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On Reading “Cat Person” with White Bros: Or, you can take a horse to the library but you can’t make it not eat the books

Along with many others, I was struck by the literary brilliance and emotional impact of Kristen Roupenian’s short story, “Cat Person” (read it here).  However, and once again along with many others, I was both appalled and disheartened by the ways in which many men were responding to the story.  I ended up having a rather lengthy conversation about the story with some of these fellows on a friend’s facebook page and I have decided to take what I wrote there and make it into a blog post here.  My intention in doing so isn’t so much to further engage those whom I have termed “the bros” (and will refer to as Bro1 and Bro2 throughout) as it is to offer an alternative reading to those who are unsettled by what the bros have said but who aren’t sure how to refute their arguments.

Initially, the bros were arguing that the story had nothing to do with patriarchy or toxic masculinity or the oppression of women or any such thing – they argued that the story showed two people who were equally fucked up and who both got hurt and, really, the female lead, Margot, was probably a whole lot more nasty than the awkward-but-oh-so-lovable male lead, Robert.  Thus, my first response went as follows:

So, here’s the thing, reread the story but think about Margot and her anxieties, actions, thoughts, and responses, in light of what it is like for women to live in a patriarchal society (if you haven’t given that much thought, Kate Manne’s “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny” isn’t a bad place to start). Reading the story in that light, you’ll notice that, constantly, Margot is worried more about Robert than about herself and that she is afraid to act in ways that prioritize herself over Robert (because, even though she is fully justified in doing that, patriarchy teaches women that they exist to meet the emotional and physical needs of men and that, if they deviate from that, they will be punished — hence, fear of being murdered, hence why her friend writes the text for her, hence running from the bar, etc. — and so, esp for a 20 year old woman in some kind of relationship with a 34 year old man, mapping a way to do this may be difficult). Similarly, looking at Robert, you see how even seemingly “nice guys” (he is even a cat person!) who aren’t the obvious macho dick or bully in the schoolyard, can still take objective advantage of patriarchal structures even if, subjectively, they are (for the most part) sensitive, nonviolent-ish, and not mainstream or whatever (although the story also helps to make sense of stats about how women are more like to be raped by dates, friends, and study buddies than they are to be raped by some random predator stalking the streets — most men who rape don’t see themselves as villains… most men who rape are probably a lot more like Robert). The folks rushing to play the “Margot was, like, mean or dishonest or whatever and she’s just as fucked up as Robert” card are missing that Margot’s struggles are symptomatic of what it’s like living as a woman in a man’s world (and they also sound like people who play the “what was she wearing?” and “why did you go home with that guy and kiss him?” and “you sent mixed messages and probably have equal blame in this” cards in response to rape survivors) . So, yeah, I persist in thinking that the story is a brilliant analysis and deconstruction of how patriarchy impacts the formation of subjectivities (hence, Foucault’s “subjected subjectivities” as applied to women in this context) and what avenues of action it opens for men (at what cost, with what benefits), versus what avenues of action it opens for women (at what cost, with what benefits). If that all seems a little too subtle, then maybe give the story another read.

In other words, when Margot runs from the bar, she is not, in fact, a “mean girl;” rather, she is worried that she is a mean girl because that is how patriarchy has trained her to think about herself in that context (because she is prioritizing herself over Robert — because a “good girl” would have prioritized Robert’s needs and gone over and asked how he was feeling and then, of course, maybe a “good girl” would have hung out with Robert as friends again, and then, of course, maybe a “good girl” would end up having sex with Robert again and, shit, there’s really no escape for Margot as long as she acts in the ways that she is taught good girls are supposed to act). So Margot talking about being worried that she is a mean girl isn’t proof that she is equally to blame for everything or whatever. Far from it, it is evidence of how patriarchy has colonized her self-understanding and influences how she relates to herself.

I then pointed to this interview with the author as further evidence of this reading (along with the links available here), and provided the following quotation from Roupenian:

In the bar, Margot thinks of Robert as “a large, skittish animal, like a horse or a bear,” that she is taming, coaxing to eat from her hand. But what would happen if she stopped trying to coax and pet and charm him — if she said, bluntly, that she doesn’t want him, that she’s not attracted to him, that she’s changed her mind?

That option, of blunt refusal, doesn’t even consciously occur to her — she assumes that if she wants to say no she has to do so in a conciliatory, gentle, tactful way, in a way that would take “an amount of effort that was impossible to summon.” And I think that assumption is bigger than Margot and Robert’s specific interaction; it speaks to the way that many women, especially young women, move through the world: not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy. It’s reflexive and self-protective, and it’s also exhausting, and if you do it long enough you stop consciously noticing all the individual moments when you’re making that choice.

However, it became immediately obvious that this initial foray wasn’t going to convinced anybody and that the conversation would simply turn into an endless cycle of “you’re wrong, I’m right,” “no, you’re wrong, I’m right” with perhaps a few expletives thrown in and so I realized that a more detailed exegesis of the story was needed.  To that end, I wrote the following:

Okay, bear with me here (I’m going to write a series of posts). But since some people just keep repeating the same points, regardless of what others say (and what I say here is premised upon what I’ve already said in comments above), it’s probably necessary to engage in some more detailed textual analysis.

One of the important points Kate Manne makes in her book, “Down Girl,” is that misogyny isn’t just about second-personal hostility (like we see with Elliot Rodger or Donald Trump), but is also about “third-personal *indignation*, outrage and condemnation. That is, people can show hostility toward women who are held to wrong *others*, including those deemed the most vulnerable and in need of defending, protection, and justice. This hostility often manifests in a desire to punish women who don’t fulfill roles men expect them to fulfill within a patriarchal context – i.e. women who withhold and fail to give, who do not nurture men in the way they want to benurtured, and women who evict men from places they believe they have a right to inhabit (i.e. women’s bodies, minds, and lives in general). Many men who experience this kind of rejection refuse to learn from it and, instead, end up fostering a sense of resentment against women and so, when we encounter Margot, a young woman who fails to nurture Robert in the way he desires, she becomes a surrogate for their past experiences, and present ways in which they feel vulnerable, and all of this comes spilling out as outrage expressed on behalf of innocent, vulnerable Robert. As Manne argues, “it’s always easier to take the moral high ground than it is to admit to feeling rejected and wounded.”

This all fits very well with Bro1’s description of Robert as an “innocent but flawed male” that Margot “takes advantage of” “acting like the women out of the movie ‘mean girls’” as she “belittles and insults” him and, generally, treats him “horribly” and does damage to him. And this is all very deliberate, making it that much more cruel. As Bro1 says, “Margot demonstrates a consciousness that she is willfully hurting and wounding the male in this story even going on to describe and belittle his anatomy, house and social awkwardness. She knows what she is doing even going on to mention that she is like a ‘mean girl.’”

When evaluating Bro1’s claims, it’s worth rereading the story to see what Margot actually does and does not say or text to Robert. I went back through the story and pulled out everything quoted verbatim from Margot and then I did the same thing with everything quoted verbatim from Robert. It’s interesting to initially observe that Robert says slightly more than double the amount of words Margot says (even including the text Tamara sent on Margot’s behalf). This, too, is reflective of a patriarchal context where men are accustomed to doing most of the talking, talking over women, taking credit for things women do say (when it’s advantageous to do so), mansplaining, and so on. It further illustrates Roupenian’s mastery of her craft.

That said, when we look at what Margot actually says in her conversations and texts with Robert, we find nothing belittling, insulting, horrible, willfully hurtful, or mean. In fact, we find that she is constantly speaking in the way that she does because her primary motive is to not hurt Robert’s feelings and to nurture and gratify him (i.e. to act precisely as women are taught “good girls” are supposed to act). Margot, for example, is constantly communicating gratitude (she says thank you on four occasions; Robert never says thank you and, even when Margot anticipates his needs, like when he comes to the movie theatre the second time, he responds in a condescending manner that belittles her – “You’re getting better at your job… you managed not to insult me this time”). Furthermore, when it comes to communicating her desires, Margot is so disciplined to not infringe on a man with what she, as a woman, desires, that she is constantly phrasing what she wants as a question (“We could get a drink, I guess?” “Should we get out of here, then?” “Um, that won’t work because of my roommate?”) or falling short of making a firm statement with a firm conclusion (“I should go home, probably.” “I can’t. My roommate would be worried. So.”). Conversely, there are seven occasions when Robert issues orders to Margot and tells her what to do or feel (“give me your phone number,” “stop fooling around and come now,” “study hard,” “take that thing off,” “you like that,” “come here,” and “answer me”). On an eighth occasion, Robert asks Margot what she wants to do and then doesn’t wait for her to answer but, instead, decides what they are going to do (watch a movie after sex). Finally, when Robert does get a direct and straightforward statement from Margot that says what Margot wants (“stop textng me,” which comes from Tamara but still communicates Margot’s desire and Robert doesn’t know it comes from Tamara), Robert blatantly and knowingly violates this request. After sending his polite initial response he later texts, “I know you said not to text but I just wanted to say…”

In everything Margot says and writes to Robert, there is not even a hint of anything insulting or belittling or of words designed to hurt. Even the text Tamara sends on Margot’s behalf isn’t mean (“Hi im not interested in you stop textng me”). It’s honest and to the point. Suggesting that she owes him any more than that after texting awhile, seeing each other twice at the movie theatre, buying candy at the variety store together one night, and then going out for a movie and having sex, is, I think, symptomatic of male privilege – i.e. it requires Margot to be a “good girl” and nurture men, and be oh so gentle and tender when it comes to their feelings, instead of just being honest.

Now, I’m sure Bro1 would say Margot is fucked up and fucking around with Robert because she is less than one hundred percent honest with Robert on at least three occasions (when she says she is tired in the car after the movie instead of talking more openly about her conflicted feelings, when she says that she is not drunk, and when she doesn’t talk with Robert about why she laughed when he asked if she was a virgin—her expressed feelings about learning that Robert is 34 may be another example of her being less than honest but that’s a little more up for debate and I suspect, if Robert wasn’t such a jerk she wouldn’t care as much about the age difference, even if others might still see it as a flag). But, here’s the thing, Margot was less than one hundred percent honest on each of these occasions because she was trying not to make Robert feel anything about himself that he didn’t want to feel. Furthermore, it’s not like Margot owes it to Robert to tell him what she is struggling to figure out for herself. There is nothing that requires women to be 100% honest with men 100% of the time. Besides, I’m sure Bro1 would be all over Margot if she was honest – if Margot did say to Robert, “that was the worst kiss I’ve ever experienced,” or “you are completely selfish during sex and I get no pleasure from that” or “here is a list of the physical attributes you possess that I find unattractive,” then men like Bro1 would be all over her for being a “mean girl.” In fact, Bro1 is already all over her for even thinking things like that, as if all 20 year old women are required to think (even in their own private thoughts) that 34 year old men (or any men, or all men) are totally attractive, totally great to be with, totally entitled to ask anything, as if there is something wrong for even just *thinking*, “huh, I’m not attracted to that dude.” Based on this, it seems the only thing that will satisfy men like Bro1 is if Margot is BOTH completely honest AND completely into Robert, at his beck and call, idolizing his body, and anticipating and meeting all of his needs. Fall short of that and you’re a mean girl.

But, in fact, it is Robert who is consistently patronizing, belittling, objectifying, and mean. I’ve already mentioned how he orders Margot around and disses her when she tries to be kind to him the second time he comes to the theatre. To this should be added the various names Robert calls Margot – “concession-stand girl,” “sweetheart,” “honey,” “lightweight,” “a girl with nice tits,” “a sweet girl,” and, ultimately, when he is no longer getting what he wants, “whore”). The only time he actually calls Margot by name is after receiving Tamara’s text clearly communicating what Margot wants. All the other names are not just innocent or cute pet names. They are all, to varying degrees, belittling, infantilizing, sexually objectifying, and depersonalizing. Robert’s response to Margot’s silence by saying she is “sulking” further adds to this. Same for his way of mocking that Margot lives in a dorm and of saying “I live in a house” when Margot asks where he lives (instead of just telling her his address or what part of town he lives in). In this context, the age gap gains some added significance. It adds to this more subtle form of manipulation and of less obviously solidifying the kind of power dynamics that patriarchy favours. Robert’s comment that he is “glad to see you [Margot] dressed up for me” also reinforce patriarchal expectations that a woman’s value is found in the way she looks to men. But it is the conversation that takes place between Margot and Robert when she is IDed and turned away from the place he likes to drink, that perfectly illustrates Robert’s condescending attitude – he thinks he is so much smarter than and superior to Margot that he argues with her about how old she is (the same condescension is also evident in Robert’s moment of intimate sharing in the post-sex conversation when he describes Margot choosing something other than a relationship with him as a “bad decision” that she may have made due to an inability to be able to understand or discern what is good).

And Robert also lies to Margot but, unlike Margot who is less than honest because she doesn’t want to hurt Robert, Robert lies in order to get what he wants from Margot, regardless of how it makes her feel. Thus, for example, he says he is sorry for being too rough when he fingers her… but he says that so that they would keep engaging in sexual activity and he fingers her roughly shortly thereafter. He also lies when he says Margot doesn’t have to say sorry for laughing, but he lies in order to make her continue to apologize to him (thereby gratifying his ego). He also lies when he says “you don’t have to be nervous… we can take it slow.” Because he doesn’t take it slow. Robert’s moment of being less than one hundred percent honest – not talking about his age until Margot asks – is also an example of him prioritizing himself and his desires over Margot. Robert’s one remaining lie (“you make my dick so hard,” spoken even as he goes limp) is important in that it shows that Robert is not only lying to Margot – he is lying to himself about himself and he needs women – good girls – to also feed that lie back to him in order to make him comfortable with it.

I believe at least two conclusions follow from this: (1) my initial conclusion that Margot is not a “mean girl” but is only considered to be a “mean girl” by those who have bought into patriarchy’s ideology is solidly established; (2) Bro1’s claims are absolutely unwarranted and men who have trouble understanding this should probably step back and examine their own insecurities, vulnerabilities, ways of engaging with women, and ways of coping with rejection. I suspect the men rallying to Robert’s cause are also lying to themselves about themselves. To that end, I suggest checking out these people:

Bro2 then immediately responded with the following remark: “”This, too, is reflective of a patriarchal context where men are accustomed to doing most of the talking” – Irony?”  And so I sought to clarify why I was engaging in this way:

Male allies need to listen to women, but they also need to engage with men making arguments that justify or enforce patriarchy while aiding and abetting violence against women and the enforcement of gender roles assigned by a patriarchal society. The burden isn’t always on women to call out every dude-bro reveling in male entitlement and the punishment of “mean girls” — women have to deal with men enough as it is. Male allies also need to speak up sometimes. So, I spoke up and engaged with Bro1 and the fellows nodding along with him here. However, if any who don’t identify as cishet males have an issue with what I’ve said or how I’ve said it, I’m happy to continue to do some learnin’. In the meantime, I’ll just observe that your comment does not, in any way, take away from my conclusions or my reading of the text.

Bro2 then engaged in a longer response which prompted the following further act of clarification:

A few points in response to Bro2’s response to my prior trio of comments…

(1) Bro2’s opening question is really strange. He asks: “If men and women endure the same hostility, powerlessness and expectations can we segregate them out and label them as misogyny and misandry or do we have an issue transcending both concepts?” but nowhere has it been established that men and women endure the same hostility, powerlessness, and expectations, and Bro2 doesn’t go on to establish that. In fact, “Cat Person” clearly establishes the differences between many male and female experiences of hostility, powerlesssness, and expectations (and I think I make that clear in some of what I’ve written above). The story perfectly illustrates Margaret Atwood’s aphorism that “men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them.” What does Robert experience as hostility? Margot being honest about what she wants or feels. What does Margot experience as hostility? Robert refusing to respect the boundary she establishes in her text (via Tamara) and Robert calling her a whore during his texting blitz (although, of course, all of that is proceeded by a series of “micro-aggressions” that you and I seem to agree upon).

(2) Bro2 asserts that analyzing what is not captured in the verbatim quotations of conversations between Robert and Margot invalidates what I say. He does not demonstrate this. Coincidentally, I believe I could make an even stronger case if I provided a detailed analysis of the text that included those portions, but I left them out (and didn’t even explore descriptors like who spoke “softly” or who spoke “angrily, ” “coldly,” or with a “voice dripping with sarcasm”) because I didn’t want to spend another three hours analyzing the text and because I was pretty sure people would just say, “Oh, that’s just how Margot sees things but it’s biased and inaccurate” (more on that below).

Part of what Bro2 is missing here is that this is a short story and a work of fiction. Short story writing is a very technical and precise craft. With so few words, how much gets said, how much gets quoted, and who is being quoted, all matter a lot for what the author is trying to communicate. I think it has been established that Roupenian is a master of this craft and so to brush aside relative words counts because, “like so much more was actually said” misses the point because the only things that exist in the world of the text is the text itself. We’re not getting a witness statement or a partial account of something that happened to a friend. This story is all that there is. And it is been crafted in the way it has been crafted for a reason. Whose words take up how much of the text matter in this kind of situation. Painters work with a limited amount of canvas and so decide what they are going to put inside the frame and what they are going to leave out. Writers do the same, especially short story writers (as you might guess from my comments, I’m not a very good short story writer).

(3) At the crux of Bro2’s objection is the suggestion that I am taking away Margot’s agency or saying her thoughts and feelings are really not hers. Ultimately, noting the times when Margot consented to things, or chose to do things, or felt warmfuzzy feelings, Bro2 asserts that he believes and supports Margot by refusing to accept any kind of reading that sees the relationship between Margot and Robert as influenced by patriarchal dynamics. At best, Bro2 is only telling a half-truth here. Because Bro2 has already been dismissive about much of what Margot has said, how she said it, and how she described other things that were said. The only time when Bro2 poses like and ally and proclaims “I believe her!” is when Margot talks in ways that can be used to take patriarchy out of the picture. Furthermore, while engaging in this activity, Bro2 doesn’t pay any attention to the *conflict* that Margot expresses at the moments when she says or feels the things he highlights. Thus, Margot surprises herself when she gives Robert her number. On the movie date, although she feels sad that things seem to be falling apart faster than she imagined they would, she also sometimes feels “wildly uncomfortable” and becomes concerned that Robert might “take her someplace and rape and murder her.” She also talks about feeling embarrassed and humiliated and even cries at one point. She laughs at jokes he repeatedly makes at her expense even though “nothing he said seemed quite fair.” At his house she feels the fear rise up again and is worried that it was “a trap meant to lure her into a false belief.” Immediately before having sex, in a critical passage, “Margot recoiled. 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.” During the sex, Margot notes that the night felt “odd and unprecedented” and she feels a “wave of revulsion” that turns to “self-disgust and humiliation” as she feels moved “like a doll” or “a prop.” She ends up marveling at herself and the “mystery of this person [herself] who’d just done this bizarre, inexplicable thing.

So, what Margot feels is confused and *conflicted* but Bro2 wants to only highlight the parts of Margot that aid his narrative. Although I don’t want to get into the conversation about if Margot was sexually assaulted by Robert or not, this is precisely the kind of argument used by rape apologists who blame survivors and try to exculpate men who rape. To illustrate this point, let’s imagine the following conversation between a rape apologist (RA) and I about the time I was raped by an older male friend.

RA: So you willingly went to this guy’s apartment?
Me: Yeah. We were close friends. It was his birthday and we had been out drinking and he said he wanted to keep celebrating.
RA: And when you lost and then regained consciousness and realized you and him were both naked and he was going down on you, did you scream for help?
Me: No.
RA: Did you fight him off?
Me: No, although I am a better fighter than him. I doubt he’s ever even been in a fight.
RA: Did you tell him to get the fuck off you and stop?
Me: No.
RA: Why not?
Me: Well, I was going in and out of consciousness but I remember thinking about saying stop and then remembering that it was his birthday and he was my good friend and I didn’t want to call him a rapist on his birthday and make him feel bad about himself.
RA: So what happened?
Me: He suggested we get in the shower and make out there.
RA: And did you do that?
Me: Yeah, I got in the shower and didn’t stop him making out with me. At some point I remember thinking if I kissed him back, maybe the whole thing would end quicker.
RA: So you kissed him back?
Me: Yeah.
RA: And he never forced you to do that or hit you or threaten you with a weapon?
Me: Nah, he didn’t do any of those things.
RA: So then what happened?
Me: I said I didn’t want to be in the shower anymore because I didn’t want my dreads getting wet.
RA: So you were able to say no about staying in the shower?
Me: Yeah. I was super drunk. We had pounded drinks – beers, shots, whatever, I probably drank at least sixteen drinks in a few hours that night – until the bar closed and I was mostly in an autopilot blackout mode. So I don’t remember a lot of this but I do remember doing and saying that.
RA: But you never said no about the sex stuff?
Me: Not that I can recall.
RA: So later, after the shower, when he told you to do other sexual things you did them?
Me: Yeah.
RA: And your dick was hard?
Me: Yeah. Although I never came.
RA: And then what?
Me: Well, eventually I just walked home and then I showered in the dark because I was so nauseated by the sight of my own naked body that I couldn’t bear to look at myself. I actually showered in the dark for several days after that.
RA: So obviously you were making your own decisions, maybe you wanted to experiment when you were drunk, but then regretted things afterwards. That doesn’t make the guy a rapist. That just means you can’t take responsibility for yourself. But, guess what, you say you chose to do things, you say he didn’t force you to do anything, you say you did things of your own accord, so, I’ll be a good ally, affirm your agency, and say – I believe you. You weren’t raped.

(In fact, it took me some time to understand that event as a rape, and I explore some of that in this blog post if others are wondering if this is or isn’t a rape.)

Now, here’s the thing, in my own experience, my agency was complicated, compromised, and ultimately (in a court of Law) canceled out due to the large amount of alcohol I had consumed – I was too drunk for any consent on my part to be legitimate (that’s what the Law says). In Margot’s situation, the conflict and confusion and pressures she are feeling are different and more subtle and more related to gender roles as they are assigned by a patriarchal society. Bro2 entirely ignores those things in order to pose like an ally to women, front like he supports the #believeher social media campaign, and pretend to affirm Margot’s power and agency. But Bro2 is not being a good ally by acting this way. He’s responding in a really shitty way and thank goodness Margot isn’t a real woman but, ffs, there are probably several real women in Bro2’s life who are being hurt by his response.

And here’s the central reason why I can call bullshit on Bro2’s response. Remember how I said Bro2 was being dismissive about some of the things Margot says? Well, look again at the story and ask, “who is telling this story?” Because it’s not Margot telling the story. There are no “I” statements. The story is told from the vantage point of a third person limited omniscient narrator. And, within the boundaries of the story (which is what matters for textual analysis), we are given no reason to believe that this narrator is unreliable. Furthermore, the author, in subsequent interviews, makes it clear that she intends this narrator to be reliable – she explicitly states that this is a story about what it is like for young women growing up in a world made for men and what pressures that creates in how they think about themselves and what that permits men – even seemingly good men, even a cat person – to get away with doing. So, when Bro2 says, “I believe her,” he isn’t talking about any real woman. He is talking about the fictitious Margot when she is selectively read to highlight the times when she acts or talks like a “good girl” (i.e. when she acts like a woman who accepts the gender roles assigned by patriarchy). Bro2, however, does not believe the narrator and he does not believe real women – women like Roupenian, the author (who may or may not also be identified as the narrator depending on where you stand in terms of postmodern literary criticism), or all the other women who have stood up and said, “hey, there is something about this story that men really need to pay attention to and understand.” Bro2, in other words, poses like he is a good man but he is demonstrating that he is much more like the titular cat person.

Bro2 continued to spin awhile but I felt that, at this point, there wasn’t much else to say that hadn’t already been said (at least in terms of a potentially constructive conversation between him and I – I didn’t even bother engaging a number of other bros who were just trying to be dicks, while avowing that they weren’t trying to be dicks – a classic bro move – throughout the whole thing).

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