Updated: Jan 18, 2018
In a war between the sexes, the main casualty is our humanity. “Cat Person” is a relatable short story, but it risks taking curiosity, courage and care out of sex – and the relations between the sexes.
Many years ago, I watched an odd horror film, Cat People, about a woman under a spell: descending from the “cat people” of her village, she would transform, upon making love, into a black panther, hurting, likely killing, her partner. I was thinking about this film upon reading Cat Person, Kristen Roupenian’s short story – where sex doesn’t end with murder, but its tale of our age and generation may be darker yet.
Leon Spilliaert, La Baigneuse (1910)
When Margot Met Robert
The New Yorker's “Cat Person” has arguably become the most viral fiction to emerge online. It is exciting to see that literature still matters not just personally but socially, that it can still strike deep chords, appealing to so many people worldwide (though admittedly, mostly in the west, mainly in the US), becoming a fount for contemplation and debate – about contemporary art, society and politics. For me, art, at its best, neither validate, nor vindicate, our thoughts and feelings; it challenges them. It doesn’t merely comfort us, but confronts us – demanding that we reconsider, reengage, others, and ourselves. In a sense, Roupenian achieved this spectacularly; in another, she failed miserably.
Art, at its best, neither validate, nor vindicate, our thoughts and feelings; it challenges them... In a sense, Roupenian achieved this spectacularly; in another, she failed miserably.
If you haven’t read the story, I recommend that you do (and then, hopefully, return here). The engrossing plot line is straightforward: Margot, a 20-year-old student, meets 34-year-old Robert, and they flirtext for weeks (among other things, about Robert’s alleged two cats, named Mu and Yan). They meet again, go on a rather awkward date, in which Margot occasionally question her safety. Back from the date, at his place, they have sex, which Margot doesn’t enjoy. Later, in the dorms, Margot hesitates about how to end it, when her friend impatiently grabs her phone, and texts Robert: “Hi im not interested in you stop textng me.” Margot fears Robert’s reaction, but he simply texts back: “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.”
A month later, Margot sees Robert in a bar, and shielded by her friends is hustled out. Robert notices that, and descends into a downward digital spiral of windy words, from complementing Margot’s beauty, to missing her, to asking her to tell him what he did wrong, to wondering about the guy she was with, ending with the climax: “When u laguehd when I asked if you were a virgin was it because youd fucked so many guys – Are you fucking that guy right now – Are you – Are you – Are you – Answer me – Whore.”
Robert’s torrent of texts is nothing compared to the one engulfing the publication of the story (and this piece is no exception), turning prose into meme, at the seam of art and a think-piece. “I anticipated that people would respond to the story, but this level of response has gone beyond what I’ve seen with fiction before,” The New Yorker’s fiction editor said, “Any time that fiction is the most-read piece on our website for days, means something unusual is happening.” In retrospect, that “something” is plain to see: Cat Person is as relatable as can be. Many, perhaps most, women can see themselves in Margot, and see Robert in men they’ve been with.
It obviously goes deeper than that in our particular day and age. Cat Person taps directly into the #MeToo zeitgeist, partaking in the efforts to delineate anew the boundaries of consensual intimacy and sex. Margot “recoiled” before having sex, “but the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming.” Fearing that saying “no” now “would make her seem spoiled and capricious,” she goes through the corporeal motions.
To be sure, this is no rape, but Roupenian does portray Margot as a victim. She is a victim of Robert: his subpar wit and features, poor sexual skills and possible ill intentions. She is a victim of social expectations: trying to assuage Robert’s feelings, fearing she would “seem spoiled” (by whom?). She is a victim of social media: never knowing the real person behind the quasi-comic texting. Finally, Margot is a victim of herself – her anxieties (what would Robert do? What would others think?) and her fantasies (missing “the Robert she’d imagined on the other end of all those text messages during break”).
Margot's Bad Faith
But perhaps, I wonder, Margot is also a victim of Roupenian, and of us. And maybe another story of a first date can help explain why. In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre underscores the daunting tension between freedom and “bad faith.” Freedom, he says, is choice, and as humans we always have it – we can always make a choice, no matter what others may say or do. Even in a prison cell, you have the choice to try and escape. Bad faith forgets our freedom, and instead yields to essentialism (it’s simply who and how I am), determinism (my past dictates my future), and fatalism (I can’t shape my prospects). Bad faith is self-deception; it is a lie we tell ourselves, and believe, though somehow know it to be untrue.
Félix Vallotton, The Lie (1898)
Too vague? First date story to the rescue! Sartre describes a woman who agrees to go out with a man for the first time. The woman knows the man has something in mind, and that sooner or later she’ll have to decide whether she reciprocates, but for now she’s caught between wanting him to desire her body, and wanting him to respect her – for the fully free person that she is. Suppose he takes hold of her hand. What does she do? Leaving her hand in his is consenting, withdrawing it a rejection. But she’s not ready to make the choice. So, Sartre tells us, “the young woman leaves her hand there,” performing a “divorce of the body from the soul… the hand rests inert between the warm hands of her companion—neither consenting nor resisting—a thing. We shall say this woman is in bad faith.”
Shall we say the same of Margot? There are telling signs. Like Sartre’s “woman,” Roupenian’s Margot experiences a dissociation: detachment from reality by divorcing body from soul – a known reaction to trauma, especially in the sexual realm. A moment before intercourse, Margot “imagined herself from above, naked and spread-eagled with this fat old man’s finger inside her.” During the act itself, Margot “felt like a doll again… a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head.”
Floating above her body, then becoming doll-like, Margot tries to flee her freedom, suppressing the fact that she still, somehow, has a choice. To no avail. Her humanity rebels against the façade by first turning her “revulsion” of Robert to “self-disgust and a humiliation,” and then, by the end of it, she concludes: “This is the worst life decision I have ever made!” After the fact, Margot realizes it was, if partly, her “decision.”
Disgust and melodrama eclipse Margot’s realization of her choice – a peculiar, and telling, choice by Roupenian. Americans might consider the more open and relaxed approach to sex, prevalent in Scandinavia, for example, where men and women are equally encouraged to explore their sexuality. But cultivating disgust as a moral omen, holding bad sex as “the worst life decision,” is probably not the best way to get there. Sex is messy, emotionally and physically; to control it is to kill it, or at least the curious, consensual, exploration it thrives upon. To cut this cat’s cradle of complex threads and knots, tidy it up into a neat structure of pleasant codes, may help Silicon Valley program the perfect sex machines for our pleasures, but will undercut our humanity – its splice of spirit and flesh – while at it.
Sex is messy, emotionally and physically; to control it is to kill it, or at least the curious, consensual, exploration it thrives upon.
"I Want to, But I Won’t": Mastering the Art of Losing - Freedom
Severing the mind-body nexus isn’t the only path Margot takes to bad faith. Harder to trace, and to defeat, is the divorce of will, and freedom, from choice. We may summarize it so: “I want to, but I won’t.” We want something we determine we can’t do/have, and so we give up trying, telling ourselves there’s no real “free choice” in the matter. Here will turns into “wishful thinking,” and freedom to total control. In this odd marriage of pragmatism and fantasism, we presumably have “free choice” only if we can do, and achieve, whatever we want. Preposterous perhaps, but so tempting; precisely because we’re never omnipotent, we can always excuse ourselves for failing to try – attempting to fulfill our will. We refuse our freedom by not making the utmost, courageous, effort, however slim the chances of success might be. With choice turned into control, responsibility transmutes into victimhood – a combustive amalgam of blaming others and self-pity (and sometimes, as with Margot, self-loathing).
In this odd marriage of pragmatism and fantasism, we presumably have “free choice” only if we can do, and achieve, whatever we want
I fear we’re perfecting this form of bad faith, which didn’t occur to Sartre. We master the art of losing – our freedom. Arcade Fire beautifully captures these lies we tell ourselves, giving up choice, in an Ocean of Noise, as darkly white as it comes – whether from peers or technology.
You've got your reasons And, me - I've got mine But all the reasons I gave Were just lies to buy myself some time
In an ocean of noise I first heard your voice Now who here among us Still believes in choice? Not I!
No way of knowing What any man will do An ocean of violence Between me and you
Are we gonna work it out? I think we should – and believe we can. Meanwhile, however, in Roupenian’s short story, relinquishing choice in an ocean of noise – and violence, becomes manifest. In an interview after the story’s publication, Roupenian made an astute, and revealing, comment:
"That option, of blunt refusal, doesn’t even consciously occur to her—she 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.” And I think that assumption is bigger than Margot and Robert’s specific interaction; 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."
And “that choice” is effectively opting not to make a choice, thinking “I must,” instead of “I choose,” saying, “I cannot” instead of “I refuse.” On the face of it, it makes little sense – why can’t Margot “just say no”? After all, she seems to have little objective reason to fear Robert. He already surprised her twice by kissing her forehead instead of her mouth, and told her he’s going to take her home because she’s drunk. And yet, for Roupenian’s Margot, subjective fear and anxieties eclipse objective threats: Margot floats not only above Robert’s bed, but – throughout the tale – above “an ocean of violence” where the male menace of rape and murder lurks. In such a cruel sea, better float than drown: breaking the waves is not an option – it is an effort “impossible to summon.”
Laughter and Murder
Are women destined to sail this monstrous sea alone? Can men be of any help, making this mission somewhat less “impossible”? If Roupenian’s Margot doesn’t even consider the possibility, certainly not in Robert, it might be because Roupenian herself, in the said interview, sees Robert as “a person who had adopted all these familiar signifiers as a kind of camouflage, but was something else—or nothing at all—underneath.” Could anyone – woman or man (even Robert!) – be “nothing at all”?
Presumably, Margot cares much about Robert’s feelings, (too?) careful not to trespass on his fragile male ego, but one wonders if she truly cares about him (besides how his conduct might affect her). After all, even before having sex, Margot already knows she doesn’t want to be with Robert ever again. Choosing to go on with the sex nonetheless would presumably affect him too, perhaps even more severely than her, yet the thought doesn’t even cross her mind. Of course, such a thought would mean Robert might be more than “nothing at all,” so it may not even have crossed Roupenian’s mind either.
In the list of distinctive human traits, “theory of mind” – the ability to attribute desires, intentions, and knowledge to others – has pride of place. It is also the bedrock of “perspective-taking,” the capacity to tap into other people’s perspectives either emotionally, amounting to empathy, or cognitively – to feel, and think, as though we were inside of another human’s heart and mind. Roupenian does a terrific job at taking Margot’s perspective, but her protagonist couldn’t care less about her companion’s. To be sure, Margot tries, on occasion, to surmise Robert’s intentions, but when he finally, truly, reveals himself to her, she closes herself up like a fan: “Then, out of nowhere, he started talking about his feelings for her,” begins Margot’s white woman burden of listening to Robert’s insecurities, and she musters just enough resilience to “just lay silently, emanating a black, hateful aura, until finally Robert trailed off.”
Roupenian does a terrific job at taking Margot’s perspective, but her protagonist couldn’t care less about her companion’s.
Margaret Atwood allegedly suggested that while men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them. Both fears manifest in Cat Person, but the corollary fantasies are apart: while it’s hard to imagine Robert wanting to kill Margot, she does laugh at him – first out loud, with “a slightly hysterical edge,” when he asks her if she’s “ever done this before,” then quietly, during sex, and in its aftermath, when Margot fantasizes about being with utopian boy (“no such boy existed, and never would”), together laughing at Robert’s failings.
Laughing at the story by turning the tables was all too expected in the aftermath of the story’s publication, its popularity, and the many manly responses. Enter BBC Three anonymous (male?) rebuttal: “Cat Person: What Robert (probably) thought,” revealing that Robert “was actually more of a dog person.” Perhaps so. Still, like Roupenian’s superior tale, Robert’s alternative narrative of the affair seems more concerned with gaining the upper hand in the battleground of wo/men relations than cultivating the common ground of humanity such bonds can nurture. In this war between the sexes, both narratives seem more bent on constructing walls, not bridges. Like the legendary Cat People, they lock lust into a trajectory destined to devour all participants.
You Want Your Freedom?
Is there a better alternative? After all, with or without bad sex, real and quasi- couples do break up, leaving scars that often cut deeply, and sometimes never heal. Still, if we are to take a cue from art, we might do worse than turning to Fleetwood Mac, and their 1977 album Rumors. “Genius is pain, too,” John Lennon once commented, and the album’s first tracks are a vivid demonstration. Forty years ago, the band’s two couples broke up, both after eight years. One couple – leading vocalists Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks – turned their romantic separation into a joint piece of art: messy, painful, and full of grudges, but beautiful and inspiring. It also presents a peculiar riddle: who left whom, and why?
Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks
Buckingham makes the first move with, “Go Your Own Way.” This is no pretty affair, the lyrics including the bitter line, “Packing up, shacking up is all you want to do” (an acid sentiment Robert could have easily identified with). Nicks reads well between the line and the person she loves/d: “I very much resented him telling the world that ‘packing up, shacking up’ with different men was all I wanted to do. He knew it wasn’t true. It was just an angry thing that he said. Every time those words would come onstage, I wanted to go over and kill him. He knew it, so he really pushed my buttons through that. It was like, ‘I'll make you suffer for leaving me.’ And I did.” Joining the chorus in singing “You can go your own way” may have helped.
Nicks moves from backing vocals to lead singer in the album’s second track, "Dreams," which she wrote, and sang. The addressee is in plain sight and sound, but underneath, the lyrics reveal the reasons for the separation. Nicks’ first lines seem to echo-quote Buckingham’s rationale for his goodbye: “Now here you go again, you say / You want your freedom / Well who am I to keep you down.”
The addressee is in plain sight and sound, but underneath, the lyrics reveal the reasons for the separation.
“Your freedom or me?!” Buckingham seems to be asking/demanding, and if Nicks is right, we have yet again that conflation of choice and control, Buckingham wanting Nicks all to himself (we can now better understand Buckingham's "all you want to do" accusation). Nicks resents his demand, and charge, all the more because she realizes she may truly be the one for him: “it’s only me who wants to wrap around your dreams.” Still, Buckingham, not getting his way, sends Nicks to hers. And she responds by turning his bitter premonition of “another lonely day” for her into “dreams of loneliness” he’d “like to sell” (to her? to their audience?), making her own premonition: that these dreams - "in the stillness of remembering" what he had, and lost - will drive him mad.
It can’t get much more hurtful than this - and one can only imagine how Roupenian’s Robert would have reacted. Nicks recalled how Lindsey Buckingham did: “I remember the night I wrote ‘Dreams’, I walked in and handed a cassette of the song to Lindsey. It was a rough take, just me singing solo and playing piano. Even though he was mad with me at the time, Lindsey played it and then looked up at me and smiled…” It was Buckingham's turn to move to backing vocals.
Margot and Robert are not as creatively constructive, amidst relationship destruction, as Stevie and Lindsey were – but perhaps the rest of us, less fictional characters, can occasionally try to be.