on what would be their first date, he doesn’t take no for an answer when she says she has to study. He doesn’t pick up on social cues — he tries to impress her by insulting her and calling her a movie snob. He tries to make decisions for her, exhibits little regard for her feelings and relishes in her moments of weakness. When it comes to courting Margot, Robert barely puts in any effort to get to know her in a deeper way, and let her know who he really is — instead, he sporadically and unwelcomingly shoves himself down her throat. With candy wrappers spilling out of his car cup holders, and his mattress on the floor, he appears as the opposite of a gentleman.
And yet, Margot is enthralled by this misogynistic, vague older man. She ignores Robert’s many red flags and her own anxieties, and lets her expectations get the best of her. She gives him the benefit of the doubt, and countless chances to redeem himself — and worst of all, she blames herself for his silence and detachment. She wonders if it is her casual outfit or her dismissal of his suggestion of seeing a Holocaust film on their second date that are at fault for his behavior. Margot creates a story about his demeanor in her mind, and justifies his actions based on this inner monologue rather than speaking up for herself. She notices how he perks up when she puts herself down and says self-deprecating things such as when she’s worried she isn’t “smart enough to form her own opinions on anything”. Ultimately, her desire to impress him knows no bounds — it is her submission to him that turns him on, which in turn, turns her on. She gets completely swept up in the idea of him, and praises him for his drab behavior, commending him for the thoughtful “presents” he gave her — a bag of Doritos, a Cherry Coke Slurpee, and a special lighter “shaped like a frog with a cigarette in its mouth”.
Later, just as they’re getting physically intimate, Margot experiences the cringeworthy moment we all dread: as he undresses himself and reveals his naked body, something clicks all of a sudden and she feels wildly uncomfortable, completely repulsed by him, and humiliated by the ridiculous situation she’s gotten herself into. All at once, she realizes she’s having sex with a total stranger, someone very different than the fake person she has constructed in her mind.
Though Margot feels it is too late to stop what she believes she has solely set into motion. She blames herself for this situation, and ultimately feels obligated to have sex with Robert. After all, it was her who said “Should we get out of here, then?” It was her who asked if she could come over to his place. And ultimately, it was her who was the one pushing the relationship forward every step of the way. More than that, she worries how stopping it would make her look to Robert — that she would appear “spoiled” or snobbish, the very trait Robert has asserted he despises.
Margot believes it would be easier for her to let this wildly uncomfortable thing continue happening to her, rather than risk the discomfort it would take for her to say something. This is because Margot lacks the language necessary to express how she feels in the bedroom — in a way that is honest yet also considerate of the other person’s feelings. Moreover, Margot is a product of the culture she has been raised in: as a woman, she allows herself to be completely submissive to men, while she lacks boundaries and a level of assertiveness that would serve her well in every area of her life.
Only after the sex does he reveal his true feelings for her, and his own projections about her. But it’s too late — Margot feels like a prisoner of her own dating nightmare and again fails to speak up about how she’s feeling. Instead, she avoids his text messages for days, afraid to confront the situation yet still feeling as if she owes him some type of explanation. A girlfriend snatches the phone out of her hand and sends a short, straightforward message: “Hi im not interested in you stop textng me.”
He replies condescendingly: “O.K., Margot, I am sorry to hear that. I hope I did not do anything to upset you. You are a sweet girl and I really enjoyed the time we spent together. Please let me know if you change your mind.”
The story finishes with an awkward run-in: Robert ignores her wishes to be left alone and goes to a college bar Margot frequents but she hides behind her friends. He follows up with a barrage of text messages, that go from subtly creepy to scarily aggressive: He demands an explanation for her disappearance and ultimately insults her by calling her a “whore.” It is then that Margot learns who he really is.
While “Cat Person” captures the weird ways in which online dating and the Internet have both connected and confused us, it also highlights the ways in which sexism is deeply rooted in today’s dating culture. Throughout the story, Robert exercises his power over Margot – and Margot allows him to do so. While both characters are at fault for letting this faux relationship keep going, we ultimately feel more sympathy for Margot as she represents a woman who is a victim of the patriarchy. Even though it is Margot who pushes the relationship along, it is Robert who has all the power in the relationship. Robert is a sexist man who shows her little respect in small ways that suggest larger issues are at play – he doesn’t value her time, he repeatedly insults her, and he gets rough with her in the bedroom. Yet, Margot bears his emotional labor and puts up with his bad behavior, because that’s just what women do.
I, like so many others, found myself in the words of this simple and relatable story. Upon reading it, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from my screen – I was hooked and triggered, all at the same time. Flashes of various past relationships gone awry came back to me – all the times I’ve constructed bogus stories about guys I’ve met online and then felt deeply disappointed upon learning who they really are, the moments when I didn’t properly express my boundaries in and out of the bedroom in fear of what a partner might think of me, the countless times I saw my own beauty and worth only through the eyes of a man, and all the times I blamed myself for or justified some guy’s shitty behaviour towards me.
What is so deeply shocking and upsetting about “Cat Person” is the ways in which it so plainly points out the unsound things we’ve grown so sadly accustomed — the daft ways we treat ourselves and each other in relationships, while subtly hinting at the ways we deserve better. The subtle ways in which men continue to bear so much of the power in modern day relationships, and the ways in which women so often feel obligated to allow this poor treatment to continue because we feel as if we have no other choice.
The piece thus becomes a larger call to action: a launchpad for a much needed conversation on how we can collectively bring care, honesty, and authenticity back to dating so that everyone is respected, valued and happy. “Cat Person” shows us how we each play a part in creating a more equal dating universe, one that is no longer centered on playing pretend.