Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” seems to be the most talked-about New Yorker story since J.D. Salinger’s swan-song “Haplinger 16, 1924,” appeared more than fifty years ago. It’s been criticized by body-positive types for fat-shaming, by feminists for featuring a man who calls a woman a “whore” if she decides after a night of sex that she doesn’t want a further relationship with him, and by men’s-rights types for featuring a woman who pitilessly ghosts a man just as he is offering her affection. (The plot, if it needs summarizing for those who haven’t read the story, involves a twenty-year-old college sophomore named Margot’s disastrous beer-fueled hookup with a near-stranger, Robert, who turns out to be overweight, overly hairy, overly needy, clumsy in bed—and, worst of all, thirty-four years old.)
But those are criticisms of “Cat Person”’s content, as though Roupenian had written not fiction but a personal memoir—which is what a lot of people seem to think the story actually is. So they lecture Margot as if she were a real person in real life—advising her that she didn’t have to say yes to the sex just because women are “socialized” by the patriarchy to be nice, or, as Kyle Smith did in National Review, reminding her that downing three supersize, inhibition-lowering brews on your first date is a bad idea, and that having had sex with six different men (excluding Robert) by the time you turn twenty is at least five men too many.
My own criticism is that “Cat Person” fails simply on its own terms—as a story. Just for starters, there’s the pedestrian writing, in which “tell, not show” seems to be the watchword. I almost didn’t get past the first half of the second sentence: “She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown….” “Artsy?” That’s a lazy adjective. Wouldn’t the sentence telegraph the setting of this first encounter better by giving the reader some actual names of pretentious Oscar bait on this fictional art house’s marquee? Similarly, when Robert finally asks Margot out, Roupenian writes: “[T]he film he’d chosen was a very depressing drama about the Holocaust, so inappropriate for a first date….” So what was this “depressing” Holocaust movie? Schindler’s List? The Night Porter? The Pianist? Life Is Beautiful? There are Holocaust movies, and there are Holocaust movies. For the author of a story about a film addict and a girl who sells candy to filmgoers, Roupenian seems remarkably uninterested in any but the vaguest aspects of a medium devoted to illusion that plays a major setting in a story that is ostensibly about the illusions people have about their sex partners.
And how about sentences like these? “With the drinks in front of him and the kiss behind him, and also maybe because she had cried, Robert became much more relaxed, more like the witty person she knew through his texts. As they talked, she became increasingly sure that what she’d interpreted as anger or dissatisfaction with her had, in fact, been nervousness, a fear that she wasn’t having a good time.” Can’t we readers actually have some of this “more like the witty person” conversation?
But the failure of dialogue and style in “Cat Person” isn’t its worst failing. It’s the failure of characterization. There are essentially only three characters in the story, and among them, Margot is the only one who’s fully developed. There’s Margot’s roommate, Tamara. She’s no more than a plot device; her sole job is to grab Margot’s cell phone and text Robert a brutal message of rejection instead of the tactful one that Margot dithers over. By contrast, Margot may have her failings—the three big beers and six previous hookups among them, coupled with zero capacity for perception and discrimination—but she is wholly believable and even sympathetic. She’s a confused young product of slapdash higher education, social mores that encourage women to sleep around casually until age thirty, and a fashionable millennial cynicism that actually masks an enormous ignorance of and incuriosity about human nature, including her own. Her revulsion at Robert’s body even before the pair’s hasty coupling (“Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled”) is natural; there’s a fine line for women between desire and disgust, which is why courtship is an art.
Robert, on the other hand, isn’t believable at all. He is a composite of male sexual stereotypes that author Roupenian as a good feminist clearly finds unattractive, and as you read the story, you can visualize her trolling the Internet for its various components. He starts out as something straight out of a pickup-artist website such as Heartiste or Roosh V, and advice books such as Neil Strauss’s The Game, whose thesis is that even the most physically unappealing men can bed down beautiful women by mastering some tricks: a show of “alpha male” self-confidence, “negs,” or little digs suggesting that he’s not all that impressed by her (Robert specializes in negs during the story’s opening flirtation), and making her work to win his attention, not the other way around. Robert plays the Game very well until he has Margot in bed, when he suddenly turns into the (very beta) nightmare sex creep (“those huge, sloppy kisses, his hand moving mechanically across her breasts and down to her crotch”) that was the stuff of many a first-person overshare on the now-defunct female-only website xoJane.com (“My Rapist Friended Me on Facebook”). And by the end of the story he has morphed yet again: into a full-fledged standard-issue cyberbully right out of one of Amanda Hess’s New York Times columns, badgering Margot with text messages that undulate between “I miss you” and “Are you f—ing that guy right now?” I admit it: When I read that final word, “Whore,” I laughed.
No, the problem with “Cat Person” isn’t that it’s a story about people doing what other people, for various reasons, wish they didn’t do. It’s that it’s not a story at all. It’s a feminist morality tale about the ways in which men can be very bad when it comes to sex. In the eyes of Roupenian, clearly all men are like Robert.
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