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The uproar over the New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” explained

How a short story about a bad date sparked a conversation about gender, sex, and privilege.

The Feline World Gathers For The Supreme Cat Show 2017 Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

This past weekend, the biggest story on social media was not about a powerful man who had sexually assaulted someone, or something the president said on Twitter. Charmingly, as if we were all at a Paris salon in the 1920s, everyone had an opinion about a short story.

Specifically, the story “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian, which appeared in the New Yorker. The story centers on a 20-year-old college student named Margot who gradually falls into flirtation with a man named Robert.

As Margot and Robert’s relationship develops, and the balance of power between them shifts back and forth, she cycles rapidly between imagining Robert as an adorable naif who is overwhelmed by her young beauty and sophistication, and imagining him as a vicious and murderous brute.

“Margot keeps trying to construct an image of Robert based on incomplete and unreliable information, which is why her interpretation of him can’t stay still,” Roupenian said in an interview. “The point at which she receives unequivocal evidence about the kind of person he is is the point at which the story ends.”

As the story began to go viral, a series of narratives began to emerge around it: It was a good story. No, it was a bad story, and people who thought it was good had not read enough short stories. No, it actually was good, and people who thought it was not good were sexist. Margot’s internal monologue about Robert’s body constituted fat shaming. No, she was simply a good old-fashioned unlikable narrator. Robert was the villain. No, Robert was the hero. Wait, was “Cat Person” fiction, or a nonfiction personal essay?

Much of the discomfort and controversy swirls around the character of Margot and all that she represents: a white, college-educated, straight, relatively thin young woman. She’s both a figure of enormous privilege and a figure who is disempowered, and most of the discourse about the story has focused on trying to figure out exactly where she stands.

Spoilers for “Cat Person” follow.

For many readers, “Cat Person” captures how it feels to be a woman in her 20s

Where “Cat Person” is acclaimed, it’s mostly for the eerie accuracy in depicting what dating is like for a 20-year-old woman. It captures the interiority of a certain kind of (middle-class, thin, white) woman perfectly: the guessing at what might possibly be going on in a man’s head, the slow piling-up of red flags that cannot quite be named and as such are dismissed, the desperate need to be considered polite and nice at all costs.

The need to be thought of as a nice girl is what drives Margot to sleep with Robert at the very moment that she realizes she is really not all that attracted to him: “The thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming,” Roupenian writes. “It would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon.”

And as Roupenian explores the interior of Margot’s psyche with breathtaking thoroughness in the foreground, Robert is in the background, throwing up warning sign after warning sign: He is older; he is controlling; he has a chip on his shoulder; he seems preoccupied with the idea of Margot sleeping with someone else.

All of these moments are innocuous in and of themselves, but together, they acquire so much force that if you are a person who has dated men, watching Margot blithely convince herself that Robert is a good guy feels like watching a horror movie. “Don’t go through that door!” you want to shout. “Call the cops!” When Robert calls Margot a whore at the end of the story, it feels inevitable. You saw that one coming.

Familiarity is what gives the story its aesthetic power. You recognize both the danger in the background and the interiority in the foreground. When they come together, there’s a pleasurable jolt: Yes, that is how it is; this is true.

And for that kind of careful, detailed attention to be applied to the practice of dating as a young woman — and for it to appear in a publication like the New Yorker — feels almost shocking. In a literary establishment filled with stories about the subjectivity of straight white men, for young women, it’s validation on a huge scale: Yes, this is what the world is like, and no, you’re not crazy.

“Cat Person” contradicts our culture’s tendency to treat women’s concerns as unliterary

For some readers, the fact that “Cat Person” centers on the subjectivity of a young woman made it inherently unliterary and unworthy. So much of the criticism surrounding “Cat Person” is weighted by misogyny that the Twitter account Men React to Cat Person sprang into being to chronicle it all.

Our culture tends to consider the things that happen to men to be compelling, universal, and worthy of literary attention, and the things that happen to women to be trivial, uninteresting, and petty.

A story like John Updike’s “A&P,” in which a man watches women and thinks about how hot they are, is a literary classic that is regularly taught in high schools. The literary canon’s attempts to delve into women’s heads, meanwhile, tend to look like C.S. Lewis’s “Shoddy Lands,” in which a woman’s mental landscape is devoted entirely to her own grotesque body, and the absence of the male gaze in her head is a moral affront. Women’s short stories about their own interiority rarely make it into the literary canon at all.

So when a story specifically about the experiences of a young woman takes off and becomes a major cultural touchstone, it’s threatening to the established order of things. But I thought lady things were Bad, a man might say. I don’t know how to empathize with ladies!

The trivializing of women’s stories also plays into one of the persistent oddities surrounding “Cat Person”; namely, the frequency with which readers have called it an “article” or an “essay” or generally treated it as a piece of nonfiction rather than as a short story.

“Cat Person” does not bear any of the signifiers of a personal essay: It is told in the third person, not the first, and it appears in the New Yorker’s fiction section, with FICTION splashed at the top of the page. Nonetheless, the default response from many seemed to be to treat it as an essay rather than as a short story.

Perhaps that’s because it does have one signifier that we associate with the personal essay. It has an intimate, confessional feminine narrative voice, the kind of voice we have learned to associate with “It Happened to Me”–style first-person narratives. Women’s subjectivity is not for serious literary fiction, after all; it’s for unserious, uninteresting, unpaid-for online writing. Treating “Cat Person” as a piece of nonfiction is another way to dismiss its literary merit, and we’re able to do that because it was written by a woman.

“Cat Person” is not the only short story out there about young women

But it’s worth noting that “Cat Person” is not the only short story in the world that pays careful attention to what it feels like to be a young woman dating in a world of dangerous men. Mary Gaitskill has devoted story after story to that theme since the 1980s, and so has Lorrie Moore. More recently, Lauren Holmes delved into the concern in her 2016 story collection Barbara the Slut.

So to some observers, it has been puzzling to watch “Cat Person” take off so rapidly. Short stories are read comparatively less often than book-length fiction, which suggests that many of the readers who commented publicly on “Cat Person” weren’t people who read lots of short stories. Yet they were discussing “Cat Person” as though it were the only story in the world capable of granting subjectivity to young women.

And the idea that few of the people lauding “Cat Story” were all that familiar with short stories stung particularly badly given the current literary moment. Over the past few months, short story fans have been critiquing the role of the short story in the literary world. Short stories are treated like the redheaded stepchildren of publishing, they argue, as though they’re worthy of a reader’s attention only because the stories are so short that they require very little of it.

“There seems to be an idea that people, with those shortened attention spans of theirs, want quick and easy reads!” wrote Brandon Taylor on LitHub. “If short stories are going to compete with Netflix, then we better make sure that people know that short stories can be read quickly!”

But, he argued, “Short stories are not aphorisms. Short stories are not the chocolate sampler hurriedly purchased as a last-minute gift idea. The expedience of a short story is certainly a feature in the way that feathers are a feature of a bird. It’s a brute fact.”

The short story is a medium already granted precious little respect — and now people barely acquainted with it were holding up “Cat Person” as exceptional rather than typical. Hackles rose; not necessarily at the story’s readers, but at the literary culture that makes it so easy to skate by on knowing the three short stories everybody reads in 10th-grade English, and to treat the great short stories that are written every year as afterthoughts.

Depending on whom you ask, Margot’s disgust with Richard’s body is either honest or fat shaming

Adding to the backlash against “Cat Person” was the sense that its narrative is fat shaming, and that it is constructed around the unexamined idea that fat bodies are inherently gross and bad.

Margot first realizes that she does not want to have sex with Robert when she sees “his belly thick and soft and covered with hair.” And as her revulsion grows, it’s constantly tinged with disgust at his weight: He “weighs her down.” His penis is “only half visible beneath the hairy shelf of his belly.” Her mental image of herself is one in which she’s “naked and spread-eagled with this fat old man’s finger inside her.”

Margot is not obligated to be attracted to Robert, but the idea that his fat body is intrinsically disgusting, some critics have argued, reinforces a sense that fat people are themselves inherently disgusting, even worthless.

“It feels like shorthand there to denote how objectively undesirable we are and how our bodies fool (via clothes) and trap (via weight),” wrote author Ana Mardoll in a now-deleted tweet, going on to add that she found Margot relatable, “until she saw a body like mine and recoiled and I realized THAT was the moment she saw the guy as bad.”

Margot is not an aspirational character or a role model, but a portrait of a flawed young woman, bringing context to the fat shaming. She’s riddled with all of the unexamined prejudices our culture teaches young women to feel: that nice girls are polite, that turning down sex once it’s been initiated is rude, and that fat people are gross.

But the sheer insistence of the story that Robert’s fat is the thing that makes him uniquely unacceptable remains troubling. In Margot’s horror at Robert’s body, “Cat Person” seems to be flattening the category of fatness into the category of things that are sexually disgusting.

This critique highlights Margot’s privilege. It is unusual, if not exceptional, for short stories about female subjectivity to become quite as popular as “Cat Person” — but it’s very normal for all kinds of stories to include offhand statements about how fat people are gross. As just one example, Jessica Jones, a fantastic TV show that is devoted to female interiority, has featured a snide joke about a fat woman eating a cheeseburger while on a treadmill.

“Cat Person” is not just speaking truth to power; it’s also reinforcing existing power structures.

It’s pretty delightful that we’re all sitting around debating a short story, though

Regardless of whether or not “Cat Person” is a great short story or just an okay short story, whether it’s deeply subversive or highly problematic, it has been exciting to see the cultural discourse revolve around a short story for a spell. It’s a reminder of how immensely powerful and valuable fiction can be, and why it’s worthwhile to pay attention to it and learn from it.

If you enjoyed “Cat Person” and you would like to read similar short fiction, here are some options, as crowd-sourced via Twitter:

  • Mary Gaitskill is the OG when it comes to writing about women and sex. If you want something “Cat Person”-esque, start with “Something Better Than This.”
  • Lauren Holmes writes the millennial woman’s voice with a deadpan glee, and her treatment of sex is elegant and nuanced. Her collection is called Barbara the Slut and Other People.
  • For sheer overwhelming dread at how the threat posed by men can slowly creep up on women, it’s hard to beat Carmen Maria Machado. Start with “The Husband Stitch,” and from there you can move on to the rest of Her Body and Other Parties.

Happy reading!

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