Allie Long

“Cat Person” and the Illusion of Power

The lesson that some have taken from “Cat Person” is that it represents the sexual power that women exercise over men; unfortunately, the opposite is always true.

 

I found myself at a bar one Wednesday evening because it was my best friend’s last night in town, so naturally, we wanted to spend it inadvertently crashing an office Christmas party in a venue with studded leather sofas, rawhide covered coffee tables, and shoot-em-up arcade games – very, eh, Lone Star.

No sooner had we walked in the door, staking our claim at the corner of the bar in front of the water dispenser, when a couple of self-proclaimed “harmless” guys approached us. When one of them walked away and came back with two drinks, my friend leaned over to me and said, “Don’t worry. I watched him.” This happened two more times, culminating with me having to snoop around the bar to watch one of them order our last drinks.

So, why’d we stick around long enough to finish three drinks from two guys who literally said, “We promise, these aren’t drugged”? Well, this brings me to “Cat Person,” which, if you haven’t read already, you should if for no other reason than to prevent the confusion of thinking there is an Internet-wide discourse on a viral New Yorker short story about cats.

Perhaps the most beautiful work of performance art inspired by “Cat Person” is the Twitter account “Men React to Cat Person.” It is full of gems such as these two:

 

 

The account is no longer active but will remain on the Internet as a classic case-in-point, and it is also a great segue.

There are certain truths that can only be articulated in a narrative. (Literature is everything!) “Cat Person” reads like the final revision of a young woman’s inner monologue because it basically is, apart from being third-person. As illustrated above, a narrative this personal and ubiquitous for women is bound to result in arguments about the validity of women’s experiences, but there’s more to it than that.

“Cat Person” purposely has little exposition, so if readers do not enter the story having received at least some of the same socialization as Margot, upon whom the story focuses, they are left to ponder its appeal and argue its validity or worth.

It’s not surprising, then, that Margot’s detractors point to the way she uses her sexual “power” to manipulate and take advantage of Robert, while victimizing herself. This is all very amusing – read: disconcerting – to the women who have walked miles in Margot’s shoes because “power” is the last thing we felt we had.

I equate it to my economics professors telling me that employees have the power over business owners because if the employees choose not to work or decide to quit, the business owners are out of luck. (No, women are not employees, and no, men are not business owners should you want to willingly misread what I just wrote.) I can’t take that analogy much further, but it all boils down to misinterpreting – perhaps, purposely – power dynamics.

What really ticks off the men who think Margot is a spoiled brat is her awareness that she is an intelligent and attractive young woman. When she ponders whether she is intimidating Robert, it is not due to arrogance. Rather, she knows she is walking the very fine line between having appealing qualities and having too much of those appealing qualities. Am I desirable or am I threatening, she wonders. And if she sees herself as threatening, it is not a point of pride. It is a self-reminder that she is no longer catering to Robert’s ego, emotions, and needs. When someone says, “He’s probably just intimidated by you,” it’s not a compliment. It’s a tug on the reins.

 

So, what’s the dance? Laugh at his jokes. Entertain his interests. Be intelligent but still let him man-splain stuff to you. Let him undermine your knowledge about any topic that isn’t culturally feminine. So the list goes on ….

 

Of course, Robert didn’t ask her to cater to him, did he? Surely Margot is taking on these emotional burdens on her own terms and sowing the seeds for her resentment toward Robert herself.

But Robert doesn’t have to specifically ask for Margot’s catering for her to know she is walking in the minefield of the fragile male ego.

It is the well-choreographed Peter Panda Dance of the dating world. It looks fun and cute, but it is born of necessity. Women perform it so well that men are none the wiser, which is why they get angry when 1) someone points out that women are constantly aware of how they are being perceived and act accordingly or 2) women momentarily stop doing the dance.

“Cat Person” as a short story does the former, and “Cat Person” as an object is the latter.

So, what’s the dance? Laugh at his jokes. Entertain his interests. Listen when he opens up but know you’ll need to make him feel manly again afterward. Reassure him when something goes wrong during sex. Better yet, feign enjoyment the whole time. Don’t get emotional. Be intelligent but still let him man-splain stuff to you. Look hot but be approachable. Respond to him when he yells shit at you on the street. Let him undermine your knowledge about any topic that isn’t culturally feminine. So the list goes on ….

“But,” the men say, “just be honest with us! Don’t string us along. We never asked you to do all that.”

Well, let me direct you to the aforementioned responses to “Cat Person.”

When we – women – are honest, look what happens. Men take the inner monologue of a young woman – who has been influenced by 20 years of learning how to both directly and indirectly cater to men navigate a world that simultaneously says “vaginas have all the power” and “breaking news: another date rape” – so personally that they are blind to the irony of it all.

 


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In “Cat Person,” Margot enjoyed when Robert’s forehead kiss made her feel like a “porcelain doll” but was repulsed when his clumsy, porn-derived sex made her feel like a “rag doll.” That’s the essence of it. The same man made her feel both love and revulsion at the drop of a hat. It’s impossible to know when the tables will turn, and the volatility of the fragile male ego makes it almost more worthwhile to go along with gross sex than to renege on agreeing to have sex at all.

Robert could very well have responded graciously if Margot told him she didn’t want to have sex with him. Or he might not have. That fear is in the forefront of women’s minds, yes, but even in entirely consensual, entirely safe environments, it is sometimes just less exhausting to have bad sex than it is to play the emotional gymnastics of no longer wanting to have sex.

But for me, the most disgusting part of “Cat Person” is Robert’s blissful ignorance. Men look at Margot’s responses to Robert’s horrendous kissing and laughable sex and collectively see themselves being laughed at. They see a woman lying to a man who she deems pitiful and unworthy of her honesty.

Women see her responses as means of self-preservation.

Which brings me back to my friend and me at the bar.

Somewhere between the second and third drink, another man came up to my friend to also buy her a drink. They had met once or twice but were still virtual strangers, yet he had the gall to let us all know that she was with him through a series of gropes, sighs of frustration, and, finally, an outright statement. When she looked utterly shocked, he stormed out of the bar.

This made it clear to the other two guys that we were alone. So, there we were, three drinks into a conversation with the two strangers who bought them for us, and as much as we wanted to move to another spot in the room, we knew we’d have to leave the bar entirely to get away from them.

 

It is as exhausting to be called a whore (when I tell a guy to leave me alone) as it is to feign enthusiasm for a nice guy (when I don’t tell a guy to leave me alone).

 

It wasn’t that we thought they were creepy or that we didn’t enjoy talking to them. It was that they, by virtue of buying us drinks, had given themselves permission to monopolize our time.

They were gracious when we said we had to go, but that does not erase the fact that we had to leave the bar to spend the rest of the night on our terms.

Sure, we could have been completely honest with them, but that would require erasing years of being taught to shoulder and take blame for men’s emotions.

It would require erasing all the factors that create a situation in which two men see my friend and I at a bar and just assume we want to spend our night engaging in conversation with them, but in case we don’t, they can make us look like the bad guys for that preference or use our acquired guilt to coerce us by the kind and totally motiveless gesture of buying us drinks. Which is why we openly accepted them and weren’t at all skeptical of their contents.

Men don’t have to individually be ill-willed for their systemic power to negatively affect women. That’s … like … the definition of systemic power.

The suited embodiment of male entitlement and the two guys just trying to “make friends” are virtually indistinguishable in terms of their impact. It is as exhausting to be called a whore (when I tell a guy to leave me alone) as it is to feign enthusiasm for a nice guy (when I don’t tell a guy to leave me alone).

The hallmarks of a Robert are the same: a general lack of respect for a woman’s space and either willful disregard or blissful ignorance of her responses to his advances. To add insult to injury, it’s the expectation that a woman will jump through flaming hoops to cater to the male ego with such finesse that he doesn’t even know she’s doing it and that he gets angry when she points it out.

 

When she ponders whether she is intimidating Robert, it is not due to arrogance. And if she sees herself as threatening, it is not a point of pride. Robert doesn’t have to specifically ask for Margot’s catering for her to know she is walking in the minefield of the fragile male ego.

 

“Cat Person” invites empathy, not an argument, yet here we are going back and forth about “good guys” and “bad guys,” and, funnily enough, the only people creating this dichotomy are the people who think Margot is the bad guy. Everyone else can see the nuance, and maybe that’s because they’ve been in Margot’s situation. They know Robert isn’t the bad guy. They also know that isn’t the point.

Robert technically didn’t do anything wrong until the end of the story, and some would even say that Margot drove him to relentlessly pursuing her and then calling her a “whore.”

But the point is that men, even the objectively good ones, have all kinds of ways to not take “no” for an answer apart from sexual situations. They can even use their kindness to that end. By necessity, it is our job to find out when that end will come. And it’s a safe bet it will come when we stop coddling every tiny cry of their egos.

Men see that coddling as power as if we wield our femininity in a way that is meant to take advantage of their sexual weaknesses. In reality, it’s the best way to cause ourselves the least amount of grief. Women lie because we are afraid of being drugged, violated, insulted, or simply exhausted from men’s purposeful lack of emotional intelligence, which is the complete opposite of power.

If our power is our ability to deceive, then a man’s is his demand to be deceived, which he does not even have to voice – rather, which he does not even know he’s making.

 

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