The New York Times published a short story, “Cat Person” and people have gone a bit nuts over it. Including me.
Minor things first:
*Trigger warning: This article might bring up traumatic memories for some people.
*Cats are awesome and cat people are awesome. Cats are not the point of the story. (But some of us will lie awake wondering about them all the same. Are they real? Am I? Are you?)
*The cats are definitely not real. I’m sure of it now. Cats feign disinterest but would definitely come to investigate the smells of a new person in their territory. Which means Robert’s creepiness factor just went up to eleven. Fake cats? That’s bonkers.
*There’s a fascinating interview with the author here.
*Yeah, that excessive close-up photo that goes with the story is super gross. I have to put my hand up to my screen to block it out whenever it comes up.
*Also, the story gets really into fat-shaming Robert, which is cheap and gross and suggests immaturity on the part of the writer (as well as, of course, the character). The writing clearly mocks the viewpoint character for her various delusions, but Margot’s disgust at Robert’s extra weight is written about non-critically. It’s about as deep as having an evil ugly witch who is baaaad.
*Yes, gay folks are most welcome to have a “Lol, you poor sad heteros!” moment. Because although a lot of the story does apply to anyone attempting to negotiate dating, the deepest, scariest level of the story is absolutely about what women face when dating men.
*A lot of men feel disturbed and defensive about the story, or simply feel that it’s stupid. Although all art is subjective, most of the men that dislike the story are missing that deep, scary level of the tale. I’ll address the valid points of negative male reactions later.
*It is deeply saddening for speculative fiction lovers that no one in the story turns out to be even slightly feline. Agreed.
*The main characters’ names, Margot and Robert, make me think of Margot Robbie. This is never a bad thing.
Summary (including spoilers)
Margot meets a guy who is pretty average but witty in text form. They eventually have a kind-of date with very bad sex and then Margot texts him (technically her room-mate texts him) to end things, and he calls her a whore.
The deep, scary bit that hurts to think about
There is an underlying tension to the story that a straight female reader (or anyone in a non-male body who has dated a man) has a visceral response to: While on the surface the relationship is mundane (and in the thoughts of the main character it varies as she judges and re-judges the situation), the third layer is the knowledge that Robert has the physical power to rape or kill Margot at virtually any time (and could probably get away with it too).
Here’s the worst part, the part the story doesn’t even touch on: When a women is a victim of violence, it is almost always at the hands of someone she knows. Someone she trusts. Someone she isn’t afraid of; not any more. Should I live in fear of Chris, my Chris, father of my kids and love of my life?
Of course not!
Except, statistically, yes.
Women live in a world where half the people we know are bigger and stronger than us. We are taught from birth to be careful. Don’t go to certain places after dark. Don’t go to certain places at all. Carry mace. Keep your eyes open. Don’t wear certain clothes. Don’t drink too much. Learn self-defence. Don’t show weakness. Don’t drop your guard.
Then at the same time we’re taught how to survive in the living world: Be nice. Don’t say ‘no’. Flirt. Wear heels and makeup. Marry a breadwinner. Have a private bank account. Don’t have a shrill voice. Don’t complain. Don’t be a feminist. Don’t be loud. Don’t be unlikable. Don’t get angry. Don’t cry in public. Don’t show weakness. Don’t drop your guard.
I am an innocent, partly because I choose to be and largely because my privilege allows me to be. I am white; I grew up thinking I was straight; until recently I was able-bodied.
One of my fictional characters (in a deleted novel) leaves her shoes above the high tide line of a beach while she wanders along the water. Her friend asks if she’s concerned about them getting stolen, and she admits that sometimes they are in fact stolen, but she’d rather have to buy new shoes sometimes than to constantly worry about her possessions.
At a certain point, women have to accept that we might get murdered—and then we befriend men anyway.
I met a man online who lives in Adelaide (I live in Canberra). We got to know one another online (as much as anyone can). Daniel visited Canberra, and we began dating. Then it was my turn to visit Adelaide. He picked me up from the airport and drove me back to his house.
Like a lot of Australian cities, Adelaide has sections of well-established bushland, many of them bisecting the city itself. Daniel and I had already joked about how one of us was most likely an axe-murderer, and as we passed through an unlit section of what appeared to be virgin bushland I felt my heart beat faster.
I didn’t rehearse in my head how to throw myself out of the car, or carefully recollect exactly where my phone was in case I needed to call the police. Instead I tried very hard to pretend I wasn’t afraid. Because when it comes to priorities, men’s feelings almost always come above women’s safety.
Now, spoiler alert, I wasn’t murdered. So I was arguably right to be polite. But that knee-jerk reaction to Be Nice At All Costs isn’t just manners—it’s another type of fear. What if Daniel had noticed and been offended that I’d thought such a thing of him, even just for a moment? What if he’d been so offended that he threw me out of the car, or punched me? That instinct to Be Nice—Or Else is hugely powerful and damaging. That right there is the reason women are frozen in terror when a man masturbates in front of them. He’s already crossed so many boundaries that trying to get away might just be the catalyst that leads to him doing so much more. It also applies to so, so many other awful situations: getting groped, getting overlooked for a deserved promotion, getting interrupted mid-sentence. Women’s default setting is less powerful, and the imbalance gets wider in a thousand different interactions every day. Because men don’t want to give up power, and they push back against women who try to change things.
It’s difficult for men to understand what it’s like from the other side of the gender divide. It’s not a fun think to think about. Quite often, a man will suddenly have a light turn on in their head when they have a daughter: Suddenly they understand the terrifying vulnerability of women from a position where it matters to them.
I asked my mother once if she was scared of being raped. “I used to be,” she said, “then I had daughters. So now I’m afraid of my daughters being raped.”
I hesitated to include a picture of my daughter in this article. You all know why. Yet I didn’t pause for even a second when including a picture of my son. Of course not.
Back to the story. . .
The story plays with the conventions of three different genres, keeping the reader guessing since those genres have very different endings.
One is a romance. I felt myself give that little ‘Aww’ smile as certain beats were hit: The cute meet over Red Vines; the nearly-missed-it moment when the girl doesn’t really know why she gave the boy her number; the tension at silly misunderstandings. Margot gives Robert several chances, and for all her flaws I admire her for that. That genre always ends with a critical romantic moment (a wedding, or meeting the parents, or a first kiss) that indicates that the pair will live happily ever after.
As it turns out, this is not a romance.
The second genre is comedy; there is clearly a slightly dark, wry, self-deprecating humour as Margot’s expectations and opinions about Robert shift and change from moment to moment, only to be ultimately let down by the reality. This layer of the story is expertly done, highlighting the self-delusions and awkwardness of dating in a way that made millions of readers say, “That is the truest story I’ve ever read.” The comedy genre climaxes (oh, lolz) with the awkward horror of the sex scene.
The third genre is horror. When it becomes clear that it’s not a romance, the reader is left not knowing if this is a comedy or a cautionary tale. The horror genre ends with violence, usually with a sense that the protagonist has somehow brought it on herself by her foolish decisions. Margot risks her safety by giving Robert a chance—doubly so by going to his house, and any sexually active female (fictional or otherwise) is guilty for the purposes of fictional denouement. A story is sometimes sympathetic to the sexually active heroine, but it will still kill her for putting out. Stories understand, consciously or otherwise, that sex is dangerous for women and not so much for men.
But refusing sex, as Margot wishes she could do? That’s even more dangerous. Because the last thing you want to do is make a man angry. She’s very conscious of the need to soothe and console Robert (before, during, and after their ‘date’) and is sufficiently aware of her own vulnerability that she finds herself unable to figure out how to break up with Robert, even though she knows she must do it.
Is she promiscuous for sleeping with a man she doesn’t want to? Or is she a victim, unable to extract herself safely from a threat? Or is Robert a victim, lead on and discarded by a powerful (better educated, more attractive) woman?
In my opinion, only one of the above interpretations is a ‘yes’ according to the story—but it’s written well enough that the other questions are allowed to be asked.
Angry men on the internet
There’s a twitter handle set up just to repost men’s reactions to the story, mainly because a lot of men don’t understand the fear Margot feels, and/or they relate to Robert as the victim but feel he is portrayed as a monster.
Margot is not a good person. Nor is she a bad person. She is vain, certainly. She lets her imagination run away with her as she tries to figure out what kind of person Robert really is. She flirts at work (an activity that is harmless, but could hypothetically lead to mildly hurt feelings).
This article is getting ridiculously long, so I’ll be brief: Yes, being a man (especially a straight white man) is the lowest difficulty setting in this game we call life (as written about by straight white male John Scalzi, here, including several follow-ups, one of which is here). And, as John Scalzi and others have stated loudly and repeatedly, that definitely does not not not mean that the lives of straight white men aren’t hard or don’t suck. Life has times of suckitude for everyone, and many lives just suck from beginning to end, and it hurts to be in a sucky place and feel like others are telling you:
- Stop whining. My sucky place is suckier than your sucky place.
- Give some of the tiny scraps you have away to others.
- A lot of what is bad in the world is the fault of you and people like you.
All those three things are true of me and my privilege as well. My methods of coping are:
- Trying not to compare my pain to anyone else. That never ends well.
- Giving away a little (money, time, and mental energy) when I can, and trying to be aware of barriers that other people face and I don’t. This also means consciously supporting minorities when I can, and continuing to learn painful truths for the rest of my life. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding.
- Pretty much the only way to deal with this is #2.
Is Robert a baddie?
I. . . I wasn’t sure, but then I reread the story.
The first hint of a red flag is when Robert steps back from Margot’s very mild flirtation “as though to make her lean toward him, try a little harder”. If someone stepped back from me, I would assume they were not into me and nothing more. It probably wouldn’t even be a conscious thought on my part. It’s unclear if Margot is interpreting him this way or if the story is. It’s a very very subtle form of negging.
He calls her ‘Concession-stand girl’ which is either cute or insulting. Could go either way.
He plays it a bit cool with texting, letting her choose whether to keep texting or not. That’s more of a positive sign than negative, and their sharp humour is the one real connection they have. Another good sign.
He kisses her on the forehead “as if she was something precious” which charms Margot but also suggests fetishisation of the big man/little woman dynamic. In both directions.
The silly scenario they play out via their cats involves jealousy and tension. Is that because Robert is the jealous or possessive type?
He sends a heart-eyed smiley at the mention of her parents, which is a good sign.
Then he acts strange and cold after spring break. A red flag on its own, and even more so when it turns out he is jealous of an entirely fictional potential ex (although it certainly shows that he and Margot have imaginative portrayals of one another in common).
It takes longer than it should for him to stop being unpleasant and weird, and it also seems he’s trying to impress her due to feeling insecure about her higher education and youth.
(There are plenty of red flags about Margot, too—particularly the way his grouchy behaviour makes her feel honoured by his vulnerability. That kind of attitude puts her at high risk of an abusive relationship.)
When she begins to cry during the humiliating ID incident, he kisses her for the first time—like her, he is emboldened by vulnerability, even or especially as a flaw. This is a two-way red flag. Vulnerability is good, certainly, but both Margot and Robert are genuinely turned on by it. It’s not intimacy they crave, but power. That’s messed up.
I’ll stop there rather than pick apart the story line by line. Men who hate the story see Margot as more powerful: She is young and beautiful; she is the viewpoint character; she is more educated than Robert.
But is the risk of rejection as bad as the risk of being murdered?
Of course not.
But. . . is the 90% certainty of being rejected as bad as the .001% likelihood of being murdered?
I don’t know.
There are two more points worth making. First, Robert is 34 and Margot is 20. Once again, that gives Robert power. It’s also a big red flag. (Margot guessed he was in his mid-twenties and was off by a decade so this one’s all on him.) There are loads of thirty-something single women, so why isn’t Robert dating one of them? At best it suggests he prefers younger, prettier woman. Given the rest of the story, it strongly suggests he likes all the power he can get—needs it, because he is so insecure he doesn’t stand up straight.
The age difference could be just coincidence (after all, Robert doesn’t realise she can’t get into a carded bar, and is horrified she might be a virgin) except then Robert appears in the same student bar that he earlier mocked. What is he doing there? There are three possible answers. If one is extremely charitable, one could argue he has decided to study (why not? He’s smart—except it’s clearly in the middle of the semester, so no). It’s far more likely he’s looking for a new twenty-something to hook up with. Or, worse, he is looking for Margot. Either way, this is the moment we know for certain that something is definitely truly off about Robert, and while the Secret Service-style exit of Margot and her friends is needlessly dramatic, she is also genuinely afraid. And at this point, that is not being dramatic. Her friends know it, and they know what all women know: there is safety in numbers. That is the only safety women can draw on.
One of my friends was attacked at a bar because her friend was too drunk to protect her. I feel disgust at the men, but I have a burning fury at the woman who abandoned my friend.
Women protect each other. That is the law. That is how we survive.
Here’s an interesting fact: not all that many people are attracted to me. (That’s not the interesting bit.) Of the dozen or so people that ever confessed attraction to me, three were more than a decade older than me.
One of those men I never knew well. The other two both have a very clear pattern of dating younger women. One prefers women who are sexually inexperienced (not necessarily virgins, but women who lack the confidence of a past healthy romantic relationship they can use to spot his patterns of abuse). The other’s self-esteem is strongly based on being helpful, so he tends to be attracted to people who are needy in some way (usually mentally ill, or those who have been abused, or both). When I dated him, I found myself acting depressed and unhappy when actually I felt fine. It took me a very long time to figure out that I was unconsciously adapting to what he wanted in a relationship.
So again, you have older men grasping for power of various kinds over a younger woman. (Dating suuuuuuucks!)
There’s one final red flag about Robert: When they spot one another in public later he sends Margot a series of texts. They start friendly and then get harsher and more jealous, ending with the final word: “Whore.”
It is a punch of an ending, revealing the true character of the man who seemed harmless and sweet.
But (say male readers) it’s just a word.
Robert insults Margot with time-honoured sexism, condemning her as the baddie with a blithe unawareness of the irony of condemning her sex act when he was there and participating at the time. He condemns her sexual activity, when it was her fear of his anger that caused her to have that sex at all. (No, it wasn’t assault. . . but it wasn’t an empowered choice either.)
The story ends there, but does it?
In real life, would Margot ever feel safe on campus again? He literally knows where she lives, not to mention where she works and where she eats and drinks.
He is angry. The beast of legend, the monster Margot had sex to pacify, has awoken.
Margot could never possibly know if his anger was “harmlessly” spent by insulting her via text, or if he will begin/continue to stalk her. Or if he’ll get drunk one night, three months from now, and break into her dorm and shoot her.
No woman ever quite knows. She only knows that if he wants to hurt her, he can.