Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’ (The New Yorker) has not only caused a social media uproar. Among responses in respected places (The Guardian, The Economist), women readers found it ‘relatable’ and men readers found the representation of the ‘exploitative older man’ unfair. Men who disliked the story were branded misogynists who cannot stand literary women, women who liked it saw it as an empowering literary text.
One strand of the debate, expectedly, revolved around the ‘it was bad for her, so she was right to dump him’ theme. Occasionally, there have been debates about the literary merits of the work.
Beyond the Story
There is, however, something more to both the story and the responses that we could examine. Let us start by noting that Roupenian is not the first author – let us not get into the usual classifier, ‘woman author’, when an appellation like ‘male author’ is never used for, say, Henry Miller, who wrote steamy novels – to write emotionally searing works (think Anais Nin, Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson to mention three 20th century ones), so she is in good, if not great, company.
Then, there are three cultural moments: of the story’s appearance, the frames within the story and our consumption of it in specific frames.
That it appears in The New Yorker in #MeToo and Weinstein season, and the usual events of acid-attacks by distressed suitors, cries of ‘love jihad’ and honour killings is significant. Margot’s anxiety over possible consequences if she refuses the man appears within this globally pervasive, mostly-misogynist cultural frame of unequal gender relations and consequent exploitation. So the context of ‘Cat Person’ is a key factor in how the story spreads.
Now the story. When she realises that this was not what she wanted, or expected, Margot cannot stop the sex because that ‘would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon’. Margot’s inability to stop the encounter or break off relations later is the effect of cultural training: women trained not to behave in certain ways, or trained to experience guilt, shame and regrets for ‘treating him badly’. It is possible then to read Margot’s limitations less as personality traits than as the outcome of a cultural training that causes the woman to behave in particular ways (On this theme see Jamaica Kincaid’s brilliant subversion of the cultural training theme in ‘Girl’).
Margot’s behaviour as a result of cultural training is matched by that of Robert’s. When he finishes his agonised texting – and the story – with the word ‘whore’, it is not just an emotional outburst from the rejected man. If Margot is reluctant to call it off, Robert, culturally trained to believe men will not be denied, is unable to accept her rejection. When he uses the word, he employs the oldest set of cultural binaries in gender relations: good woman/bad woman, sweetheart/whore. If she is not one, she must be the other – and this is precisely what Robert falls back on. In the absence of an acceptable explanation, the stereotype serves its purpose.
One respondent put the finger on the tension in the story: ‘both [Margot and Robert] are talking to a version of the other that doesn’t really exist’. Young men and women are culturally trained into certain expectations, especially of romance, through circulating discourses. Her sexual expectations and his presumed privileges stem from the ways in which their cultural contexts have constructed gender roles, with all the inequalities and trained insensitivities around them. So dating and casual encounters are never solely a personal or private experience because the private person has been moulded through cultural training to possess certain expectations of the dating scene.
Stereotypes frame the meanings of the encounter within the story. Thinking about how he might feel/think is also a part of the acculturation into romance for Margot. That this acculturation does not prepare her for flabby, inept and uncertain Robert – men ought to have 6-packs and know – is neither Margot’s nor Robert’s pure subjective reaction. Margot’s physical revulsion is not, therefore, purely an emotional moment: this is simply not what she has been trained to expect (to digress into literary history: there is a Sue Bridehead who jumps out of the window, unnerved on seeing her husband in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.)
Cultural frames determine the answers to the questions ‘Cat Person’ has opened up: Is the older man supposed to know better? Is the college girl only wide-eyed and sexually vulnerable? How does one evaluate a (past or potential) date – from her/his looks to emotional balance? A ‘disastrous’ date is a label that draws upon contemporary cultural expectations of the date and, therefore, how ‘disaster’ is defined in terms of intensity, magnitude or something else.
The story moves to the sexual moment half-way through. Until then the encounter is primarily of a social kind. Here we see the mismatch emerging throughout: his choice of film, her idea of what a ‘cat person’ might be (what kind of a man keeps cats?), the texting and responses (or lack thereof). They are both two inept people, pumped up with expectations. But this is not how the story is being read, from what I can see.
Framing the story’s consumption are social discourses that construct victims, hermetically sealed so one cannot get past them, or one risks being labelled as anti-this or anti-that. One has to say that the encounter is disastrous solely because of Robert – as many of the readers suggest. Is the man’s insecurity any less important than the woman’s? (A respondent in The Economist makes this point) it is too facile to explain away Margot’s inexpertise as attributable to her youth, or Robert’s solely because he is just a bad, insensitive man. This is stereotyping too. But can one take this stance in the age of Weinstein? The problem is: this debate never gets off the ground simply because labelling (‘misogynist’, ‘misandry’, ‘feminist’, ‘sexist pig’) is not only easier: it enables two sides to talk past each other.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)