X Close

Cat Person wasn’t a MeToo fable Female desire is narcissistic

"She liked that he was a little gross" Rolf Konow/Sygma/Sygma/ Getty Images

"She liked that he was a little gross" Rolf Konow/Sygma/Sygma/ Getty Images


October 5, 2022   6 mins

Imagine you hear the following story from a friend. You’re both in college, in a town full of boarded-up shops, where you refer to the “county residents” as if they are another species. Both of you think of yourselves as being on the sophisticated side. Your friend works at the artsy movie theatre downtown. One day, she started flirting with a customer. He was kind of cute — a little chubby, around 30, but she was bored.

They ended up exchanging numbers, and texted constantly for the next few weeks. She was surprised at how funny he was. Eventually, he asked her out, but on the date he was quiet and she was a little worried he wasn’t into her. Abruptly, she asked to go home with him. Grabbing his hand, she was excited to feel it get clammy, to feel how excited he was. He said she was probably drunk and offered to drive her home, but once in the car, she started to make out with him desperately, pawing him all over. He took her back to his.

When she saw him awkwardly perched on the side of his bed, half undressed, his belly looked like a “fat hairy shelf”. She noticed his “fat old man’s finger”. She was grossed out. But she couldn’t think of a way to not sleep with him that wouldn’t be awkward, so she ended up doing it. Was it good? Yes and no. He was a clumsy kisser, and kind of porn-y in bed, and, well, just fat! Still, your friend explains, it was nice that he seemed so into her. She kept imagining how hot she seemed to him — how young and flawless and out-of-his-league. In a way, your friend explains to you, she liked that he was a little gross.

Afterward, he was sweet. He covered her arms with little kisses; he wanted to make her eggs in the morning. But your friend asked him to drive her home. He texted her hearts before she even made it to her door. The next day, she wanted nothing more than “that he would disappear without her having to do anything, that she could just wish him away”. To ghost him, in short. But he sent her messages, “each one more earnest than the last”. She responded with nothing, complaining constantly to her friends. She acted like he was much worse than he was. She admits that to you. She admits that he hadn’t done anything wrong, except like her too much and be bad at sex.

Eventually, her roommate grabbed her phone and texted him: “Hi im not interested in you stop texting me.” He responded: “O.K., Margot, I am sorry to hear that. I hope I did not do anything to upset you.” A month later, she saw him in a bar, and made a speedy, conspicuous exit. He got in touch, first apologising for texting her, then saying she looked pretty and that he hoped she was well. She didn’t respond. Then he sent a few messages asking what had happened between them. No response. Then the texts got grosser: when he had asked, in bed, if she was a virgin, had she laughed because she was actually so experienced? Eventually, he just sent: “whore”.

Who’s the bad guy?

This was the question posed by Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”; when it was published during the heady heights of MeToo, the answer was unequivocal: the guy was a borderline rapist, Margot a vulnerable everywoman. Fanatically hailed as a portrait of the ambiguities of consent, it launched over 10,000 tweets and think pieces in which women said: it happened to me too. Per the Guardian, it “sent the Internet into a meltdown”, and is still the only short story to ever legitimately go viral. Seemingly overnight, “Cat Person” became water-cooler talk, a seeming skeleton key to a universal female experience: where an earlier generation of feminism said, “No means no!”, this one was saying “Yes might mean no!” Or, as the Financial Times glossed it: “Robert and Margot presented emblems of the murkier grey zones of relationships. Sex that was ostensibly consensual, but still felt really bad. Weinstein was easy to label as a villain, but what about Robert?”

Today, “Cat Person” reads like a satire of 2017: Margot’s friends anxiously escorting her out the bar where Rob calmly sits drinking a beer; Margot’s own admissions that he’s done nothing wrong and she’s exaggerated everything to her friends; Margot’s casual insults about his fatness, ugliness, and clumsiness, as if being unattractive automatically means being a “creep”. Nobody but the feminist of the moment, Roxane Gay, dared ask why the story was so full of fat-shaming. And just about the only response that recognised anything wrong with the story’s interpretation was a condescending National Review piece titled “Dear ‘Cat Person’ Girl”, which seized on the fact that Rob was Margot’s seventh partner to harp about the evils of casual sex.

Indeed, Margot seems like a caricature of female narcissism: she treats Rob with icy cruelty, any affection explicitly described as attempts to push him into further submission and herself, consequently, into victory. By contrast, Rob is funny, sweet and unrealistically polite. And what does he do that’s bad, apart from that final, half-page crescendo of text messages, by far the weakest part of the story and a cheap attempt to stick the landing? In 2021, the real-life “Margot” revealed that the story’s character was based on her, a younger ex-girlfriend of a man Roupenian had also dated (and who had no such negative feelings about him). One almost wonders if Roupenian’s depiction of a callous and calculating Margot is motivated more by intrasexual competition than feminism.

Looking back, it’s strange that the story was read as a straightforward cautionary tale of fragile masculinity, more an educational tool than a work of the imagination. For me, what is compelling in “Cat Person” — what drew me in, five years ago — was that a certain ugly female feeling had been put on the page. It was the feeling of having sex not out of desire, but instead out of desire to be desired, to be validated in one’s beauty and allure.

I knew one girl who said that during sex all she imagined was the view of herself from above; another, who said she usually avoided attractive guys, bewildered everyone by cheating on her boyfriend with a socially-stunted virgin; and countless girls, of course, find something both intoxicating and terrifying in cat calls, compliments, and, in that ever more capacious term: creeps. I recently saw a short film by model Taylor Jeanne, the title of which put it succinctly enough: I Love Creepy Guys. But these are all shameful, whispered-about feelings, whereas “Cat Person” was frank about the rarely acknowledged narcissism in female desire, and abjection’s strange relationship to it: “her revulsion turned to self-disgust and a humiliation that was a kind of perverse cousin to arousal.” You wanted to seduce, but not exactly to cash in. If you do, you hate him a little bit, and hate yourself more.

“Cat Person” should have opened up truly difficult questions about our sexual culture. As the million think pieces stated, it did upturn any simple idea of consent, especially the one, increasingly popular in the 2010s, of “affirmative consent”: that “Yes means yes”, and therefore must mean everyone’s happy. And yet, pieces in The Atlantic and The New York Times entirely missed the boat, with dull think-pieces about how “Cat Person” showed the importance of “enthusiastic consent”. The Washington Post translated Roupenian’s twisted portrayal of a young woman’s power over an older man — and her deeply conflicted feelings about that power — into a nice, neat tale of misogyny: “Robert is older than Margot, as is the custom in heterosexual relationships, calling most of the shots in their interactions, and therefore has the power in their fledgling relationship”.

But the whole terror of the story is that she does beg him to have sex with her; that he does check in with her; that she does enjoy much of it — and yet still, at the end of it, is sickened. The question wasn’t why Margot didn’t say yes — it was why she did. Our problem was, and remains, a culture in which women are so alienated from their own bodies that sex, for them, is mostly autoerotic, imbued with a violent need for validation, and cut with deep self-loathing. Rob didn’t pressure Margot — if anything, she pressured him — but they were interacting in a culture where, without the excuse of virginity or religion, immediate sex is the default. And Rob wasn’t evil for being “bad in bed”; it’s just that, usually, men want and enjoy casual sex more than women do. Roupenian’s story got at this hard, painful dilemma — at the way our culture provokes both men and women to both hate and despair. But the publicity machine of literature, at the height of MeToo, had to flatten “Cat Person” into a tale of a spotless victim and evil perpetrator.

Roupenian certainly benefitted. She received a $1.3 million advance for a hastily-commissioned collection of short stories. It performed terribly, even after it was renamed Cat Person, perhaps disappointing because critics had gotten Roupenian wrong from the start. She has always been a horror writer, and the stories in her debut are gruesome tales of mutilation and sadism, set in a bleak landscape with fear on all fronts.

Yet those frenzied first months of MeToo coincided with the tail end of the personal essay era. Women writers were beginning to demur from divulging their darkest experiences for $150. The media machine was starving for content and needed a viral “piece” — something not-too-challenging, not-too-long, and above all, relatable. For “Cat Person” to sky-rocket beyond the fiction pages of The New Yorker into the clickbait realm of the “MeToo piece”, the protagonist needed to be bland enough for any reader to self-insert and realistic enough to believe.

But what about that inconvenient cruelty of hers? What about her delight in Rob’s nervousness? What about her arousal, imagining her own inappropriate youth? By 2019, the New Yorker would be ready to touch those tensions, publishing Mary Gaitskill’s “This is Pleasure”, a provocative piece shifting between the perspectives of a MeToo’d editor and one of his “victims”. But in 2017, it was taboo to challenge the roles MeToo had firmly delineated. And editor, author, and reader were all ready to play along — even if, later, we came to confess the contradictions.


Ann Manov is a writer living in New York. Visit her website here.

ann_manov

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

24 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

Thank gawd I’m too old for all this – “enthusiastic consent”!
I’d never heard the Cat Person story before, but even reading the original story, the girl character sounds awful in her vanity, self centredness and condescension – a narcissist indeed.
Maybe explains the development of the incel culture too – why would men want to have anything to do with such women?

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
Jeff Cunningham
JC
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

You mean besides the obvious reason? Probably because they are truly unaware of what’s going on inside their minds through all this.

Brett H
BH
Brett H
1 year ago

Everyone loses.

Jason Highley
JH
Jason Highley
1 year ago

I praise God that I found my wife in 2009, married her in 2010, and have had a splendid, faithful, and joy-filled monogamy all through my 20’s and now 30’s. Trying to think about sex the way that the modern world seems to want to define/analyze/commoditize it is excruciating to even hear about. Much less to actually DO.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago

I read the “Cat Person” story some time ago. It somewhat opened (or widened) my eyes to a subset of women who crave the freedoms of masculinity, yet also look down on and despise men they consider inferior i.e. men who are unable to control them. My sister once commented to me that it is a great myth that women have the monopoly on care and compassion. The story of “Cat Person” is nothing if not a story of callous cruelty.

David Giles
David Giles
1 year ago

So he ends up texting “w***e” does he? Wouldn’t “psycho” have been nearer the mark?

Edwin Blake
Edwin Blake
1 year ago

I’ve, innocently, accepted that part of a woman’s desire is seeing a reflection of her beauty in my eyes. I’ve never labelled it “narcissism” though I suppose it could be, but then every human characteristic can be labelled as a pathology.

Frank McCusker
FM
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

What a shambles.
Bring back real dating, and mutually-joyful sex, instead of this tedious casual rubbish

Maggi B
MB
Maggi B
1 year ago

Narcissism evidently lacks compassion without which it is impossible to see the other. Contempt is often the reason relationships end but contempt should also be seen as a reason why they cannot start as well.

Ibn Sina
IS
Ibn Sina
1 year ago

We’re heading back to the Victorian era.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 year ago

The third-person narrator whose opinions here and there intrude on the narrative, and which seem to stand in for Margot’s, manages not to comment on Margot’s remarkable fantasy of a type of “boy”–not boyfriend–who “didn’t exist and never would,” into whose arms she wishes to collapse in shared laughter at the banal details of her one night stand with Robert.

Albert, “the friend she was with” at the student bar where Robert mysteriously appears, presumably a fellow undergraduate, plainly corresponds to this fantasy type. But for some reason Margot and/or the narrator (it’s muddled) don’t recognize him as such. She has already opted instead for the first cute (yet gross) older guy to hit on her at the concession stand; and the night Albert stands in between her and Robert at the student bar, ineffectively protecting her from Robert’s catching sight of her, she doesn’t collapse laughing into his arms after all, but instead goes back to her dorm room and “curls up in bed with Tamara, the glow of the phone like a campfire illuminating their faces.”

So a picture of Margot emerges as a would-be sexless innocent and naive child whose own fantasies she doesn’t understand let alone really want to be fulfilled; but whose actions are guided by more immediate impulses she is powerless to understand or control. And so her choices are forced on her by a man, an obviously unattractive and inexperienced one at that.

Somehow I don’t believe that is what the New Yorker’s middlebrow female audience wants to hear.

Thus the silly ending–why doesn’t Margot just block Robert’s number?–which gives away the point of the story, what its middlebrow female audience really wants to hear, which is that Robert’s behavior finally allows Margot, who has no real idea of what she wants let alone how to get it, to recast his earlier behavior in a more sinister light, thus vindicating her and absolving her of her own role in a seemingly commonplace if unfortunate affair that nearly emotionally overwhelms her.

Neil Anthony
NA
Neil Anthony
1 year ago

The question not mentioned is… was the literal application of the label “w***e” justified. He. Eventually saw her as a female who exploited him for personal gain. While it was not financial gain. She nevertheless treated him as a client.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago

“One almost wonders if Roupenian’s depiction of a callous and calculating Margot is motivated more by intrasexual competition than feminism.”

It’s a head scratcher! (Given that feminism and female intrasexual competition are of course completely separate things that have nothing to do with one another).

Steve Jolly
SJ
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

Honestly both the man and the woman in the story seem to me to be selfish, egotistical, and just plain awful people. They both deserved what they got, each other. I am skeptical that either of these people are capable of building a functional partner relationship. The man seems to compensate for his unattractiveness by going through the motions of being the sensitive, caring, nice guy, but the illusion falls apart when it becomes apparent he isn’t getting any more sex out of the deal. The woman seems to be a highly neurotic narcissist who wants to control every aspect of her sexual relationships but lacks the self-awareness to understand her own desires. Honestly, her kink (getting off being worshipped by men who are, in her eyes, unworthy of her) is not particularly unusual. There’s a lot of porn out there of gross older men licking the feet of hot young things.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago

I sometimes have a daydreamy intuition that the female psyche has been bound, over millennia, by much the same forces, and with similar results, as the grotesquery of foot binding. They must look beautiful so as to be worshipped by power, and hobbled so as to be no threat…a story so often been lived that now a woman may struggle just to be in the world, free from a neurotic quest to be considered worshipful, and a preoccupation with appearance. Men are of course not free from such forces either, but that is not the subject here

Sheryl Rhodes
SR
Sheryl Rhodes
1 year ago

It was the feeling of having sex not out of desire, but instead out of desire to be desired, to be validated in one’s beauty and allure.”
Wow, this observation shook me because it helps explain why I had some regrettable unsatisfying youthful sexual encounters. Looking back, with wisdom, I wish that I had only gotten intimate in the context of my two most serious relationships (one of whom I almost married, and one of whom I did).
I was socially awkward in high school and considered “ugly.” Got contacts to replace the thick glasses and went to a large university where I was shocked to realize that I was considered super-hot (the term at the time was “a major fox”). I became addicted to testing my new-found powers. It was like giving the keys to a high-powered Lamborghini to a twelve-year-old kid with a need for speed. So yes, although I wasn’t cruel, I guess I was acting out narcissism by craving the attention and then assuming that I should go to bed with some of these blokes to “pay” them for their time and adulation. Sometimes I inadvertently led them on emotionally. Careless behavior towards both myself and my partners, for sure. I didn’t fully emerge from this stupidity until my late twenties.

Big Kagi
Big Kagi
1 year ago

This essay is a summary of what Manov said a couple of years ago on her excellent, much missed podcast “After the Orgy.” Come back to the pod, Ann!

Val Colic-Peisker
Val Colic-Peisker
1 year ago

How did we arrive to this black-and-white world? MeToo made things between women and men nauseatingly simplistic. Things are complicated. Yes, women are often narcissistic, at least a little, because they are taught to be so from the early age. “Oh, you’re a pretty girl”, you hear as soon you can understand what’s being said, and soon you learn that’s the most important thing about you. For many men, the only important thing. So if you’re not ‘pretty enough’ then you’re full of self-loathing, feeling worthless. This terrible burden is hard to shed; it takes strength, education and some luck with one’s family of origin (e.g. not having a male shauvinist father). Good work Ann! Shulamit Firestone said it all in 1970 in her ‘The Dyalectic of Sex’ when she was only 25. If you, by some accident, have missed it, this book should be the first item on your reading list.

john barrington
JB
john barrington
1 year ago

Reminds me of a William Blake poem-

What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

I drunkenly wrote that in a friend’s wedding guest book….

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

I have read and re-read the first part of this article and I still can’t find out what was no evil about what the woman did. She slept with a man and then regreted it, not a unique experience, but she didn’t accuse him of rape or assault. She may have been somewhat unfeeling, but that’s not unusual in the young, we are told that she didn’t know what to do so just “ghosted” him. She was unflattering about him, but I have over-heard similar unflattering portraits of women from young men. Her room-mate made it clear that she didn’t want to speak to him and she made a hasty exit when she saw him in the bar, both of which should have told him to look elsewhere, but he started texting again and became “gross” in his texts, it looks like it’s bordering on harrassment. She was young and silly, that’s all; he, however, should know better, and just write it off.

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
1 year ago

Why should he have known better? Why should she not have known better? Why would you imagine that either a man of around thirty or a woman in her twenties, in this hedonistic era, is likely to know the first thing about maturity? But think of the double standard here. The context of both #MeToo and this literary experiment, let alone debates over them, is a culture of (selective) cynicism: “they” are all guilty of sexual victimization (even without actually assaulting or harassing anyone), but “we” are all their innocent victims (even without thinking carefully about our own behavior).

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul Nathanson
michael stanwick
michael stanwick
1 year ago

She was unflattering about him, but I have over-heard similar unflattering portraits of women from young men.
But the 2nd instance does not absolve the 1st.
I thought the responses of both were interesting – his emotional responses to her advances and her emotional responses to her own advances. His resulted in a desire for a more emotional attachment and hers resulted in avoidance at all costs.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago

I had the same thought – pure “whataboutery”.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
1 year ago

Try reversing the roles in the story and check if you would judge it the same way you did. Should be an enlightening experience.