The December 11 issue of The New Yorker featured “Cat Person,” a short story by Kristen Roupenian. “Cat Person” reads as an extended interior monologue of Margot, a college-aged woman whose flirtation with thirty-four-year-old Robert becomes something much darker. It is one of few works of short fiction in the recent past to have trended on Twitter, mostly for its “relatable” take on the dating experiences of millennial women—namely, the uncertainty, the danger, and the constant need to cater to men’s needs.
However, others criticized the story, claiming that Margot’s descriptions of Robert’s body as “thick and soft and covered with hair” were fatphobic, and that Margot herself was vapid and egotistical. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, its language was sparse, unlovely, blunt—one Twitter user likened it to the kind of fiction Lena Dunham’s character in “Girls” might have produced.
Yes, “Cat Person” voices the concerns of women who date men. But the story only amplifies a certain kind of voice: middle class, college-educated, and most likely white. Her experience is not representative of a woman of color—had Margot been black, or Asian, or Latinx, her story would have been very different. Would she have joked so flippantly about the possibility that Robert could have murdered her? Would her friends have protected her in the same way when she encountered Robert again at the bar? Would Robert have treated her differently? It’s difficult to say. Part of me wonders, too, if such a story would even gain the same amount of online traction.
On Harvard’s campus, we interact daily with privilege. Wealth, class, and race regularly impact the way we act, make friends, and yes, date. Privilege affects whether we go to parties, what parties we go to, the spaces where we feel comfortable, and the spaces where we are unwelcome. We attend a university that champions inclusivity and diversity, whose red flags in the Yard read, “Wherever you are from… You are Harvard.”
But it is also a multi-billion dollar enterprise and a storied academic institution that only opened its doors to people of color in the past hundred years and women in the past fifty. Last year, the Harvard men’s soccer team was barred from playing for the remainder of the season when a list certain members of the team had compiled of the women’s team, ranking them by attractiveness, came to light. A few weeks later, the cross country team was penalized for keeping a similar list. Each student wants to find a home here, but it can be difficult to reconcile the idealism of Harvard’s message and the hostility of some of its realities. Privilege, as “Cat Person” reminds us, works both behind closed doors and out in the open, whether we recognize it or not.
“Cat Person” comes in the wake of a string of Hollywood sexual assault and harassment scandals, beginning with Harvey Weinstein and going on to implicate Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer—men with means, power, and in most cases, sound reputations. There is a reason we feel so blindsided when these stories of assault materialize: the abuse of power feels like betrayal. It becomes personal.
Broadly, the story of “Cat Person” is about power—about what benefits it can confer, and at whose expense. It is about who gets to exercise power, and who must face its consequences. Indeed, Margot’s struggle to articulate her disinterest to Robert amounts to more than discomfort, more than awkwardness. It is an overt struggle for dominance.
“Cat Person” reminds us that privilege is not just a definition in a sociology textbook, but a perpetual and pervasive force that, whether we are conscious of it or not, governs our interactions and our place in the world. To some degree, we can view ourselves as Margot, navigating the complicated world of privilege and trying to assert our own control. But in other ways, we might even recognize attributes that align with Robert, perhaps obliviously wielding power in a damaging and dangerous way.
The role of fiction is ultimately not to offer moralistic fables starring exemplary people. It is also not to vilify the people we don’t like. Rather, fiction is supposed to identify what makes us human—to explore even the awkward, weird, and sometimes problematic parts of ourselves. And it’s there to unearth the stories that make us tick and give them a voice.
But perhaps most importantly, fiction is meant to amplify the voices of the marginalized, even when what they have to say makes us uncomfortable. And as readers, it is our job to listen.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.
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