In a culture where something new goes viral every day, captivating anyone with a smart phone and dominating our feeds, it can sometimes feel impossible to engage in a larger conversation. Usually the viral thing is a video or a meme, sometimes it’s a tweet or a Facebook post, but it’s usually always short, easily digestible, and forgotten about faster than you can say “covfefe.”
But enter “Cat Person,” a short story written by Kristen Roupenian, a Ph.D. Candidate at Harvard University, published last week in The New Yorker. Roupenian’s work of fiction stands at just over 7,000 words, making it a solid read in our 280-character world, but it has incited an intense social media debate about gender discourse and the politics of consent and sexual encounters.
The story follows a 20-year-old woman named Margot who forms a relationship with a 34-year-old man named Robert. The two meet at Margot’s concession stand job one evening during her sophomore year of college. Though Margot and Robert initially meet face-to-face, it’s their communication via text message that largely guides the early part of their developing relationship.
The story that plays out involves their first “real” date, in which Margot reveals that while she consents to having sex with Robert, she ultimately goes through with it purely to avoid hurting his feelings and creating an uncomfortable situation.
In a post-Weinstein (and current #MeToo) world, for many women, the story feels timely and painfully relatable. And as often as new things go viral on the internet, stories about powerful men using their power to sexually harass and assault their victims have become an almost mind-numbingly new norm. But still, this isn’t a story about sexual assault, nor is it a story about sexual harassment (unless, of course, you count the word Robert uses to describe Margot in their final interaction).
Instead, “Cat Person” is about the disturbing reality of gender dynamics in which women (and especially young women) move through the world politely stepping on proverbial eggshells, careful not to make waves or cause unrest, especially when it comes to men.
There’s no coercion, no assault, and no force used in the interactions depicted in the story, but that doesn’t make this story any less uncomfortable to read. It’s that grimacing, uneasy reaction that is captivating people on social media, with varying arguments orbiting around a more broad question: Is “Cat Person” even good?
Many more women are in the “yes” camp, likely because they see a bit of themselves somewhere in Margot’s thought processes and her experiences. Men, on the other hand, have wildly differing views — and like all viral internet phenomena, there’s already a parody Twitter account sharing men’s reactions to the story.
“Cat Person” might be an unlikely candidate for a viral social media sensation of the week, but it has certainly struck a nerve, with people using their 140 (or 280) characters to explain their thoughts on these two fictional characters and their disconcerting physical encounter. There are those who side firmly with the fictional Margot, a young woman whose behavior is believed to be a byproduct of the sexist and misogynistic world she inhabits. Sure, she’s flawed, but who of us isn’t?
There are those who sympathize with Robert and bristle at the portrayal of him as an unclean, desperate, social misfit.
And there are those who believe the hallmark of great fiction is that all characters (much like all real human beings) are imperfect, make poor decisions with good intentions, and often display questionable ethics.
There are valid criticisms of the way Robert’s body and appearance is described, spurring debate about anti-fat bias and fatphobia.
The story is also churning more overarching conversations about the ensuing optics when it’s no longer women’s bodies and appearances being picked apart, but men’s.
And while the author herself had no idea that the story would go viral the way it has, it feels especially poignant that a short story written by a young woman about a young woman remains at the forefront of the ever-changing news cycle, at least for a little while. Of course, you’re entitled to feel however you feel after reading the story (yes, even if you’re dismayed by the total lack of cats in it, or the blatant disrespect to lovers of Red Vines) but we are hopeful that stories told by women about women will continue to fill our cultural narrative, in whatever form they might take.
We also hope that, much like the continuing conversation surrounding sexual assault and harassment, the conversation around consent, desire, and sexuality continues to include more voices and more opinions, allowing a much-needed shift in whose perspective gets to establish our norms in these areas.
That’s the kind of stuff that won’t disappear as quickly as your latest Snapchat selfie.