Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” was published by the New Yorker in its Dec. 11 issue and went viral online. The story centers around a sexual interaction between a 20-year-old college sophomore named Margot and a 34-year-old man named Robert. Six Yale students — Rachel Calnek-Sugin ’19, Mariah Kreutter ’20, Rob Newhouse ’19, Lucy Silbaugh ’20, Eve Sneider ’19, Noora Reffat ’19 — got together to discuss it. Below is their conversation, as well as a short audio excerpt.
Intro: how we heard
Rachel: I read a lot of it over someone’s shoulder in the Starr Reference Room.
Mariah: That’s really interesting considering how much of the story’s about, like, voyeurism and seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes.
Eve: I saw a Jezebel article that was like, “Look at what these men are saying about this short story.”
Rob: Someone texted me a link to the article. I just called it an article. It’s not an article. It is a short story.
Lucy: Why do you think so many people mistook the story for an article? Do you think it matters that people recognize it as fiction?
Mariah: I think it’s really interesting in the context of the personal-essay industrial complex. We’ve seen so many essays written mostly by women for female-centered publications and often about experiences like this, about sex and gender. … And so in “Cat Person,” we have a fictional story that shares many elements [with those personal essays] in terms of subject matter and perspective. So part of me thinks people recognize a genre and automatically place something that seems adjacent into that genre, … but maybe there’s something in the nature of this particular story that makes it seem very real.
Lucy: It’s also pretty interesting that the third-person narration didn’t tip people off. It reminds me of that whole thing that I think most people know now, which is that women read both men and women, but men only read men. … I wonder how that plays into the mis-genreing of the piece. Because in some ways, maybe, thinking something is nonfiction validates it, but there’s another way in which maybe that mislabelling makes the story seem less universal, and maybe kind of removes any feelings of responsibility. … There’s something comforting in thinking, “Oh, it’s just this one person’s very specific experience. It’s just another personal essay.”
“Good” story? Some thoughts on the ending
Rob: I thought it was an incredibly effective story, in the sense that it attracted a huge readership and also in that it spurred all of these quite difficult and interesting conversations. And I think the reason that they were difficult was because the story was difficult, for the most part. I thought the characters weren’t one-note, they were very complex and nuanced, and I felt that was true for the most part except for the ending. I really didn’t like the ending.
Lucy: Me neither.
Mariah: I did not like the ending either.
Rachel: I liked it at first.
Rachel: Yeah, I liked the ending at first. It was such a good button, there’s really no denying that. And, yeah, he would have texted her “whore,” it was perfectly right, but I agree with you that it lost the nuanced work of a lot of the story. Part of the point of the story, I think, was that Robert could have been any old guy, but by the time he sends her a text that says “whore,” any old guy would be like, “Oh, he’s bad, I wouldn’t do that.”
Rob: Yeah, I think that’s exactly why it’s not as true to the original fascinating aspect of the story, which is that it’s really difficult to pin down which characters are good characters or bad characters. Even Robert, who has so many things wrong about him, … one can, I think, really feel bad for him, especially at the beginning.
Rachel: I pitied him.
Rob: Yeah, it’s easy to pity him. And the ending kind of takes that away.
Mariah: I think we want fiction to be better and more nuanced than real life sometimes is. Because again, I totally believe that he would text her that, as Rachel was saying. … I mean, that’s a story we’ve all heard, I totally believe that guys are out there doing that. But part of my issue with the ending is that it removed that nuance which I so desperately wanted there to be. … Like, maybe we want fiction to be more complex and satisfying than real life actually is.
Rob: I think the ending was super satisfying.
Mariah: Yeah, I guess I actually mean that I wanted it to be less satisfying.
Noora: I wonder if that speaks to how much people like to read “relatability” into the piece. I think the ending did a good job of catching people off guard, because I’ve heard a lot that people say that as they went through the story they were putting themselves in Margot’s position. I think that’s the number one thing I’ve heard about “Cat Person,” that it’s so “relatable.” And I think the ending does a good job of either making it more so or completely detaching that notion from it.
Rob: Do you think it would have gone as viral if the ending had been different?
Eve: That’s something I wonder about. Because, you know, there was so much Sturm und Drang surrounding who was a good guy and who was a bad guy to begin with, and there was really a lot of pity for Robert — some of which was justified and some of which I was sort of skeptical of — expressed on the internet. I wonder how the reception of the piece might have been different if he’d been a more nuanced character at the end. I wonder if that would have created an even stranger and wider diversity of reactions to the piece.
Lucy: I think there could have been a word that evoke the feeling of “whore” without actually being “whore.” I actually really liked the typo-laden texts towards the end, like when he said, “‘When u laguehd when I asked if you were a virgin was it because youd fucked so many guys?’” or “‘are you fucking that guy right now?’” To me that exchange actually still feels like “whore” but isn’t quite as explicit as “whore.” And I think it actually asks us to interrogate that feeling more because it’s less explicit, to ask, “When does that line get drawn where suddenly it feels icky?”
Mariah: Well, I think it feels icky [in “Cat Person”] much sooner than that. One thing that I liked about the story that I thought was so well done is how the sexual counter is nuanced yet also icky. I don’t think we’re ever supposed to read it as nonconsensual; it’s just shitty sex. And the fact that that experience is focused in on and given validity, and Margot’s experience and the traumatic aftereffects of this not illegal, not assault, but just a shitty encounter, I thought was really interesting. I thought that was something that I hadn’t really read about so much in fiction. I think we’re feeling the grossness long before [the text exchange]; it’s just a question of when does it become a moral feeling on Robert’s part and when is it just miscommunication and societal expectations and that whole vortex.
Empathy or Projection?
Lucy: One thing that was so interesting about me about the sex itself was the bit where Margot was kind of imagining herself through his eyes. I actually think she’s doing that all throughout: She’s on empathetic overdrive throughout the entire story, in all those places where she overlays this potential imagined backstory about him onto him, and then allows that projection to change how she acts. And I think in general, fiction as an art form valorizes empathy as this beautiful thing that’s the best real-life application of fiction, that it can teach you to see the world through a different pair of eyes, but this story really suggests something sinister about empathy.
Mariah: Well, empathy is labor. Empathy is work that you are doing on behalf of someone else.
Lucy: Well, do you think she was right? Like, is empathy the same if it’s wrong? Or then is it just projection?
Rachel: I mean, to me, that part of the story is about both of their absolute failures to connect with each other. I didn’t read it as a point about the emotional labor that she’s doing in trying to empathize with him. I actually think it’s subversive in that way because of how unbelievably self-absorbed she is.
Mariah: That’s a really good point. But I think there is something in the way that she’s only able to psych herself into enjoying the encounter by imagining herself through his eyes. It’s this weird mix of like pure ego, as they say, and her needing to put herself in his position.
Consent in “Cat Person”
Noora: When reading that part, though, I don’t know if I was necessarily focusing on the mental gymnastics that she was doing in order to get through the encounter. … I think I was more thinking about how it was a really powerful commentary on this idea that once you consent to sex, it’s just yes once and then it has to happen. So I think in those moments I was wondering more at this idea of consent that once it’s done, it’s done. And there was never a check-in or a follow-up, even when it was so clear that she was receding into herself.
Mariah: It’s a question of at what point can you not back out, right?
Lucy: There was that great line about how revoking her “yes” would seem selfish or “spoiled and capricious.”
Mariah: Right, the “tact and gentleness that she could not summon.”
Noora: But I think part of the issue though is that a lot of people reading this read her as selfish anyway, …even though she did continue through the act. There was this one Twitter called “Men React to ‘Cat Person,’” and so many of the people were blaming her for putting herself in this position, in this encounter that maybe she wasn’t super comfortable with. And so yeah, I wonder if she had backed out if people would have perceived her any differently. It seems like a certain demographic has decided that she’s the bad character.
Rachel: I feel strongly that if you conceptualize, if I conceptualize this encounter as an assault or as a nonconsensual experience, then the story kind of lacks everything good that I think it does. And I’m wondering whether people conceptualize it that way.
Lucy: I felt that it was consensual. I think it was consensual sex. And actually someone mentioned to me the Aziz Ansari incident that came out after “Cat Person” was published. … I think you’re totally right that what makes this story so good is that it introduces … this gray area that, to me, is definitely not across the line of nonconsensual but it still is sad and uncomfortable. I don’t even know that there’s enough information to say if it’s more sad and uncomfortable for one character than the other. … I think a lot of conversations have treated Robert and Margot as equal characters, as two options that we can choose between. Like, we can choose to identify with one or the other maybe based on gender. But I think few discussions have focused on the fact that this is a story from within Margot’s head. We have way more access to Margot than we do to Robert, and maybe because it’s written in the third person, it’s easy to forget that and to think, “Oh, they’re just both characters.” But I think that [access to Margot’s thoughts] was a really interesting narrative strategy on the part of Roupenian because it allows Margot’s subtlest perceptions of the situation to be evidence that we can examine. And I guess I wonder if you think that the subtleties of [“Cat Person”] have allowed more subtle stories in real life [like Aziz Ansari’s] to come out.
Rachel: The reason I found the story powerful is because I think that I understood it as speaking to a very not nuanced discourse about consent that is super pervasive right now and is just now with Aziz Ansari etc. starting to get more complicated. I mean, Roupenian is like fifteen years older than we are, so I don’t know if she was really speaking to this world of consent talk, but I guess there were two binaries that I thought she really didn’t buy into: One of them is about power being located in one place, and the other perhaps more powerful one is that the way we talk about consent makes it so that there are two sets of experience you could have. One of them is intimate, consensual, erotic experience, and the other is assault, and that if you have an experience that doesn’t fall into those categories, it’s rendered unintelligible, and especially for young women, I think, that makes a lot really confusing. I just think that the story refuses both of those binaries in a powerful way.
Noora: I think consensual but unwanted is a situation that in its own right warrants conversation. It’s not as black and white as consensual or nonconsensual. … It’s the unwantedness that we very much get a firsthand account of through Margot herself. That’s really powerful in this story.
Bad at Sex vs Bad Sex
Rob: I have a question. I’ve just been in so many conversations when I’ve heard the delineation between bad sex and nonconsensual sex, and one question I’ve always had is about the difference between “bad sex” and “bad at sex.” I’m just curious because in “Cat Person,” there are so many instances in the actual sex scene of Margot complaining about Robert’s body. And yeah, that inevitably had an impact on her experience of that sexual exchange. And I’m not saying there weren’t other components of the encounter that were bad in a more abstract way, but I’m wondering how people feel about that aspect of “Cat Person,” and the notion of bad sex, that sometimes bad sex has to do with physical things that people don’t have control over, like being overweight or something, which came up so many times in the story.
Mariah: That’s an interesting issue. In the specific encounter, you can see how both of those things are feeding into each other. … Margot has felt throughout her acquaintance with Robert so much discomfort, and there’s been this dynamic of her trying to prove herself to him and him trying to belittle her, which I think feeds into their experience. … I think part of it is, does it really matter that much? If you change your mind about whether you want to have sex with someone or not, does it matter why? In the story there are moments where Margot thinks, kind of, “I’m out of his league,” but then there’s also him treating her like a sex doll, … and I think it would be a different story if she wasn’t very attracted to him but he was respectful of her.
Lucy: Or if she were more physically attracted to him and he acted exactly the same way. I guess I think the thing that connects “bad sex” and “bad at sex” in this story is how into him she is. Because I think if she’s not attracted to him, then that’s what enables her to have this clinical perspective on him and his body, … but then those clinical observations also make her want to have sex with him even less. I think the two are very connected.
Rob: To Mariah’s point, though, I think it does matter to make a distinction. Because when we talk about bad sex, there’s an underlying strain of bad sex as wrong. And I think it’s strange to conflate things that people don’t have control over with something morally fraught, like a lack of communication, which is also part of bad sex. But Robert being unattractive is something that we would say is in there too. I think that’s another wrinkle and complexity in this.
Rachel: I don’t know where you’re coming from when you say that there’s something wrong about bad sex. I think that the distinction people have been drawing lately between the Aziz Ansari thing and bad sex is specifically saying that this was not a malicious or wrong experience.
Rob: When I hear people say the Aziz Ansari thing was not nonconsensual but it was bad sex, I still feel that people are saying that what he did was wrong. Or that there was something morally complicated about it, for sure.
Rachel: But if you were gonna have sex with someone, and it wasn’t fun, it just wasn’t fun.
Rob: But this was different, right? I mean people aren’t saying of Aziz Ansari that it just wasn’t fun.
Noora: I also think it’s hard as a spectator to make a moral judgement on whether it’s wrong or not. … I think the point is that we have enough insight into Margot’s thoughts that I’m not sure we are the ones who should be saying if it’s okay that she felt bad about this afterward. Like maybe that’s not our job to sit there and pick apart the facts and determine if the person who said “this felt wrong” was justified in saying that.
Lucy: Hmm, but I do think the point you make, Rob, about Robert’s heaviness being referred to again and again, that does introduce other social complexities. It reminds me of what Rachel was saying about power in this story. Because I do think that Margot’s beauty gives her more power, … the fact that she fits into this cultural norm more. Is that part of what you meant [when you said] that you think power is distributed in an interesting way in this story?
Rachel: I think that power is distributed in an interesting way in real life. I think that it’s clear from any real-life sexual scenario that usually the power is distributed somehow for any number of reasons: because of identity categories like age and gender and race and class and profession and what your relationship is to one another, and if someone was in love with you ten years ago. … Whatever is going on between you, we know that that’s really complicated in real life, and it surprises me that a lot of conversations pre-#MeToo didn’t really seem to reflect that. And I think that now there’s been a lot more concern about what it means to discursively endow one population with power and another, specifically women, without it.
Mariah: I’m still thinking about what Rob brought up. I think even if Margot’s distaste or discomfort with the encounter is based only on not finding Robert attractive and him being older and overweight, it doesn’t change anything for me. I can’t assign any moral weight to her not being attracted to him. I mean, it does make it a little more complicated in reader consciousness because she’s no longer this totally perfect, totally powerless person, because she has this privilege of youth or beauty in this situation, … but you have the right not to be attracted to someone. Whatever her reason is, I feel like she should be able to walk away from that encounter and yet doesn’t for whatever reason. I don’t know if I think it’s the most helpful distinction to draw.
Lucy: I think it also brings up an interesting — and more meta — point about fiction: There are certain situations in which it’s great for fiction to clarify things and to present extreme versions so that we can see the ends of the spectrum. But in this situation, it feels like there may have been a certain complexity absent, interestingly, from the nonfiction accounts about this kind of experience, and maybe the fact that this is super tangled and morally difficult to discern speaks to why it’s so successful as a story.
Components of “relatable”: specificity and universality
Lucy: One thing that Graham Ambrose mentioned, to credit him, is that in some ways there’s actually very little detail about both Margot and Robert. Like, we see Robert through Margot’s eyes, and so we know that he has a tattoo and he’s overweight, and we know that Margot is in college, but it’s situated in a very “any-town” town, where there’s a bar and a hallway and a mall, and we don’t really know very much about their interests. … What Graham said is that it has kind of a fill-in-the-blank quality, especially in the characters, which suggests in a way that maybe it’s supposed to be more “relatable” than a personal article could be.
Rob: Yeah, but what was so gripping about it was so specific, which were the internal dealings that Margot went through, and that’s I think what made people feel compelled to keep reading, because they saw very accurate depictions of themselves in her. Maybe it’s a combination [of universal and specific], though. Maybe it was vague enough that people felt comfortable inserting themselves, and then after the fact maybe they were like, “Wait, this is so me,” and that part came from the specificity.
Mariah: I think some of the dynamics and more amorphous details are deeply specific. One thing that struck me as really evocative for a particular demographic was when Robert said to Margot, “Oh, I worried that maybe you slept with your high school boyfriend when you were away,” and Margot was thinking about her relationship high school boyfriend, and she remembers her high school boyfriend who is now questioning gender identity and they have all of these meaningful conversations. … And that just felt really real. It’s vague enough to let you insert yourself but still hits on a very specific cultural place. … I thought that was very #relatable.
* * *
Racial Implications of “Cat Person”
After the official discussion had ended and the recording had stopped, Noora mentioned that she wanted to call attention to some things about race in “Cat Person” but felt that doing so might tokenize her voice in that space. She offered to write a reflection, however, which begins here.
Noora: There were many points in the conversation when I wanted to intervene, but as the only women of color in the room, I worried that my doing so would create a space filled with questions only I could answer. What was it like reading “Cat Person” as a woman of color? Is “Cat Person” still #relatable to people of color? How would the story have changed if it weren’t coated in whiteness?
If I’m honest, I’m not sure I have a perfect answer to any of these questions, and perhaps it’s my inability to respond that caused my hesitation in asking. But for some of the questions actually leveled in the conversation, I think I have better answers now, and I regret not feeling comfortable enough to respond at the time. For one, we spoke at length of Margot’s power over Robert, her prettiness and petiteness in comparison to his weight and his hairiness. But what we did not speak on was Margot’s most powerful characteristic: her whiteness.
Margot’s objectification in “Cat Person” is one that many women were able to relate to, and it is not something I aim to diminish. Instead, I aim only to broaden the conversation and invite you to imagine the fetishization had she not been white. Shynee Sienna Hewvidan, writing for Gal-dem.com, points out the painful similarities between Robert’s “I’ve always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits” to the ever tokenizing “I’ve always wanted to fuck a black woman” or “I’ve never been with an Indian girl before.”
I left the roundtable discussion wondering if this still would have been the most shared story if Margot had been brown and the one with hair covering her belly. What sort of vilification for her actions would she face then? What sort of “I should feel lucky to be with a white guy” thoughts would we be privy to as readers? Perhaps these questions are a stretch, a brown woman looking for a reason to be angry, as the stereotypes go. But as a woman of color, these are the sorts of questions I go through life asking myself. They are also the types of questions I refrain from asking others, for fear of being cast as oversensitive and grasping.
Maybe it is my responsibility as woman of color to field these conversations and be the voice in the room that asks, “But what about race?” Maybe it isn’t. During our roundtable discussion, I decided it wasn’t. But upon reflection, I’ve realized that silence is exactly the way whiteness reifies its position of power.
So, I’m going to use the space here to break this silence and say what I’ve been thinking since first reading “Cat Person,” which is that I do not see it as being relatable. I am unable to see myself in Margot, at least not in the same way that many of my white friends have expressed. Falling outside the category of “conventionally attractive,” I do not know what it means to flirt out of boredom. In my life, being caught texting a boy at dinner carried far more weight than a slightly embarrassing remark about having an affair. I have thought before if a man would turn out to be a murderer — but I’ve always viewed the motive of this abject horror as being racially rather than romantically motivated.
My inability to relate to “Cat Person” is possibly even more exaggerated by my inability to relate to conversations about it. When Lucy asked if we discussed the piece with friends or parents, I reflected on the absurdity of my hesitation to share the piece on Facebook for worry that the striking visual — two mouths kissing against a black backdrop — would offend my more conservative family members. On many levels, I am removed (or have removed myself) from the conversation surrounding “Cat Person.” It was only after I found myself at a roundtable discussion composed of only white people that I was able to pinpoint why.
There is a lot to be said about the piece, but much of it could only be done though a harsh form of self-tokenization, of placing myself in Margot’s position and thinking of all the harmful things men have said about my strange and exotic body. I can’t always be expected to shoulder this sort of imaginative emotional labor, especially when I find myself to be the only woman of color in the room.
Instead, I invite you all to do this work with me: Replace Margot’s white body with a brown one. Think deeply on the insidious changes we would see to the story of “Cat Person” and its reception by mainstream audiences. Maybe you don’t know how this would change the story. Maybe you don’t know enough about the lived experiences of people of color to do this work on your own. If this is true, you have not been paying enough attention. People of color have been generously outspoken about their lives across several platforms and in a plethora of contexts both on this campus and outside of it. Listen to them. Empathize with them. Engage in conversations with them. Learn from them in the way that they are expected to learn from Margot. I believe that only by doing this do we engage in a conversation that is truly nuanced. It is only by doing this that we become intersectional. And it is only by doing this that we relieve the only person of color in the room from doing all the emotional labor in a discussion about race.