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'Cat Person’: Reflections on the Male Gaze and Anti-Romance

By Grace Z. Li
By Juliet E. Isselbacher, Crimson Staff Writer

There is a cornucopia of bad romance novels in this world, sold with soft covers featuring muscular chests. Anti-romances, however, are much harder to come by. (A bad romance is a story — albeit poorly written — about attraction. An anti-romance is a story about repulsion.)

Kristen Roupenian’s sour-tinged story “Cat Person” — which appeared in the December 2017 issue of The New Yorker — is one of the rare anti-romances I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

Here is the spiel for those the story failed to reach with its Twitter virality: Margot is just shy of the drinking age, and her love interest Robert is somewhere in the vague territory of his thirties. Robert is at least old enough to own a house, where Margot ends up one night after a few weeks of flirting, only to decide that she really, really, really does not want to have sex with this bearded and bellied man.

And yet she says nothing, because she is well-trained, like most women, in the art of tact — and there is no tactful way in the whole wide world to save both her and Robert’s dignity. When the former is sacrificed, the ensuing encounter becomes unpleasant and even gruesome.

To me, the beauty of anti-romances is that they are simultaneously mangled and elegant, concurrently clumsy and nimble. It is a remarkable feat, after all, for an author to deconstruct something that has already collapsed.

In “Cat Person,” the weapon of mass destruction is the female gaze. Prior to reading this piece, I had thought that the female gaze was the exact opposite of its male counterpart — namely, the deconstruction of men into abs, pecs, and other body parts.

But in Roupenian’s story, the female gaze is a kind of visual gymnastics — an optical boomerang. It’s the phenomenon whereby a woman sees her own self through the male gaze.

Roupenian writes, “[Margot] let herself be folded against [Robert], and she was flooded with the same feeling she’d had outside the 7-Eleven — that she was a delicate, precious thing he was afraid he might break.” And then again: “In his eyes, she could see how pretty she looked, smiling through her tears in the chalky glow of the streetlight, with a few flakes of snow coming down.”

Margot’s line of vision doesn’t focus on Robert, but rather on herself. She sees herself through his eyes — “in his eyes,” in fact. Robert is merely a mirror or streetlight. She witnesses herself in the glow of the male gaze as something delicate, precious, and tearfully pretty. “Look at this beautiful girl, [Margot] imagined him thinking,” Roupenian writes. “The more she imagined his arousal, the more turned-on she got.”

But the female gaze, in all its contortions, can easily collapse romance into anti-romance — especially during sex. Roupenian writes, “[Margot] felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head.”

Trapped in Robert’s head, Margot dissociates. She experiences something reminiscent of sleep paralysis, where she is obliged to look down at her frozen body from above. Romance is reciprocal, but a doll, a prop, an object — even an object of desire — can’t reciprocate.

Robert becomes what he does to her. He becomes repulsing; revolting. And anti-romance is born.

Strange as it sounds, Roupenian’s story of dubiously consensual and definitely bad sex gave me hope. It gave me hope because it tried to make men see what is — to most of them — invisible.

Ultimately, I do not expect men to channel the female gaze. I do not expect them to adopt double vision. And I do not expect them to exist with one foot in the parallel, anti-world. But I would like for them to wonder about it, like I pondered as a child what it would be like to be a spider and have four eyes.

Reading romance is escapist, a chance to forget I am a spider. But I prefer anti-romance — the obsessive, unhappy unraveling of attraction. It reminds me that I am not the only spider on the wall.

— Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher '22 is a History of Science concentrator who lives in Quincy House.

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