“Cat Person”: Kind of the Girls of Short Stories

As it’s been stated several times since the publication of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” in The New Yorker, short stories aren’t typically the sort of medium to go “viral,” the way, say, a child biting another child’s finger can. But then, no one of the present epoch had ever seen the “salacious” value the written word could still invoke in the hearts of straights perhaps wanting to return to more Victorian-inspired leisure activities now that net neutrality has been repealed.

Immortalized to the internet’s embrace and condemnation on December 11th, the featured image of the narrative is, of course, two white people, lips barely touching, the man’s profile particularly foul for his agape mouth, beard and blatant discrepancy in interest compared to the more reserved girl. It gives us, before even reading, more than a mild indication of where this is going–which is to say, in extremely banal in its grossness heterosexual copulating (yeah, I said copulate) territory.

Lauded for its “realism” pertaining to a woman feeling caught walking down a path from whence she can’t return with regard to inferring her consent for boning, “Cat Person” does not lie about the frequent pressures a woman feels to “just get it over with” once the penetration–or precursor to it–has begun. And all only as a means to not “upset the man.” Because, as you might be aware, a woman’s lot in life is to accommodate others in ways so subtle that not even she seems to be cognizant that she’s doing it. The man our waifish heroine is trying her best to cater to is Robert, who should be referred to simply as “toady white guy.” It would help to mirror the way he “jokingly” refers to her as “concession stand girl” as a means of “banter.” Or worse, addressing her as “sweetheart” and “honey” in two separate instances. This is, perhaps surprisingly to some who are not straight white women, not a caricature of how a mid-30s male would speak, which is what makes the entire prolonged buildup to the encounter feel even grosser–in addition to the fact that this is what hetero women feel they need to settle for simply because it’s what’s available. In this regard, Roupenian is Hannah Horvath, exposing us to extended straight overprivileged white girl sex and “intimacy” scenes we really don’t need to see, because we already know. Are well-aware of the cringeworthiness. And anyone who doesn’t know already probably really doesn’t want to.

Other than Robert’s realistic disgustingness, there isn’t much in the way of verisimilitude. Unless we label it “Lena Dunham verisimilitude.” First of all, since the story is praised for the twenty-first century phenomenon of having to “divine someone’s personality” primarily through non-face to face contact, their meeting isn’t even via an app–is still manufactured vaguely into a meet-cute at the theater she slings popcorn at for The New Yorker reader’s consumption. What’s more, there is no way the demand, “Concession stand girl, give me your number” would result in any self-respecting woman’s desire to give it. And if she did, she would likely ignore any texts initiating outside of movie theater contact. While, sure, women like a little attention from the opposite sex now and again as part of our congenital need to feel desirable–worth something (since our minds never are)–only someone suffering from Histrionic Personality Disorder would choose to further engage the very obviously grotesque Robert.

As for the story’s literary merit, which has also been debated upon heavily–especially by men–there is little in the way of profundity or device. Though one can understand how Roupenian might be thirsting to at least include some symbolism by making Margot a concession stand girl. Get it? Because she always feels the need to concede? Secondly, if this bitch, Margot, is twenty and therefore a longtime member of the generation’s predilection toward human disposability, overly fretting about the feelings of this ultimately pathetic, toadish man isn’t just much too kind in its portrayal of empathy in modern dating culture, but also utterly unfathomable. Sure, we’ve all vaguely worried about hurting the other person’s feelings when we decide to ghost them, but that never actually stops us from ghosting. Are we to somehow assume that Margot, well-accustomed to primarily binary code communication as a member of this age of uninnocence, is saintly enough to care about this too eager, faux cinephile and his phantom cats? It’s the same as suspending disbelief to assume Hannah Horvath can get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

On that note, if Lena Dunham was exclusively a short story writer, one imagines this is exactly what she would come up with (which is perhaps overly complementary to her if you’ve ever subjected yourself to reading any of her “literary” work). Another parallel aspect is the frenzied enthusiasm with which women in particular have responded to the “resonance” of the story. Just as it was when Girls first came out and was instantaneously commended for bringing “a refreshingly honest portrayal of female sexuality” to the mainstream, “Cat Person” has been heralded as “brutally and uncomfortably relatable.” A story that at last “contradicts our culture’s tendency to treat women’s concerns as unliterary.” Fine, just don’t make both characters equally as punch-in-the-face-worthy for their respective personalities and aims. Unless, that is, you’re seeking a book deal.

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