Antonia Cundy is an postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge, studying on an MPhil in American Literature. She has written (poetry and prose) for The Financial Times, The Economist, and The Oxonian Review, amongst others. Her work can be found at www.antoniacundy.com.
On 11th December 2017, The New Yorker published Kristen Roupenian’s short story, ‘Cat Person’, online. Within three days, it had become the magazine’s most read piece of the year. The story went viral, telling the fictional tale of 20-year-old Margot, and her flirtation and subsequent sexual encounter with a 34-year-old man named Robert. All seven thousand, two hundred and twenty-seven words of it were read and spread across the internet as fast as a meme, or a 140-character tweet. ‘Cat Person’ was not held back by its length or its genre, and theories as to why this was have become almost as prolific as the story itself. But is the story’s popularity really that surprising? Possibly not. Rather than contrasting ‘Cat Person’ with things like memes and tweets, if we look at its similarities to them and their effects, the fact it went viral seems far less unexpected.
In literary terms, ‘Cat Person’ might not seem that long – it’s about sixteen pages of A4. Yet in ‘millennial’ terms, in online terms, it is mammoth. As a society, we’re increasingly aware of the shift from print to digital, a shift which has also affected people’s reading habits. Some might argue that a fall in hours spent reading physical print, and a rise in hours spent online, does not necessarily mean that reading is being substituted for mindless social media scrolling. People might, for example, merely have swapped their book for an eBook, their newspaper for Apple’s News app, The New Yorker magazine for www.newyorker.com. Yet I think we all know that this is not always the case. And even if it were, in the jump from paper to pixels, much is changed along the way.
Unlike in physical print, time spent online is normally divided into hundreds of separate and fleeting encounters. In half an hour, one could read a handful of news stories in The Guardian newspaper, but in the same time, one could easily flick through ten or twenty on their website. Online articles are shorter and punchier, they use video and photography, and with the quick click of a hyperlink they can take you somewhere else entirely. They’ve only got a minute or two to get the point across before other pretty, sparkly things vie for our attention. When so much of people’s online activity occurs in quick bursts – five minutes of procrastination here, ten minutes waiting for a bus there – the number of people who would give over the time to read a single, lengthy article online is diminishing. And the websites know this – The Guardian and the New Statesman are not alone in categorising their longer articles as ‘Long Reads’, an apologetic notification for the temporal demand they make on your attention. Yet ‘Cat Person’ was long, and not only long, but also a piece of fiction.
And in today’s world, fiction has even less of a chance online than non-fiction does. In 2016, when Donald Trump was asked what he reads, he responded: “I never have. I’m always busy doing a lot.” This response points to a growing trend. The days of the flurry-inducing polemic are long gone, and literature seems consigned to the calm of the Arts & Books section. Aside from Fire and Fury (the recently published book offering a damning insider’s account of the Trump presidency) examples of books trending in this way are extremely rare. The latest Harry Potter might make the cut, but wizards and wands fail to spark the interdisciplinary, real-world discussions which Roupenian’s short story did. So how did ‘Cat Person’ go viral? Why did a seven-thousand-word read – and a piece of fiction at that – manage to engage audiences as easily as Donald Trump’s twitter?
The obvious reasons have already been pointed out – a quick google search of ‘Cat Person’ brings up hundreds of pages of response articles from The Financial Times, The New Statesman, The Guardian, GQ Magazine, The Economist, The Washington Post, Vice, Highsnobiety… to name but a few. The majority of them are spot on – it is the way in which one can relate to the story of ‘Cat Person’ that makes it so seductive. The stages of Margot and Robert’s electronic flirtation are easily recognisable – an ‘elaborate scaffolding of jokes’ sustained by ‘pictures on the Internet that were relevant to their conversation’ develops into ‘little updates about their days’ until Margot finally texts the ultimate confession, ‘“My parents are asking about u”’. And then there’s the sexual encounter, which unashamedly distils the shared truths of so many women’s dating experiences into one account, as though it had been written as part of some collaborative, international project. But what is it specifically about this ‘relatability’ that helped ‘Cat Person’ overcome its length and genre? Is there a correlation between something’s ‘relatability’ and its hold on people’s attention spans?
To work this out, let’s start with the sex. On a date with Robert, Margot thinks about what it would be like to have sex with him: ‘imagining how excited he would be, how hungry and eager to impress her, she felt a twinge of desire pluck at her belly’. Women readers, does this remind you of anything? Does it remind you of lying in bed, trying to masturbate, and only being able to do so by fantasising not about the person you desire, but about their rabid desire for you? Does it remind you of the ‘twinge of desire’ you feel not when you imagine someone else’s body, but when you imagine their hunger for your own? And what about this:
She pushed her body against his, feeling tiny beside him, and he let out a great shuddering sigh, as if she were something too bright and painful to look at, and that was sexy, too, being made to feel like a kind of irresistible temptation.
As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.
The more she imagined his arousal, the more turned-on she got, and soon they were rocking against each other, getting into a rhythm, and she reached into his underwear and took his penis in her hand and felt the pearled droplet of moisture on its tip.
Clearly, it’s hardly novel to suggest that knowing that someone wants and desires you is going to make you feel good. The idea of someone thinking ‘She’s so perfect […] I want her so badly’ is indisputably more arousing than the reality of a penis and the ‘pearled droplet of moisture on its tip.’ So yes, it’s easy to relate to ‘Cat Person’. These extracts are just some examples of why. And this recognition of one’s own behaviour, this “omg, me too!” is why a heap of people who normally message each other memes, started sending each other ‘Cat Person’. Roupenian’s story held onto people’s attention for its entire duration because at every paragraph, at nearly every other sentence, there was a validation of our own behaviour. Validations which are the same as the egoistic, dopamine-feelings that people get from an Instagram ‘Like’ or a friend’s comment under a post (“lol this is so u”). As we know, these reactions are addictive; they keep us hooked. And so people read on, because somehow Roupenian fictionalised the effect we’re used to getting from social media.
Yet the idea that the lure of ‘Cat Person’ is solely down to this oversimplifies the matter. It was not only Roupenian’s expert skill at repeatedly delivering these dopamine kicks of ‘relatability’ that made ‘Cat Person’ so popular. It was also that these kicks of “omg, me too” came from shared behaviours not often admitted to – behaviours mostly associated with guilt rather than a dopamine surge. The extracts above are a perfect example of this; their cathartic “me too” reward is more complicated than the simple acknowledgement that it feels good to know that someone wants you.
Although the vicarious pleasure experienced by someone else’s desire is universal to both sexes, what ‘Cat Person’ perfectly taps into in these extracts is the fact that, generally, this universal truth makes up a disproportionate amount of a woman’s experience. Whilst many men are entirely capable of arousing themselves with their own desire for a woman’s figure and its bodily proportions, many women only feel capable of arousing themselves in proportion to a male figure’s desire for them. I, certainly, (guilty feminist that I am) am more likely to fantasise about being fucked than I am about fucking someone. I imagine a man’s hands running over me, not my hands running over them. Albeit, this could be attributed to the superiority of the naked female body over the male form – it’s the far better star in a sensual show. Or, it could suggest that I’m happily objectifying men through a fantasy in which my desires are satisfied through minimum effort on my part, and with no consideration for the man’s.
Or perhaps it could be as Roupenian suggests, when Margot takes her bra off and Robert ‘looked stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a milk-drunk baby, and she thought that maybe this was what she loved most about sex—a guy revealed like that.’ This feel-good sense of power is certainly another moment to relate to. (Although as many have discussed, this empowerment is precarious and tainted by critiques of ‘Cat Person’ which rightly flag the part Margot’s youth and gender plays in this male appeasement.) These may all be factors, but a guilty voice in the back of my head knows that these reasons do not make up the whole case. ‘Cat Person’ also knows this, and offers another suggestion.
On their date, Margot looks at Robert and ‘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.’ Here, we’re back to the ego for our answer, and surely, we are all guilty of what Margot does in this moment. Anyone who has sat on a train, looking pensively out of the window, and thought how cinematic they must look; anyone who has noticed that crying (the right type of crying) sometimes makes their cheeks rosy, and their eyes sparkle – anyone who has done something like this, has also looked into Robert’s eyes. Again, we have that relatable dopamine ego-kick. But this also is not that simple. Margot’s vision of herself, and the passage’s appeal, is not purely egoistic. It is an ego boost triggered by a specifically gendered situation.
Whilst anyone without stratospheric self-confidence, of any sex, occasionally feels the need to be validated by others and our appearance to the outside world, this scenario highlights a woman doing so through a man. These eyes are Robert’s, and so Margot’s view suggests a woman validating herself through a man’s gaze – a consequence of centuries under the patriarchy. Margot sees herself as ‘sexy’ because she is ‘being made to feel like an irresistible temptation [emphasis added]’ by Robert, and ‘the more she imagined his arousal, the more turned-on she got’. The prevalence of feminine vicarious sexual desire is because for some, like Margot, sexual confidence is at times solely tied to the man, and a ‘fantasy of such pure ego’ is dependent not on herself, but on how she is ‘being made to feel’ by him.
What is so clever and so singular about ‘Cat Person’, and one of the many reasons why it deserves such celebration, is that it so brazenly acknowledges this. It offers both sides of the story, the empowering and the disempowering, which inform every woman’s sexual encounters in varied ratios – however much we wish this was not the case. Roupenian is not afraid of writing about the fact that for some women, telling ourselves that we are ‘so perfect’, ‘so desirable’, is not enough. And whilst a man might also not be able to convince us, they have a damn better shot at it, however much we hate knowing so. This fact is even harder to bear when we feel guilty about it – guilty about being able to counter misogyny in our words and actions, but not within our own heads.
I, for one, am aware of this guilt when I lie down at the end of a yoga practice. I feel good – sexy, taut, strong – but what I really want is to be naked with my boyfriend, to validate this feeling through a man’s appreciation. Like The Guilty Feminist podcast, ‘Cat Person’ and its ‘relatable’ dopamine kicks aren’t just dopamine kicks, but also a relief from this guilt. Margot subtly assured us that we are not alone in being affected by these consequences of the patriarchy. Margot also feels guilty and disgusted. This is laid out most plainly when she realises the absurdity of her self-confidence resting on a ‘fat old man’s’ view of her and she suddenly falls out of her ‘fantasy of such pure ego’. She imagines herself from above, ‘naked and spread-eagled with this fat old man’s finger inside her’, and her revulsion towards Robert turns into ‘self-disgust and a humiliation that was a kind of perverse cousin to arousal.’
‘Cat Person’, a seven-thousand-word piece of fiction, went viral in a ‘tech’ society in the time of social media because it was a validation far better than any ‘Like’ on Facebook. Social media seduces with deceptive, feel-good ‘likes’, whilst in fact stealthily robbing users of self-confidence. ‘Cat Person’ not only mimicked this seduction, but did so without the nasty negatives. It indulged reader’s egos by providing them with a mirror in which to study their own, but it did this with a hand outstretched – an understanding, an acceptance of what looked back at us. The story was more popular with women than men not only because it was written from Margot’s point of view, but because only women got that double kick – the “omg, so relatable” followed by the relief – and not by the usual anxiety social media perpetuates. ‘Cat Person’ grabbed our attention with its mimicry of social media’s kicks, but deserved it by doing more than this. Indeed, ‘Cat Person’ is a promising argument for why fiction is still so important, because sometimes it does take seven thousand words to say what could never be discerned in a tweet, a Facebook post, or a captioned image of an actor’s facial expression.