That’s the first striking thing about “Cat Person”: It’s a short story, and it’s in the New Yorker, but despite those classic highbrow credentials it has entered the lowbrow world of online virality. The share image shouldn’t help — two pairs of lips, too close together but not quite touching, zoomed in to highlight every reddish, blondish hair growing from the pores on the man’s scraggly chin. But as Margot points out in the story, desire is the flip side of revulsion, and those same forces pull the reader through “Cat Person” even as each paragraph brings a new reason to cringe.
Whether “Cat Person” is “good” has been a puzzlingly popular topic of debate. What matters is that it meant a lot to a lot of people. A New Yorker short story went viral because, for one of the first times, something in the magazine seemed to capture the experience not of print-oriented, older intellectuals but of millennials. As some Twitter users said, young people rarely see the phenomenon of modern dating — meeting online, talking through text messages, moving to in-person encounters shadowed with the expectation of sex — taken so seriously.
As some have pointed out, “Cat Person” also owes some of its explosiveness to what else has been in the spotlight these past few months. Women are talking about “Cat Person” because they see themselves in it. Men (some of them, at least) are listening because the sudden discussion of sexual harassment has made it clearer than ever how little they know.
The takeaway from our national conversation about assault and abuse, when the rush of allegations and apologies eventually slows, shouldn’t center on personal perversions or the evilness of a single man but on the systemic abuse of power. “Cat Person” is about power, too.
Almost until the story’s very end, Margot thinks she’s playing Robert. She steers the conversation in directions she knows will please or placate him, as if she can control his emotions. She treats him like a nervous child in her mind and then describes him as one, “stunned and stupid with pleasure … like a milk-drunk baby.” And in the end, she’s the one who gets to turn him down. Yet when all is said and done, Robert still wins. There is nothing Margot can do as she lies on her bed while a stream of text messages rolls into her phone ending with one final word: “whore.”
Margot feels that it would be selfish or spoiled or rude to say no to sex after she has displayed interest, “as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.” She transforms Robert into an item for consumption, and puts herself in the position to deem him unsatisfactory — but Margot is the one who has been conditioned to see sex as a transaction where she has to hold up her end of the deal. And so has every reader who glosses over the line with a knowing nod.
Many have mistakenly called “Cat Person” an “essay” or “article.” Others have conflated the writer with the protagonist, and passed judgment on Margot’s thoughts and actions as if they belonged to an author who has no conception of her own flaws rather than a character designed to make mistakes. Readers, in other words, are taking “Cat Person” too personally. But that’s because it is personal to every woman who has felt what Margot feels. One word that cropped up over and over and over after “Cat Person” published was “relatable.”
It’s easy enough to speak about how wrong it is to touch a woman without her consent, or masturbate in front of her, or make lewd comments to her or ask her to carry your wife’s children — but it’s harder to articulate the more ambiguous pressures surrounding sex that result from the same broken system. The reaction to “Cat Person” shows that women carry those pressures with them everywhere. The country is just waking up to assault and harassment, and now it seems many of us are ready to start confronting some more complicated realities. For now, we’re doing that through fiction.