Consent, intuition, & emotional labour: A response to Cat Person

By Maya Khamala

Kristen Roupenian recently published her piece Cat Person in the New Yorker, and not surprisingly, the story—which deals with a young woman navigating sex, desire, and consent—went viral, and spiraled out into the usual hideous online battles: misogynist scum against offended feminist, and all shades in between. 

People have called out the narrator’s economic/racial privilege…as well as her unlikeability. People have gone so far as to accuse the narrator of fat-shaming—entirely missing the point, in my opinion. And people have also related to the narrator, finding the story reflective of the often disempowering experience that is being a (young) woman trying to navigate the wide world of (online) dating and sex. 

Let me tell you what I see in this story. I’m a 36-year-old woman who sees some of my past and present experiences reflected. I see many of my women friends’ experiences reflected. And I say this with confidence even though we are all wildly different women with different dating styles and personalities. The advent of internet dating has simply provided a tangible backdrop (more of a paper trail, and a timeline) for the truly off-putting interactions women often have with men—before, during, as well as after said dating/sex experience. Of course, before internet dating slapped us all hard across the face, it does seem we spent a lot less time collectively interacting before actually meeting a person, which does render technology somewhat of a focus here, but in no way does it overshadow the far more deeply rooted (and overlapping) themes at work in the story: 

1. Consent

What I think escapes many readers is that Cat Person does indeed interrogate consent, but not in a way that points a finger at one woman, one man, or one individual sexual interaction. Margot, the main character, engages in a continual discussion with herself the whole way through her “relationship” with Robert. It’s not just the sex that she is mildly and then strongly revulsed by; it is their every interaction, their date, his responses and lack of responses—which are often jarring and even worrying to her.

What I believe it reveals about consent, as it plays out in the lives of women, is the following: consent is a constant inner dialogue in which we women must ask ourselves what we actually want- while banishing societal narratives forced down our throats about what constitutes: a) leading someone on, b) taking back consent after it’s been given, and c) initiating sex as a woman, all while weighing the possibility of a hostile backlash, or even violence. Just before having sex with Robert, Margot, who toys with simultaneous attraction and repulsion throughout the story worries that wanting to stop “would make her seem spoiled and capricious.” The “brusque positions” and dirty talk that characterize the sex are not the issue, but tellingly, Robert does not seem concerned with Margot having an orgasm, and Margo does not describe her own physical participation in the act.

Roupenian manages to unveil consent as a deeply gendered systemic blockage in society at large, and thus in every individual woman—and man. As Ella Dawson points out, while women are socialized not to make a fuss, to the appalling point of having sex we don’t feel like having, “men have been socialized to believe that real men always want to have sex.” The truth is, no one is immune from the self-destructive nature of our problematic culture.

2. Intuition 

Which brings me to the second noteworthy theme of the story: a woman’s intuition. The integral point of tension in the story is Margot’s active inner voice, and her constant tendency to doubt her intuition. Right from the very beginning when she meets Robert in the cinema, she gets a weird vibe. Yet she continually second-guesses herself and the distancing power of cellphone technology facilitates the delay of any real-life conclusions. Margot spends more time exploring how her anxiety might be unfounded than how it might be based on something real. 

From the awkwardness of their date, to the grossness of the sex, to the anxiety she feels about sending a “break-up” text afterwards, she worries about his reaction, his judgement, his disapproval. The fact that the possibility of Robert murdering her occurs to her both at the beginning and the end of the date is something she manages to casually brush aside, even joking about it as though to make Robert more comfortable—a moment that I think rightfully makes readers squirm. 

Unsurprisingly, in response to her consistently nagging feeling that something is indeed off, the last line of the story delivers a final confirmation in the form of a drunken text from Robert: “Whore.” As someone who has had internet dating “break-ups” go bad and turn into stalker scenarios, I can attest to the importance of not rationalizing away one’s intuitive first (and second) impressions! It’s a trap, and one we women are great at setting for ourselves, thanks to the patriarchy, yadeeyah. :)

3. Emotional labour

Strikingly, Margot expends constant emotional energy throughout the story, worrying that maybe a text she had sent making fun of Robert’s choice of movie may have made him feel vulnerable. She wonders what Robert must be feeling or thinking at all times, and she shapes herself around what she perceives his desires, fears, and anxieties to be—an unfortunate testament to the status quo socialization of girls who classically end up doing far more emotional labour in relationships then men do; we often perform backflips to a) avoid hurting men’s feelings, b) get men to express themselves, and c) make ourselves seem more vulnerable and less threatening:

“Margot laughed along with the jokes he was making at the expense of this imaginary film-snob version of her, though nothing he said seemed quite fair … She asked him lots of questions about the movies he liked, and she spoke self-deprecatingly about the movies at the artsy theatre that she found boring or incomprehensible; she told him about how much her older co-workers intimidated her, and how she sometimes worried that she wasn’t smart enough to form her own opinions on anything. The effect of this on him was palpable and immediate, and she felt as if she were petting a large, skittish animal, like a horse or a bear, skillfully coaxing it to eat from her hand.”

Boys on the other hand, are generally socialized to feel entitled as well as somewhat oblivious to what women deal with. While Robert does seem to harbour his own social anxieties, he seems most emotionally at ease when Margot does the work of appearing vulnerable. He also seems to like the idea that she might be a virgin before she laughs, fuelling his eventual remark: “Whore.” Somehow, it always felt like this was the inevitable last word. 

Last word 

I like the story because it interrogates timeless themes we all need to be unraveling in our own lives. Personally, I make a real point these days of being straight-up honest with men to the point of bluntness—whether we’re disclosing our feelings, having terrible sex, or incredible sex. We all need to worry way more about our own feelings before spending energy on someone else’s. Not doing so does not make us mean bitches, teases, or cunts. Self-respect is what it’s actually called. And there’s no telling what mind-blowing, totally desirable sex may waltz right into your life when you show yourself the respect you deserve. 

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