If you’ve been anywhere near social media over the past 24 hours, you’ll most likely have seen passionate tweets and Facebook debates about Cat Person – a fictional short story published in The New Yorker on Monday that’s now gone viral. The author, Kristen Roupenian, is relatively unknown, so why has Cat Person caused such a fuss? Here’s everything you need to know…
So what’s the story about?
Essentially, it’s a tale about a bad first date. Margot, a 20-year-old student, meets a guy called Robert during her part-time shift at the local cinema. They flirt over text, and he seems quite smart and witty, so they eventually arrange a date – going to the cinema, getting a drink and eventually heading back to Robert’s place. During the date, Margot realises Robert is quite awkward in person and her feelings of attraction start to fade. They end up having sex, which Margot doesn’t enjoy, and just as she can’t wait to leave – he confesses his feelings for her. Cue Margot dodging his texts, which turn out to be pretty nasty when it’s clear she’s not interested.
Why did it go viral?
A number of reasons. Firstly, because the story really resonated with a lot of women. It’s written in the third person but is so intimate it’s like you’ve been given access to the main character Margot’s inner monologue – both hilarious and uncomfortable at times – and her experience is one many women and girls identify with. The fact so many young women are sharing the piece is a clear sign there isn’t enough online fiction that accurately represents their sex lives and dating experiences, but it also indicates something far more insidious too.
The timing of Cat Story’s success is no coincidence – we’re in the midst of the #MeToo movement, and the story touches on issues of consent and male power. Margot appears to consent to sex with Robert, but only goes through with it because she feels like she can’t back out at the last minute – thinking it would take “an amount of effort that was impossible to summon” to let him know she had changed her mind in a tactful way. She questions her safety during the date – when they’re first alone together she has a sudden pang of fear “he could take her someplace and rape and murder her”, and she frequently edits her behaviour to manage his feelings; working hard to keep him happy, talking herself down to make him feel better – so there’s a sense turning him down could be risky as well as uncomfortable.
As Guardian writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett put it, Cat Person can be summed up in Margaret Atwood’s famous line: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”
Has there been a backlash?
Not everyone’s a fan, namely the men featured on the Twitter account Men React to Cat Person – a collation of tweets from men who completely missed the point of the story. Along with men claiming Robert is simply “awkward” and deserves readers’ sympathy, choice quotes include: “We live in a world where women’s safety is more important than men’s feelings”, “She lied to him and slept with him under false pretences, that isn’t cool and won’t help him improve” and “I don’t get it”.
Atlantic writer Megan Garber believes these reactions – and the fact many of them judged the author, treating the story like a personal essay instead of a work of fiction – are examples of how female fiction is often undermined. “Women writers’ characters are often simply assumed to be autobiographical, as if their authors are not possessed of enough moral imagination to create characters who are fully fictionalised. While male authors tend to be given the luxury of fiction,” she wrote.
How has the author reacted to all the publicity?
Yes, Roupenian spoke to The New Yorker for a follow-up interview after her story went viral. She revealed Cat Person was inspired by a “small but nasty encounter” she had with a person she met online. “Our initial impression of a person is pretty much entirely a mirage of guesswork and projection,” she said. “When I started writing the story, I had the idea of a person who had adopted all these familiar signifiers as a kind of camouflage, but was something else – or nothing at all – underneath.”
Fans of Roupenian’s writing will be pleased to hear she’s putting the finishing touches on a short story collection and is currently working on a novel. Watch this space…
Anything else to know?
BBC Three has just published a satirical alternative version of the story, imagined from Robert's point of view. In Cat Person: What Robert (Probably) Thought, the anonymous (and very funny) author solves the mystery of why Margot never saw Robert's cats – the ones he spoke so much about: "One evening, a bit pissed and bored, Robert found himself fibbing that he had two cats, because he’d read somewhere that women like pets. She asked what they were called and in a panic, he said Mu and Yan. This sounded exotic but was actually stolen from the name of a local takeaway, Mu-Yan Noodle House. Tasty pork balls."