It was December 2017, and I’d had three WhatsApps on the same day asking the same thing. “Read Cat Person yet?” I responded as I do to most things that take up so much air in the cultural conversation that they begin to feel like homework: expressed a bit of performative disinterest and resentment. But when, finally, I did read Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker story that had just gone viral, I talked about it with my friends for the rest of the week and thought about it for a lot longer.
Back then, Roupenian’s story had brilliantly, dazzlingly, captured the zeitgeist: just two months earlier, sexual harassment allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein had caused the #MeToo movement to erupt. For the first time, public discourse was not just welcoming but actively encouraging women to speak about their experiences of being violated by men. In ”Cat Person”, the 20-year-old cinema employee Margot strikes up a text courtship with Robert, an older customer, before the pair go on a disastrous date and have awkward, horrible sex. It underlined something that was becoming rapidly clear: that men and women could have entirely different experiences of the same sexual encounter.
In that early white heat of #MeToo, “Cat Person” supercharged an already febrile discourse. “It’s not a story that involves harassment in the workplace or rape or any of those things, but it’s a story about how those lines can become fuzzy,” said Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker who selected Roupenian’s story for publication. Many women knew exactly how it felt to be Margot, recognising the feelings of shame and violation that even the most banal sexual encounters can bring and the power men can exert. Some male readers were disturbed and sad that women felt this way; others were furious, arguing that Margot leads Robert on and thinks mean things about his naked body (at one point she is repulsed by his “belly thick and soft and covered with hair”). A Twitter account sprang up entitled “Men React to Cat Person”, as male readers declared that Robert “ultimately is the victim in this story” while Margot is “a borderline sociopath”.
Naturally, having written the first short story ever to go viral (sorry, Alice Munro), Kristen Roupenian, who was 35 at the time, quickly became flavour of the month. Prior to “Cat Person”, she’d had just one short story published in a print magazine; now her first short story collection was the subject of a multimillion-dollar bidding war. And, of course, the film rights to the story were promptly snapped up.
This week, six years on, that film adaptation arrives in cinemas, with Coda star Emilia Jones playing Margot and Nicholas “Cousin Greg” Braun as Robert. It’s fascinating to consider where we are now, compared to then: are we still trapped by the same patterns of thinking regarding issues of power and consent? Can we view this story from a calmer perspective? Do we even still care about this story? More significantly, it’s worth asking: has anything actually changed since 2017?
When the film’s director Susanna Fogel first read “Cat Person”, she was surprised at the inflammatory response and shocked by the level of male anger being expressed. “It felt like it was because it dwelt in a grey area, about an encounter that people are not used to seeing elevated in that way,” she explains. “Most movies are either a love story, or – especially post-MeToo – a revenge story, or an assault story. A sort of ‘men need to take accountability for their actions as a gender’ story. Those stories are important – but I didn’t feel it was exactly that, either. So it was just bothering people.”
Clearly, “Cat Person” was something of a Rorschach test. Everyone had their own reading and was ready to scoff at someone else’s. (I still remember the cold disdain I felt when a male colleague said he related more to Margot than Robert; I wondered if he’d ever casually worried that a female suitor could kill him.) But it also marked a significant cultural turning point, ushered in by #MeToo. In a New Yorker essay in 2018, writer Katy Waldman described #MeToo as a “literary problem too”, writing that “decisions about who gets noticed and praised have implications for what kind of viewpoints and behaviours are enshrined as valid”. Certainly “Cat Person” benefited from this new kind of decision-making. “This story pierced the zeitgeist because it was in The New Yorker, a magazine that is read by a lot of men and older people,” says Fogel. “Most times, stories about women of this age, having experiences on a campus college, are considered chick lit – so niche that men don’t ever have to deal with these narratives. But because it was in The New Yorker it got pushed it into the culture.”
Nor was “Cat Person” alone. Thanks to #MeToo, suddenly there was a feverish appetite for female stories, particularly frank, intimate writing about dodgy sexual dynamics: books by Lisa Taddeo, Megan Nolan, Raven Leilani and Naoise Dolan led the way. What’s more, there was a new benchmark for this writing: was it “relatable”? This particular anxiety fed into the misapprehension that Roupenian’s story was a personal essay rather than a carefully crafted piece of fiction; she later described the fame as “annihilating”. (In a bizarre, belated second act in 2021, a writer published an essay on Slate accusing Roupenian of using details from her own life as material for the story.) After centuries of women being culturally and creatively marginalised, there was suddenly an obvious – and very marketable – power in offering them stories that reflected their own experiences.
Back in 2017, Fogel felt the gear change. Suddenly to be female was to be hot property. Almost overnight, Fogel found herself on a lot of “female director” panels. “Pop culture had for decades been ignoring or dismissing women’s experiences, then suddenly it was elevating them in an extreme way that was dismissing or silencing or marginalising men, as a response,” she observes.
Even so, she initially had doubts about just who the audience for Cat Person would be. “Movies about female experiences are still considered mostly for women, still. And that’s just the reality of it.” In order to buck that truism, she drew on the uncanny, Shirley Jackson-inflected, almost camp sense of violence and foreboding that informs Roupenian’s 2019 short story collection, You Know You Want This. Rather than offer more parables of modern dating, these were weird, dark, horror stories: in “Biter”, a woman moves from job to job looking for men whose faces she can sink her teeth into – literally. “As a director, I thought the biggest risk in adapting ‘Cat Person’ is that it’s going to be a small movie with an internal voiceover borrowing from Kristen’s prose, and it’s just going to be a tiny indie film that four women see, and it doesn’t connect with the people that connected with the story, or even provoke them, because they don’t go see it,” Fogel admits. “Adding those genre elements takes it out of the chick flick zone for people.”
That Fogel can make these choices feels crucial; whether audiences are ready to understand them is another matter. Many critics have declared themselves baffled by the adaptation. The Telegraph called it a “tatty psychothriller” while Independent critic Clarisse Loughrey wrote that it “kill[s] any hope of a real conversation about modern love”. Speaking personally, I appreciated its sometimes surreal, sometimes symbolic approach; it also injects a gentle humour into Margot and Robert’s interactions that was hard to find when the story first landed (try to get through the scene of their first kiss without yelping in horror). But have we made progress since that time? From where Fogel is standing, women are certainly getting more opportunities, “but even when we’re getting them, or we’re centring female stories, there’s still sexism in the DNA of how those stories are told”. Women are given the chance to lead projects that “don’t really feel like they’re fully understood by the men who are paying for them,” she says. A lot of scripts she receives are about “strong female characters” – eye roll. “Most times, the way their strength is conveyed is a complete lack of vulnerability, because a group of executives – often male – think it’s not feminist to show a woman having vulnerabilities.”
Yet it’s worth pointing out that Fogel’s adaptation gains some of its strength from bringing alive the male perspective, too: Robert is real – not just in Margot’s head. “The story’s power is that it’s not Robert’s story, but the movie has to be in part because he exists physically in it,” Fogel says. “Hopefully it gives a bit of background to why people end up like him in different moments – what are the cultural influences that have given Robert reason to think his behaviour is completely normal?” We see him try his best, recoil in bafflement, be tender, be embarrassing, just as we see Margot variously disappointed, narcissistic, intimidated, charming and unsure. Certainly, when I look back on the frenzy around the story, what strikes me the most is how much it caught men in a moment of vulnerability. Feeling excoriated, they raged online, retreated from the conversation, or simply didn’t know how to say that they felt lost and confused. How will male audiences react this time round? All I know is, six years later, leaving the cinema, my friends and I still talked about it all just as much as we did on those first flurried, thrilling WhatsApp chats.
‘Cat Person’ is in cinemas now