Another Take On Why The New Yorker’s “Cat Person” Went Viral

Write Right — notes from an MFA candidate

The New Yorker’s “Cat Person” went viral overnight signaling something everyone wanted to quantify. It was timely. The #Me Too movement took off shortly after the story went viral and jumped on the bandwagon. Maybe what hit a chord with readers was the author’s voice, which spoke to what many women don’t like to admit — the frequency with which they have sex when they don’t want to or are afraid to deal with an awkward situation they encouraged. “Cat Person” went on to get more than 4.5m hits and become the most-read piece of online fiction the New Yorker has published, indicating a desire for provocative pieces that explore uncomfortable situations and what it is to be human in our mistakes. I found the story’s brilliance to be about the sexual tension it created, between the tug and pull of engaging in sex and the aftermath of not saying no. Moreover, it exposed the psychological harm we are willing to carry out on others is something we can neither deny nor embrace. Again, tension.

Roupenian captures taut moments of attraction and repulsion vividly. Remarkably, she integrates texting banter in a way that captures the angst, buildup, and crashing dissolution of a romance unraveling. In reflecting on the conundrum texting presents, maybe, she thought, her texting “lol r u serious” had hurt him, intimidated him and made him feel uncomfortable around her,” she makes the story relatable. Equally descriptive, we read that Margot is dismayed by Robert and his belly, “thick and soft and covered with hair,” but they have sex regardless; she decides that saying no “would make her seem spoiled and capricious.”

In today’s publishing world, algorithms and trending, topics dictate content. It stands to reason that the backlash resulting in a BBC short story written from the perspective of the male protagonist, Robert, a Twitter account for men reacting to the piece and responses from more than 10,000 millennials, speaks to the fact that readers’ sexual politics drive content. When comparing Roupenian’s ability to expose the gruesome reality of consensual sex compared to Mary Gaitskill’s perverse stories of sexual desire and motivation, the former feels adolescent. Passages like, “at the end, when he was on top of her in missionary, he kept losing his erection, and every time he did he would say, aggressively, ‘You make my dick so hard’, as if lying about it could make it true,” provoked men and women to lash out and fight to be heard. The question of power is at the center of “Cat Person.” Gaitskill’s most unnerving stories unsentimentally render justice in a way she dictates that leave the reader satisfied, whereas Roupenian feels like she’s poking and prodding the reader along until we’re left with an angry bear, unsure of which direction it which it will lunge.

Roupenian, in an interview with The Guardian, said that power and “one’s understanding changes with age. “Cat Person” was inspired by a few dates she went on in her mid-30s, in a short period between the end of her relationship with a man to whom she was engaged, and meeting her partner, a woman. She hadn’t dated since her early 20s and what struck her about that experience, she says, “was how messy it was.” Throughout the piece, the reader has the sense that it is the female protagonist’s role to interpret the subtle and not so subtle sexual overtures and social cues that leave many of us confused and in doing so, many readers identified with the frustration of communicating and dating in our generation.

It’s a tendency among women to interpret their partners in a way that, Roupenian realized is profoundly gendered and completely unhelpful. “Often in relationships between men and women, there is this weird pact that it’s the women’s job to interpret their relationship for the men. What I think may be the greatest accomplishment of “Cat Person” is that a piece of fiction has reached out and provoked responses and prompted social media virility because it feels so real it could be a memoir. And as the lines of fiction and nonfiction blur, the reader is more engaged because the characters represent the worst parts of ourselves. Because “Cat Person” has provoked ongoing conversation about sexual harassment, as if it were a personal essay, it has stepped outside norms, proving that not just gender neutrality needs to remain fluid, but that literature can do so successfully.