Cat Person, a short story written by Kristen Roupenian, has sparked a huge debate online – and for good reason, too.
At 7,000 words long, you’d be forgiven for thinking that digital natives wouldn’t have time to read the tale when it was published in The New Yorker last week. After all, ours is an era of instant gratification and 280-character limits: who has time to sit down and read a story about terrible dates and bad sex?
Well, as it turns out, a lot of people. And, more pertinently, these same people are taking to social media to discuss the deceptively simple tale – which has touched a chord with many individuals, particularly women.
And it’s not difficult to see why: the story follows a 20-year-old woman named Margot, who forms a relationship with a 34-year-old man named Robert after meeting him at her concession stand job one evening during her sophomore year of college. This earns her the nickname ‘concession-stand girl’ (“though of course he knew her name by then”) and leads to a series of back-and-forth text messages, many of which include “that smiley-face emoji whose eyes were hearts”.
After a short while, though, Robert’s text messages become more and more infrequent, leading Margot to feel “as if the dynamic had shifted out of her favour”. So, when he invites her to go on their first “real” date (a trip to the cinema), she readily accepts.
The story eventually leads to Margot consenting to having sex with Robert: however, it is later revealed that she only goes through with it to avoid hurting his feelings and creating an uncomfortable situation.
In a world still reeling from the ongoing #MeToo movement, it’s perhaps unsurprising that so many women have come forward to reveal how “painfully relatable” they found the story.
“The saddest thing for me about the Cat Person story is it reminds me of all the times I have broken my own boundaries in order to please him or because I’m afraid of dealing with his hurt feelings,” wrote one.
Another shared: “I’ve often thought: ‘Christ, we make this so the guys can’t win. Why can’t we be braver!!!?’ Then I think of the times I’ve been in that situation. The risk calculation that goes with it. ‘I’m alone. His flatmates are out. No one knows I’m here. Will he hurt me if I say no now?’”
And some men have praised the story for reminding them that “our busted masculinity can lead us to treat women really poorly without necessarily meaning to or even realising it until years later”.
Naturally, though, there are many people who have failed to grasp the point of the story – with many, particularly men, suggesting that reversing the roles of Margot and Robert would lead to everyone hating it.
Others have lamented the inherent “sexism” of Cat Person, while some have criticised Margot’s character as “selfish” and “vapid”.
And, of course, there are those who have asked why Margot didn’t just say no.
In a bid to answer that question, Roupenian, speaking to the The New Yorker about the story, explained: “Margot assumes that if she wants to say no she has to do so in a conciliatory, gentle, tactful way, in a way that would take ‘an amount of effort that was impossible to summon,’” reveals the author.
“It speaks to the way that many women, especially young women, move through the world: not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy.
“It’s reflexive and self-protective, and it’s also exhausting, and if you do it long enough you stop consciously noticing all the individual moments when you’re making that choice.”
It’s a vital point – and, as one reader points out, a staunch reminder that “we need sex education that focuses on pleasure, not just on risk. We need to create a culture of enthusiastic consent.
“And we need to talk about all of the nuances of consent in order to fix our broken culture.”
We suspect that the debate around Cat Person will not disappear any time soon. And, in a world where a rape victim can find blame piled upon her for “entering a room with a man alone”, we hope that it will force society to redress its ingrained beliefs around consent, too.