By Frances Rowbottom
Published on December 11th, a short story entitled ‘Cat Person’ has taken the Internet by storm: going viral in a matter of hours, and starting a number of impassioned debates. Written by Kristen Roupenian, the tale revolves around Margot and Robert, who start texting after they meet at Margot’s work. Messaging after Margot’s break from college, they decide to take their relationship further – into the real world – and go on a date. They have lacklustre sex, then Margot ghosts him, refusing to reply to his texts.
Yet, this sequence of events is reductive. To reduce Roupenian’s tale to the bare facts in its short narrative is to ignore the nuances and undertones which have started such debate in the short time since ‘Cat Person’ made its appearance in The New Yorker’s Fiction Section. In the midst of #MeToo and discussion around consent in sexual relationships, Margot’s quiet acquiescence to Robert after she has realised she no longer wants to have sex with him has found resonance with a number of women. Margot does not want to seem ‘spoiled and capricious’, and ‘she knew that her last chance of enjoying this encounter had disappeared’, yet she feels obligated to Robert. This is the same Robert who has taken her on a date to a film about the Holocaust, made her feel unsure of herself when he does not reply to her messages, and mocks her for wanting to return to her dorm room in the early morning. In a final scene which is exceptionally familiar to a lot of young women – and a sad indictment of our society – when Margot no longer wants to see Robert, let alone sleep with him, he barrages her with texts, culminating in the vitriolic ‘are you f—ing that guy right now…are you…are you…are you…answer me…whore.’ In just over 7000 words, Roupenian is able to accurately encapsulate female experience. As she states in an interview with the New York Times, she always knew how her story would end.
For everyone defending Margot’s right to choose, there is another person defending Robert’s feelings, seeing his point of view: Margot never stops him, he does not force himself on her, and Margot herself tries to imagine how he is feeling, offering us an insight into his character. In the final sharp ‘whore’, any discussion of Robert’s feelings is surely negated. Like the millions of readers – one of the most-read pieces of fiction this year in The New Yorker according to a spokeswoman, speaking to The Atlantic – Margot creates a future boyfriend, another fictional figure to regale with the tale of that night. Yet unlike the readership who are able to give their reactions and weigh in on the debates, for Margot, ‘no such boy existed, and never would.’ As Roupenian says, ‘maybe it’s just a fundamental impulse: I wish I had someone who could explain my story to me!’
Photograph: Faye Chua and Goodreads