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Why viral short story Cat Person had so many women shook

The extreme romantic projection, awkward date, bad sex and that ending were all too #relatable

“On the walk back to her dorm, she was filled with a sparkly lightness that she recognised as the sign of an incipient crush.”

Because that’s the way it always starts, right? A crush. I’ve had it happen lots of ways – someone’s look at you across a dance floor, the first joke he tells that actually makes you laugh, the thing he notices that is something you, too, secretly love about yourself and the lightness that is so inevitable after it’s first felt. It’s that which we ache for and anticipate when we first start seeing someone new. Still, those feelings always remind me of those words uttered by Samantha’s Dad in Sixteen Candles: “That's why they call them crushes. If they were easy, they’d call ’em something else”. Lots of things can be hidden inside a crush, things we don’t want to know about ourselves, or things we willingly overlook about the other person, who may really be a projection of the kind of partner we crave in our lives. Sometimes, like in Kristen Roupenian’s now-viral short story Cat Person, published in the New Yorker this weekend, they can feel sinister.

I first read this story before it hit headlines, and hoped upon clicking the link that amongst my timeline of Weinstein and Woody Allen think pieces I’d get to read something sort of cute about a cat. It floored me. I knew each line, each step protagonist Margot takes and how her brain ticked to get her there. Of course, it’s fiction, but for me and every other man-dating woman I’ve spoken to about it, it’s more. It’s the men who lurk in our phone’s list of blocked numbers, streets we don’t walk down anymore, pubs we won’t drink at. It’s the sadness we feel remembering how the coyness and giddy potential of a first date ended in an archive WhatsApp folder filled with some promise of what ultimately we all want – a connection, passion, love.

The response to Cat Person has been extraordinary in its effusiveness. It has made a generation of women like me whose entanglements with men are lived out in text messages, microaggressions of masculinity, emojis and unresolved emotions feel seen. Because even by our mid-twenties we’ve already had ten years of some kind of torment – whether that be unrequited love, unwanted advances, uninvited attempts and assaults on our bodies and hearts. And we still sometimes find ourselves getting stuck in the sinking-man-sand of fuckboys, endless analyses of screenshotted conversations, obsessing over if we were too much before we are left just feeling like we’re not enough. It’s based on that inevitable want for that mythic grand love that is as teenage and tender as a first crush but one that can feel very far away by the time you get your third ‘you up?’ text in a week.  

Cat Person has made a generation of women like me whose entanglements with men are lived out in text messages, microaggressions of masculinity, emojis and unresolved emotions feel seen”

As soon as I read the lines which describe their text exchange as a kind of dance, I knew that Robert, the love interest, had Margot hooked. We can all fall so easily into that dance when the possibility of it having a happy ending is so built up in our minds. It’s why every time I’ve been gaslit by a man it’s felt like it was my fault, that I couldn’t keep up with the pace of the dance. I should’ve listened when he told me it was casual and it was my fault for believing him when, despite that, he whispered lies like ‘I love you’ or ‘You’re the most amazing woman I’ve ever met’. By the time Robert texts Margot after ignoring her for days, she agrees instantly to see him. In this time, we’ve already watched her invent her own inadequacies in the absence of his attention. It’s a spiral that unravels fast. It’s why she can so easily ignore the sinister aspects that start to creep in, she just feels sort of lucky that he’s replying, validated that whatever she said maybe was witty enough for her to win his time even for a minute.

Once Margot is in his car on the ‘date’, she wonders suddenly whether this stranger will drive her somewhere, rape her and murder her. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to murder you,” he jokes, sensing her tension. I’ve been there, in that seat, in that car, far from home and on a third date with an older seemingly glamorous man who said, “Don’t worry, I won’t leave you out here alone”. It was like he could convince himself all at once at the same time that he could be my protector and a threat. We know the situation well as women, we map our movements to protect ourselves. I ignored all my instincts in this instance, and the conclusion my situation came to made the last lines of Cat Person eerily resonant.

Still, there’s an honesty to Margot that’s endearing. She’s far from perfect but imbued with a kind of naïve hope that some of us as twenty-somethings feel, a hope that even in this day and age of dating and swipes and apps and dick pics that we won’t let ourselves get jaded. Maybe that’s why she willingly tries so hard with Robert even after the point that she knows it’s not right and she’s worth more than a man with perhaps non-existent cats. Despite all the evidence that this is a Bad Idea, she wants, desperately, for something good, something romantic to come from the situation. She tells herself she is in control.

“We still sometimes find ourselves getting stuck in the sinking-man-sand of fuckboys, endless analyses of screenshotted conversations, obsessing over if we were too much before we are left just feeling like we’re not enough”

It’s the lines to her future, imaginary boyfriend as she lets Robert paw at and penetrate her that get to me and linger the most. It’s her hope that someday she will find the kind of good man that will fight for her, see her as an equal rather than a body, and together they’ll laugh as she recounts the story of Robert. The narrator has other ideas. “Of course there was no such future, because no such boy existed, and never would.” Bleak.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Roupenian says that she thinks that Cat Person “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.” Even if they’ve never fully articulated it to themselves, these lines are painfully relatable to a lot of women. 

I wish this story started and ended with “I don’t think I’ve ever actually sold a box of Red Vines before”, but it didn’t. There’s so much to say about it, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the reactions from men online (please see @mencatperson for a full collection of priceless tweets) have been a mix of confusion and collective anger at her depiction of Robert. Yes, his personality is hard to pin down – is he a good guy or is he a bad one? – but by the end of the story, Roupenian says, it’s pretty clear. I’d like to think that the way in which women are seeing elements of themselves in this situation and in the character of Margot as something illuminating; motivation to change the narratives of our own lives. We don’t need to get wound up in the performance of men and their mixed messages, say yes to dates we don’t want to be on, rethink our outfits, responses and safety when we want to stop seeing them. And whether or not we get a text back, we are enough.

Image courtesy of @MillyBurroughs on Twitter