In this podcast we discuss the short story ‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian which appeared in The New Yorker last week and has been shared all over social media, partly due to its resonances with the recent #metoo campaign.
We’d recommend reading the story – or listening to the audio – before listening to the podcast. But we’d also like to give content notes (for both the story and for our discussion) that there are themes of non-consensual sex, fear of sexual violence, gender shaming and stereotypes, fatphobia, and whorephobia.
In the podcast we discuss the story in relation to some of the common themes in our work. We think it’s a useful story because it can be read in many ways and there are several different threads through it which are useful to unpack. Here’s just a summary of some of the main ones that we discuss.
- Gender roles: Both characters in the story seem to be conforming to rigid cultural expectations about what men and women should be like, as well as imposing those expectations on the other person in various ways.
- Inequality: This leads to a very unequal relationship where both characters objectify the other, rather than being able to be with them in all that they are – or might be. This resonated with bell hooks’s book All About Love which talks about how love is impossible under these kinds of unequal gender dynamics.
- Appearance: There is a lot of policing of appearance, including fatphobia, in the story, demonstrating just how taken-for-granted it is that there is an ideal way of appearing that people should conform to.
- Consent: The relationship – and sexual encounter – between the characters is non-consensual for many of the reasons that we explore through our work. There is no communication about the power imbalances between the characters which means it would be extremely difficult – if not impossible – for the protagonist to refuse sex. The cultural sexual script means that it is assumed that sex will involve certain activities, and again it is very hard for the protagonist to stop it once it has started. Wider rape culture means that the protagonist feels responsible for providing sex once she has suggested it and gone home with the guy. Also the wider relationship is non-consensual, with no communication about what the characters actually want, or the range of possible relationships between them, which makes it hard for the sex within such a relationship to be consensual. The friend’s behaviour is further non-consensual when she responds to the guy’s messages on the part of the protagonist.
- Power: The male character has a great deal more power than the female character due to his gender within a patriarchal culture, his age, his relative wealth, having his own place, and the fact that they end up at his place with her drunk and dependent on him for getting home – and for not hurting her, which is a genuine fear on her part given statistics on gendered sexual violence. But he doesn’t recognise any of this, or endeavour to increase her agency in the situation, after an initial refusal to have sex with her because she is drunk which he then overrides. There is no communication about any of the power imbalances between the characters or what they mean for them or for the relationship.
- Relationship dynamics: The characters seem to flip from a dynamic where the guy is more ‘cat person’ (avoidant) and the woman more ‘dog person’ (people pleasing) to the opposite after they’ve had sex. Again there’s no conversation about the kinds of people they are or the kinds of relationships they want. A dating script is assumed in the same way that a sexual script is.
There’s a lot more in the podcast, it’s a 40 minute rant basically: sorry about that (there’s also a bit of random drilling in the background, in case you were wondering what that noise was). We really like the story and think it’s super important and very well written, so thank you Kristen for writing it.
To learn about having more intentional and consensual relationships (and to think about whether you are more a cat or a dog person) you might like our ‘Make Your Own Relationship User Guide’ which is just £2.50.
© Meg-John Barker & Justin Hancock, 2017