Something caught the internet by storm last week, and it wasn’t the newest meme or the truth behind a viral video. It was a short story. Yet, only as the internet can do, information and facts were twisted and misunderstood and everyone had their own hot take, whether their argument made sense or not.
“Cat Person” by Kristin Roupenian was published in the December 11 issue of The New Yorker and since then, it’s been all over Twitter and written about by several different people. Across the board, people had mixed reactions, but most could agree that this story spoke to several truths about women and modern dating, specifically online dating.
“Cat Person” tells the story of twenty-year-old Margot and thirty-four-year-old Robert and their poor attempt at a relationship. It begins when Robert frequents the movie theater Margot works at. Eventually, he asks for her number and they began texting each other. Like most relationships that develop online, Margot finds herself creating a façade of Robert based solely on the content of his messages, which subsequently leaves her disappointed when he doesn’t fill the role in real life. Their physical relationship leads to uncomfortable-to-read bad sex in Robert’s strangely bare apartment save for two cats and a mattress on the floor. Margot, with the help of her college roommate, cuts the relationship off and, unsurprisingly, Robert doesn’t take it well.
What about the short story caught the attention of the internet? A fiction piece from a publication as prestigious as The New Yorker is not the type of thing Twitter trolls care to take an interest in. There isn’t exactly one reason for “Cat Person’s” success, because like most things that go viral, it’s a case of being in the right place at the right time.
If you don’t live under a rock, you’ve likely heard to countless allegations made against powerful male sexual predators. At this particular time in the nation’s history, sexual harassment and assault are being discussed frequently and critically. Although Roupenian’s story doesn’t depict a sexual assault, or even a case of sexual harassment, it skillfully conveys the internal thought processes of a woman being caught in a situation she doesn’t want to be in, but goes through with it anyway.
This sort of altruistic sex, or consent is only given because they feel bad for the other person, happens too often to young women in the dating world. As Margot herself says, “But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon.” Many readers found the interiority of the story to be extremely relatable. Margot’s story is one most women in their twenties have experienced and with all the discussion of sexual misconduct, harassment and power in male-female interactions, it’s a very timely story as well.
The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman acknowledges how the current discussion influenced the story’s popularity; in an interview with HuffPost she said, “I’m sure [the response] does have something to do with the nature of our discourse right now, about sex, about consent. Those kinds of issues are so much in the news and in the air right now that this was a way to look at them, somewhat away from the political sphere, and the sphere of Hollywood producers and so on.”
Still, the short story’s relatability was both its savior and its downfall. As mentioned, it caught the attention of many female readers because the tale was nearly identical to some of their own, but the intimate narrative voice, although it is told in third person, has caused several people to misreport it as a “piece” or “essay,” when it is, in fact, a fictional story.
By ignoring the fact that it is fiction, many people treated this as something to be debated and decide whether or not they agree with what was written. Except that’s not how fiction works. Of course, it’s there to discuss, and maybe it’s not your cup of tea, but you can’t fundamentally disagree with it like you would, say, an op-ed, because a short story does not make an argument in the same way. A short story is not there to argue a point. It is there to tell a story.
Unsurprisingly, it seemed to be men who took to attacking the story the most. A whole Twitter account, “Men React to Cat Person,” was dedicated to documenting the responses from some male internet users.
The creator behind the account did an interview with ELLE explaining her desires behind collecting these—rather hilarious and ironic—responses to the story. The twenty-seven-year-old writer, Anna Fitzpatrick, saw that with the fame of “Cat Person,” there was a large influx of people sharing their opinion and she noticed that men, straight men specifically, disproportionately and completely missed the point of the story (as you can see in the two tweets, they got pretty angry, too).
Some argued Robert was the true victim, that Margot was just being selfish and manipulative (or even a “borderline sociopath”). Some used the age-old “not all men” argument, saying that women readers are acting as if “this doesn’t happen to men too.” While I do find it funny to watch straight men squirm when the spotlight is no longer on their problems, Fitzpatrick, in her interview, said something that should be the biggest takeaway from all of this: “I want straight men to maybe stop and think about the ways they interact with the world, the ways in which other people are constantly taught to.” What, I believe, causes a lot of the disconnect when people discuss anything, really, is that some people don’t stop and think. Rather, they simply respond with their knee-jerk reaction, simply thinking what they believe is the only way to see things.
Like most things, there’s not one specific reason as to why this story went viral. It’s ability to be relatable to some and repellant to others is a good way to catch the attention of the internet. As a story, it’s rather well-written and I enjoyed the way it effortlessly conveyed Margot’s inner thoughts. The characters are equally flawed and their interactions are uncomfortably human. I think it’s a good story, because it is universal (despite what some men have to say) and, like real life, filled with imperfect people and messy relationships.