Elinor Carucci and "Cat Person"
By Scarlett Davis
It’s raining cats and dogs; men are from Mars, and women are from Venus. It’s the story everyone and their mother is talking about. Last week, The New Yorker released a short story, “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian, an unheard of writer turned literary demigod overnight. For every aspiring writer, Roupenian is living the dream with first a buzz-worthy New Yorker story, followed by a 1-million-dollar book deal for her collection of much anticipated short stories, which are said to be as dark, irreverent, and as relatable as “Cat Person.” Never has bad sex derived so much applause or caused so much commotion. Bad sex as the story details, is not to imply sexual assault or a kind of clumsy attempt at erotica involving a laughable spasm of air or a buck-but-with-tube socks situation. Rather, bad sex here is the kind that we would rather not admit to ourselves: the sex we don’t want to have but consent to anyway.
Along for the ride with this viral sensation, is the story’s featured photo provided by widely published photographer, Elinor Carucci. Carucci is an Israeli-American photographer and a Guggenheim fellow. Her work has appeared in the Museum of Modern Art New York, and the Photographers’ Gallery, in London, among many other places. While not shown here, the image retained by The New Yorker, perfectly conjures the awkward kiss between characters, Margot and Robbie, using as Carucci reveals in an interview with the publication, a real life couple.
On conceptualizing the featured image in The New Yorker, Carucci says, “Even if you’ve been married for twenty years, there’s something that’s always there, between two people. With the composition, I wanted to create that space. In some of the images, it’s even bigger, and blacker.” Here, the picture of Carucci’s, Cherries I ate by myself, (2003), is a visually stunning representation of the story and in the vein of her signature of close-up angles, with attention to both the tangible and intangible space inherent to all social relationships. This spatial attention shown in Carruci’s body of work, is an underlying element of “Cat Person.” It is this depicted tension that has caused pause and the backlash from both men and women.
So why the need for the Twitter account, Men React to Cat Persons (@MenCatPerson)? Why is every woman, young or old, saying that’s my story? Why are a select number of major publications diminishing this piece’s literary notoriety, calling it an essay, and not a solid work of fiction? Why are people getting hung up on one man’s experience of being “ghosted” after a one-night stand. More succinctly, why are men and their egos missing the whole point?
The story begins with the casual flirtation of college student, Margot, with a much older man, Robbie, over some Red Vines at an artsy movie theatre. While the reference to Twizzlers would have been more accessible, it proves that every detail in this story is completely original in going against the familiar trope. Written from Margot’s perspective, Roupenian does a masterful job of highlighting dating through the texting age.
While on her school break, Margot and Robbie engage through a texting relationship, where each character is roused with anticipation, toying with each other in a power dynamic of who should respond first. Thus, befalls the crux of all relationships in the texting age: high expectations. Margot openly admits that she has built up Robbie in her mind and following their physical date, confesses to how little she knows him. The more she observes of Robbie, the more she finds distasteful or incompatible with her. Rightly so, Robbie, it could be argued at times, is testing Margot. Robbie, like many men, is preliminarily gauging how much she will tolerate.
The story is testament to how women are conditioned to be apologetic and empathetic. Margot uses a skill akin to many women, her emotional intelligence, to read Robbie’s social cues. She creates a backstory that enables her to find a vulnerability in Robbie that can endear her enough to feel comfortable in her decision to knock back a few beers, make-out, and ultimately go back to his place to have sex. Margot delights in the power shift she gains by becoming desirable in Robby’s eyes. She is aroused by his perception of her and feels comfortable with consenting to his advances.
However, the kissing is horrible, especially for a grown man Margot says. The sexual encounter intimated is equally as bad. What should be a pleasurable act, is contrasted by Margot’s thoughts of going through the motions; Robbie is none-the-wiser. Margot thinks about disengaging but abandons the impulse for fear of appearing rude, a tease, or god forbid, a bitch. The story ends with Margot escaping to her dorm after seeing that Robbie is apparently stalking her at her local bar. Ironically, unsure of how to break up with him, she sends him a text where he in turn transforms into a stage five clinger. The final words in the story are a text from Robbie to Margot denouncing her as a “whore.” The abruptness along with a dramatic use of whitespace leaves us with lingering thoughts as to what to make of this bizarre experience.
The sexual experience is bizarre; make no bones about it. Who knows why we are attracted to the things we are attracted to. In the story Margot would often engage in an imaginary commentary with a “fake boyfriend,” the boy she had created in her mind who, unlike Robbie, would be a true match. Margot would get extra meta with her “fake boyfriend” dialogues saying, “but of course there was no such future, because no such boy existed.” What Margot says is true: there is never going to be that one perfect person. Try as we might to bridge the gap in our separation from one another, we all operate in a world of our own.
Amidst the #MeToo culture, “Cat Person” opens up the conversation for us to talk about sex and reform. It is no longer enough to educate people on the risks. The pleasure of sex needs to be discussed beyond religion, marriage, and procreation. It is important that both men and women enjoy the act, while also retaining the right to pass on the offer, free from judgment. Men should not be less “manly” for saying no, and women should not acquiesce for fear of seeming demanding. Maybe someday Margot, like the woman in Cherries i ate by myself, 2003, will find joy in what does not always have to be a solitary endeavor.