I woke up haunted by thoughts of Kristen Roupenian’s exquisite short story in the New Yorker, Cat Person, or rather, about the world’s reactions to it. My little corner of the Internet has a whole midrash of commentary about the meaning of this sad tale but they are all wrong and I can’t go back to sleep until I set them straight.
SPOILERS AHEAD. If you want to know what all the fuss is about, go read the story first.
“It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad; Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing.”
If you are not much of a reader, let Ms Roupenian read it to you. Just click the audio link at the top of the top of the story and enjoy. For anyone who found even the audio book too exhausting, here’s Vox’s quick summary:
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’s and Robert’s tale of ill-fated romance is just ambiguous enough that you can read into it whatever moral lessons that you already believed at the start. Think life is too short for bad sex? This story is for you. Is the modern world’s hookup culture shallow and demeaning to everyone who plays the game? Let a thousand moralising op-eds bloom. There’s a universal truth for everyone in this story.
The Washington Post says Robert’s brutish behaviour reinforces the need for positive consent.
Robert, 34, is part of a cohort of men schooled in “no means no” — as in, he’ll consider a woman not interested if and when she tries to stop him.
A common and important position taken by many women commentators is that the story is a parable about the very real fears that arise in the heart of every woman who goes home with a man for the first time. Dating is a minefield for men and women alike but, for women, when the mines detonate the injuries could be life-threatening — there might literally be bodies in those other rooms.
She had the brief wild idea that maybe this was not a room at all but a trap meant to lure her into the false belief that Robert was a normal person, a person like her, when in fact all the other rooms in the house were empty, or full of horrors: corpses or kidnap victims or chains.
This comment is worth internalising if you are a young man who might like to take a young woman home someday. The point was made most forcefully in the Financial Times.
Helin Palandoken was only 17 years old when she was gunned down in front of her school gates in Istanbul by a man whose overtures she rejected.
This commentary in the Daily Telegraph has a point too.
The sad truth is that young women say yes to sex they don’t want to have all the time. Why? Because they are conditioned to feel guilty if they change their mind too late.
The School of Life should print this out on one of their attractive little cards and hand them out to boys and girls before they even form the odious idea that there exists a point where it is too late to say no.
Vox thought the story might be about fat-shaming.
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.
The worst commentaries are from the Wolves of Twitter who have collectively decided that, of these two flawed would-be lovers, one is by far the more despicable — usually the one who has the same gender as the commentator.
The author herself would have us believe that she deliberately left the story open to multiple interpretations but she kind of gives the game away at the end of this interview.
Margot’s sense of Robert and his motivations keeps shifting throughout the story. She repeatedly changes her mind about him. Do you think that she ever actually interprets his thoughts or behavior correctly?
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. The point at which she receives unequivocal evidence about the kind of person he is is the point at which the story ends.
And in another interview (in the New York Times):
The story’s last exchange gives the clearest view yet of who Robert is. Did you always know how it was going to end? Verbatim?
The fix was in before Robert even ordered his Red Vines. Even the BBC’s sympathetic Robert turns nasty at the end and that’s where I think the true lesson of this morality tale might lie.
It’s all too common for ex-lovers to behave badly when a relationship ends. The desire to hurt, hate and lie about someone that you may have cherished for years is so powerful it might even be an instinct. It’s no wonder that Robert called Margot a terrible name and there’s no doubt that Margot would’ve used a worse one had she been on the receiving end of such appalling behaviour.
The way former loved ones behave during a break up is not the way they truly are. If I had a daughter or a son, I’d want them to know that break-ups act like a kind of reality distortion field. In the aftermath of a breakup, people turn nasty. Love turns to hate so quickly, there should be no surprise when the rejected one lashes out with evil words. The best we can do is weather the storm.