(Trigger warning: discussion of rape culture)
In December 2017, the Internet was abuzz with discussions of Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person.” The story details an increasingly uncomfortable dating relationship between Margot, a 20-year-old college student, and Robert, a man in his 30s. Partly due to the viral popularity of “Cat Person,” Roupenian’s debut story collection, You Know You Want This, secured a 7-figure book deal.
The writing in “Cat Person” is sparse, leaving much of the characters’ feelings and personalities between the lines. There’s a lot of ambiguity for readers to relate to our own experiences or interpret the characters. In the context of #MeToo, the story shows that the line between unpleasant sex and assault is sometimes blurry. The sex in the story is supposedly consensual, but Margot is drunk. She no longer wants to have sex with Robert but feels that she has to go through with it: “It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.”
The story builds sexual tension through texting, while showing that Margot and Robert don’t know each other at all. In the early stages of dating, the other person often seems like a projection or cipher. Margot constantly tries to talk herself into her attraction to Robert and convince herself that he’s a safe person. Some people who give off creepy vibes in person can seem exciting via text. Robert remains a vague character for most of the story, until the end, when Margot realizes how misogynistic he is.
Online think pieces and discussions analyzed every other aspect of the story, but some readers seemed baffled by the title or expected something different. The title “Cat Person” almost seems like a non sequitur at first. It’s kind of a red herring: there are no cats in this story.
To me, a seemingly inconsequential line is actually one of the most pivotal moments of the story, illuminating the title, characters, and themes. When they arrive at his house, Robert tells Margot “darkly, like a warning, ‘Just so you know, I have cats.’” We never see any cats, though, and Margot wonders if Robert is lying. This line might seem odd or insignificant, but I think it offers insight into Robert’s behavior and the themes of power and sex.
This interaction is subtler than it may initially appear. To Robert, the cats might be like a secret code or social contract. Instead of asking Margot if she still wants to have sex, Robert expects Margot to pick up on his implicit meaning. If Margot has changed her mind, Robert expects her to lie and say that she hates or is allergic to cats. Instead of asking directly if she’s still interested, Robert might be trying to spare his own ego. I kept expecting Margot to break up with Robert by telling him that she’s not a “cat person,” or something to that effect, but the title phrase never occurs in the story.
From the way that Robert angrily lashes out at Margot at the very end of the story, he seems unable to handle rejection. So, Robert’s “warning” is an attempt to give Margot a chance to leave while also sparing himself a direct rejection. The huge problem with social cues like these, especially in a sexual context, is that they essentially require one person to read the other’s mind. So many sexual encounters are mired in innuendos that it can be hard to parse someone’s exact meaning.
“Cat Person” has some problematic elements, including using Robert’s weight to make him seem repulsive and Margot’s ignorant, transmisic comments about her ex. Margot enjoys the power that she experiences as a thin, young, conventionally attractive, presumably white, non-disabled woman. The story turns on this axis. It uses the differences in age, weight, and height between Margot and Robert to represent the power imbalance between them and the danger many women feel when dating men. If identities are often used a shorthand for negative qualities, even in fiction, we need to examine why.
In short stories like “Cat Person,” one or two characters exist in a vacuum. There’s no space for secondary characters’ opinions, or even situational irony, to counter a character’s bigotry. It stands unchecked, but one short story also can’t address everything that it mentions.
With “Cat Person,” I noticed that people were starting to read fiction in bad faith. They conflated narrators with authors or view scenes of sex or violence as necessarily glorifying it. Many Tweets referred to the story incorrectly as an “essay.” Not everyone is a writer or frequent reader of fiction, but assuming fiction is autobiographical alarms me.
Hopefully, stories like this illustrate that consent must be clear. We can’t assume that someone means yes just because they haven’t said no—a defense often used by accused rapists in real life. Despite the story’s flaws, this is what “Cat Person” gets right about rape culture. Robert might be afraid to ask for consent directly because he’s awkward or embarrassed. But by asking in such an indirect way, he creates confusion where there should be clear communication.