Cat Person: the short story that launched a thousand theories

Kristen Roupenian’s 4,000-word tale about a stilted romance sent the internet into meltdown this week. Here’s the lowdown on the battle lines that formed

After inspiring a cacophony of venom on Twitter, an exhausting avalanche of hot takes and a chasm of opinion between those who think it is a work of genius and those who consider it misandrist drivel, is there anyone left who is still a Cat Person person? The New Yorker short fiction by Kristen Roupenian follows the stilted romance of Margot and Robert, whose ultimately unfulfilling relationship is fuelled only by the power of text message banter.

The 4,000 word story has provoked, at the time of counting: a BBC short story written from the perspective of Robert; a Twitter account that only tweeted responses from bewildered men, to the scornful laughter of quite a few more women; and responses from approximately 10,000 millennials, who recounted their own slightly sad dating experiences. It is perhaps the most talked about short story ever, apart from maybe Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (also published in the New Yorker, in 1997) or The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (which graced the magazine’s pages in 1948).

Annie Proulx
Spared the internet sleuthing ... Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx. Photograph: Patrick Kehoe/The Observer

It is now easier to read about Cat People than the story itself, with Proulx and Jackson spared the intense internet sleuthing to which Roupenian and her story have been subject. Irate readers have determined to win arguments about a creative work that is arguably subjective, like all art before it, and can be what anyone wants it to be. Here are some of the battle lines.

Is it fat shaming or slut shaming?

When they finally make fairly rewardless love, Margot is dismayed by Robert and his belly, “thick and soft and covered with hair”, but they have sex regardless; she decides that saying no “would make her seem spoiled and capricious”. Robert, meanwhile, obsesses over Margot’s sexual history, invents imaginary men to compete with for her time and ends the story (spoiler alert) by calling her a whore. So, maybe it is both. Maybe it is neither. Based on the haunted reactions of many women to the story, the pertinent questions to ask are: why do women try to please even when they hate it? And do men truly not notice this?

Is Roupenian Margot? Is Robert real?

Roupenian told the New Yorker that the story was inspired by a “small but nasty encounter I had with a person I met online”. So, arguably yes to both.

Is it fiction or is it an essay?

Falling as it does in this era of sexual anxiety and #MeToo, some people have claimed that Roupenian’s story is a polemical essay on modern sexual politics, as though fiction can’t tackle contemporary events and New Yorker editors don’t rush out stories to fall in the middle of relevant public conversations (surprise: that is what they did).

Does Robert even have cats?

No way.

Contributor

Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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