Short story about dating and power goes viral

NEW YORK • When a short story makes a splash these days, you can see the ripples in real time.

Writer Kristen Roupenian had fewer than 200 followers on Twitter before her work of fiction, Cat Person, was published in The New Yorker last week.

The piece dominated attention on social media in a way that fiction rarely does. This week, Roupenian's follower count climbed rapidly to more than 6,000 as her more eager readers finished the story and set out to find its creator.

Cat Person focuses on two characters - Margot, 20, and Robert, 34 - who begin to construct a relationship through texting and eventually go on something resembling a date.

The verisimilitude of their encounter has started conversations about dating, power and consent.

"It isn't a story about rape or sexual harassment, but about the fine lines that get drawn in human interaction," Ms Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker's fiction editor, told The Atlantic. The fine lines between a friendly interaction and a flirtatious one, between an innocuous first date and a plot line from Law And Order: SVU.

In the story, Margot meets Robert at the movie theatre where she works at the concession stand. After some banter, he gets her number. They proceed to text for a few weeks and go out on a date that leads to bad sex, after which she breaks it off via text. A month later, they see each other at a bar and he later hurls misogynistic insults at her, also via text.

Cat Person is not identical to the news stories of assault and harassment: Robert is not Margot's boss and he does not force her to do anything. But he is older than her, as is the custom in heterosexual relationships, calling most of the shots in their interactions and hence has the power in their fledgling relationship.

Similar dynamics are reflected in nearly all of the stories of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace; and, as Cat Person makes clear, those unbalanced power structures are present in courtship as well.

As Nancy Jo Sales, who wrote that blockbuster 2015 Vanity Fair article on "the dating apocalypse", tweeted on Sunday: "Basically anyone who's ever used a dating app could write Cat Person, just maybe not as well."

Many women find it relatable.

In an interview with The New York Times, Roupenian, 36, said Cat Person "was inspired by a nasty encounter online", but not autobiographical. However, "many of the details and emotional notes come from life, they were accumulated over decades, not drawn from a single bad date", she added.

She is on a writing fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she recently completed a master's degree. She has only committed to writing in the past five years and is finalising a story collection and working on a novel.

One passage in Cat Person illustrates women's feelings about certain kinds of sexual encounters, especially those that can occur when two people barely know each other.

As Margot and Robert get undressed at his place, she is not incredibly attracted to him and ponders stopping the interaction, "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", Roupenian writes.

"It wasn't that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she'd done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she'd ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back."

Writer Ella Dawson echoes many women's reactions to the sex in Cat Person in an essay on her blog about "bad sex", or "the sex we don't want but have anyway".

She thinks this dynamic is partly due to sex education that stresses how women should avoid the risks inherent in sex - pregnancy, infection, assault - rather than teaches them how to enjoy it safely.

Also, Cat Person is in part about the shift from a courtship model based on demands versus one based on questions and mutual understandings. Similarly, the #MeToo revelations could help shift men's perspective on how their actions affect women in ways they might not immediately discern.

Some men do not find Cat Person relatable. The Twitter feed @MenCatPerson is broadcasting men's reactions to the story, many of whom do not understand how women could relate to the story or think Robert is the "victim" of the story, seeing his misogynistic rant against Margot as justified.

In the story, Margot imagines the boy with whom she can share the story of this encounter, but decides "no such boy existed and never would".

Roupenian said: "That's a pain a lot of women I know have felt acutely, especially in this past year, when all of these terrible shared experiences are becoming part of the public conversation. Women try to talk about these experiences with their partners and they find themselves failing. It's an isolating feeling for both people involved."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'Short story about dating and power goes viral'. Print Edition | Subscribe