WHEN A SHORT STORY GOES VIRAL: KRISTEN ROUPENIAN'S "CAT PERSON"
Something has happened this week that hasn’t happened in decades, and I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime: a short story has gone viral. Everyone and their mother have been reading, posting about, and arguing about Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person.” The short story was published in the latest issue of The New Yorker, as well as on their website, and sparked a lot of angry tweets, reaction articles, and generally the sort of buzz that isn’t associated with short stories in the internet era. So, on the surface level, it is an undeniably remarkable story. It’s interesting to see how and why “Cat Person” went viral, but before we go into that, you should definitely read the story yourself.
The protagonists of “Cat Person,” Margot and Robert, meet at the arthouse film theatre where Margot works, and their relationship develops slowly and awkwardly over texts and culminates in the sort of date that is just as awkward and painful to read as you would expect. From the first few paragraphs, it becomes clear that the appeal of the story lies in its reliance on uncertainty and moral ambiguity. Even from a third person perspective, the story is told from Margot’s point of view, and it’s important to remember that this is about the experience of a straight woman in the dating world. It might seem like an obvious statement, but if you’ve read the tweets of angry men you know it’s a necessary one. Robert’s character is projected in front of the reader after passing through the filter of Margot’s perception of him, and this perception is largely informed by the way he builds his persona. He is often distant and seemingly uninterested, and she seems to be drawn to this, at least initially, seeking some attention:
When they go on a movie date, he wants to go the arthouse film theatre where she works, but, at her suggesting, they go to the big multiplex instead, and watch a film about the Holocaust (his pick). This is a simple yet powerful moment that exemplifies the dynamics of their relationship. After the date, he pokes fun at her preference of the multiplex over the arthouse, and makes seemingly casual remarks about her highbrow taste and her having taken film courses. While he makes every effort to make it seem “in good fun” and casual, it shows his insecurity, his need to be seen as superior to her.
What little we, and Margot, know about Robert is not enough to establish his moral position. It may be easy to see the movie date example above as him trying to undermine her, but it’s not enough for Margot to cut the date short and not see him again. Roupenian sheds some light on that scene in her interview in The New Yorker where she says:
That last insight says a lot about the aforementioned uncertainty upon which the story’s appeal hinges. The times when it seems like she has the upper hand are simultaneously when she is more drawn to this relationship and when he appears to be at his more toxic. When she was away for Christmas holidays, his texts were cool and distant as ever, which intrigued and made Margot more devoted to their texting rituals, but when he reveals after they have sex that during that Christmas holiday his mind had created this whole fictional scenario where she forgot about him and got back together with her high school boyfriend is perhaps the definitive moment where she decides she doesn’t want to see him again.
But even this “decision” is muddled by the uncertainty that reigns over this story, and is obvious in the final act where Margot is trying to find a way to let him know of her decision but hesitates because she doesn’t know how to justify it to him. This is perhaps the most important aspect of “Cat People” and why the story has gone viral. When they are about to have sex, Margot is turned off by his “belly thick and soft and covered with hair,” but doesn’t say anything to stop him because “it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon.” (Sidenote: Many people have called this body shaming, to which I reply: Margot didn't say anything about it, so she didn't shame him, and also the fact that the main character is not perfect doesn't mean it's not a good story; quite the contrary.) When she wants to text him that she doesn’t want to see him anymore after he texts her, she is “overwhelmed with a skin-crawling loathing that felt vastly disproportionate to anything he had actually done.” The reason why every woman online keeps saying that it’s painfully relatable is because “Cat Person” speaks to the gender dynamics that force women in a position where they have to justify everything they do towards a man as if they stand perpetually accused of attacking the male ego. In turn, the reason why so many men didn’t like the story (to put it mildly) is because their delicate and easily bruised ego is shown to be just that. As Roupenian explains, Margot has created an image of Robert in her mind based on incomplete information, and when he fails to live up to this image, she is tempted to exit the relationship, but doesn’t because she can’t be sure of what kind of person he is. “The point at which she receives unequivocal evidence about the kind of person he is is the point at which the story ends” (“Kristen Roupenian on the Self-Deceptions of Dating”). Of course, this refers to the last line of the story, where Robert becomes increasingly insistent on knowing why she broke up with him, and after not getting a reply, calls her “Whore.”
It’s interesting to see how criticism of “Cat Person” has taken form and evolved online. The most fascinating thing that was pointed out by various outlets is that many people referred to is as “article” or “essay” or “piece” when it is unmistakably categorised as FICTION on The New Yorker. Constance Grady wrote in her article on Vox that “For some readers, the fact that ‘Cat Person’ centers on the subjectivity of a young woman made it inherently unliterary and unworthy.” Not surprising anyone, these readers were the aforementioned men who feel their ego under threat and use their “literary expertise” as a way to discredit Kristen Roupenian’s story. This is a nice segway into what is perhaps the most hilarious and insightful outcome of the story’s virality: a Twitter account that documented and shared all these men’s responses to “Cat Person.”
If you’re still wondering whether “Cat Person” has any literary value, I’ll tell you this. It may not be the best-written story of all time, or of this year for that matter, but it has tremendous literary value as long as literature is an art form concerned with questions about the human condition and how we all coexist and affect each other’s lives. It doesn’t have to be about men to be literary.
If you’re still wondering whether that part about Robert’s “thick belly” was fat shaming:
1. No, it wasn’t, and
2. You’re missing the point of the story entirely.
If you're still wondering whether Robert has cats or not, well, join the club. I think we all want to know, but at the same time I understand that Robert’s Schrödingerian cats stand for the ambiguity of his character throughout the story, and their existence perhaps becomes irrelevant once he sends that last text.
I think we should celebrate the fact that a piece of short fiction went viral, and reflect on the social implications of the responses it garnered. The reason why it went viral is because it holds a mirror to our dating culture and our gender power structures. Women saw in “Cat Person” a version of a date or relationship that they had with a man and recognised Margot's struggle in trying to balance her thoughts with the social expectations for her actions. The men on @MenCatPerson are trying to dismiss the story either by demeaning its literary values or attacking the main character for not being perfect (which just adds more value to the point about social expectations), and it makes sense since to a large extent Roupenian's story is part of the post-Weinstein #MeToo movement that is exposing the power structures that privileges them.
I hope 2018 sees more short stories going viral!
Bibliography and Further Reading
Successfully impersonated a student of English literature and now a Publishing student in Edinburgh. Interested in the direction English literature is taking in the 21st century, noir comics, beautifully shot films. Can bore you to death with Hollywood trivia, extensive knowledge of Leonard Cohen, and La La Land.