‘Cat Person’ and ‘Zola’: Two Viral Shorts, Two Different Reactions

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Spoilers for ‘Cat Person’ ahead!

This week, a short story in The New Yorker took the Internet by storm.

Cat Person, written by Kristen Roupenian, is about two individuals meeting, texting, and eventually going on a lackluster date. Told from the point-of-view of Margot, a 20-year-old college student, the piece encapsulates what it means to date as a young woman. Cat Person explores the fantasies, insecurities, and looming threat of danger that women, in general, face on the dating scene. Margot’s 34-year-old date, Robert, is also guilty of projecting his fantasies onto the dating experience, and by the end, he turns on Margot in a way that feels all too real for many women who took to Twitter to express their solidarity with Margot.

Roupenian’s story is well-written, smartly laid out, and filled with great character moments. However, the message is what really resonates with readers. While Margot spends much of the piece trying to assess her own feelings, she also takes responsibility for Robert’s feelings as well— something many women do in the course of a relationship. It’s the fear of displeasing him that continually puts her into positions where she’s less and less comfortable, ultimately leading to her regret most aspects of their encounter, especially when it turns sexual.

Margot finds herself routinely wondering if Robert, who is still relatively a stranger, will do her physical harm. Not that he has done anything to suggest violence, though his thoughts and feelings remain a mystery throughout the piece. But the constant fear that things could escalate is what most women say they’ve experienced in their lives. When Robert turns on Margot at the end, calling her a “whore” because she refuses to engage with him after a barrage of texts, it feels like what is an almost inevitable consequence that is relegated to women whether in a dating situation or simply when moving through the world.

It’s no surprise that the story went viral immediately with both female and male readers praising the nuances that Roupenian observes about modern dating. There was also backlash against the piece that was as swift as the praise for it. Many people on Twitter refused to see the story as fiction, instead treating it as creative nonfiction or an essay about Roupenian’s personal experience. This speaks to a longstanding problem in publishing where women’s works of fiction are often taken as real life experience, while fictional work by men stands on its own apart from the author. Some of the backlash is blatantly sexist, including comments from a new Twitter account called “Men React to Cat Person,” that allows male readers to share their overwhelmingly negative reactions to the piece and to women as a whole. Those negative reactions largely miss the point of the story and are inclined to mislabel Margot’s experience as a cry for sympathy while totally ignoring the tone-deaf reactions of Robert. Several tweets called her “hyper judgmental,” a “borderline sociopath,” or much worse, when her actions did nothing to warrant such vitriol at a time when questionable male behavior is in the national spotlight.

In some ways, the controversy around Cat Person can be juxtaposed against the Zola story that broke on Twitter in 2015 and was also a viral sensation. This insanely engaging tale, told as a series of tweets, is about a stripper who goes on a road trip to Florida, gets caught up in a situation that involves drugs, prostitution, sex trafficking and murder. Originally, the author, Aziah Wells, presented the entire story as nonfiction. Later, it became clear that large parts of it were fabricated. Still, Wells was interviewed by Rolling Stone, and James Franco is currently turning the saga into a film. But even when Wells admitted to exaggerating large chunks of the narrative, there was almost no Internet backlash. No Twitter accounts were made vilifying her. Most people wanted to assume that her outlandish story was true. The most significant backlash Zola received was related to Instagram photos of her breastfeeding her daughter in public, something that is very natural and should not be considered controversial.

So how does a mostly fictional story about sex trafficking compare to an entirely fictional story about a woman dating and why are they treated differently? To truly understand why, we need to look at how gender is portrayed in each story.

First, let’s examine the similarities in both. Though perceived differently by readers, Zola and Cat Person have a lot in common. Each one is told from a female perspective and women are the protagonists. Both works deal with the nuances of relationship abuse in some form and give insight into how men and women relate to each other. Both deal with the same paralyzing inability to fight back against a structure where others have so much more power than they do.

In the case of Zola, that power involves sex work and sex trafficking. In the case of Cat Person, it’s a more subtle breakdown of how young women approach modern dating. Whether that power is real or perceived, it’s still there, reminding both women to always be vigilant as a pleasant situation can turn bad at any time. For the most part, both stories are fiction, though some content is possibly grounded in real experience. Still, despite these similarities, the Zola story received far less hate than Cat Person.

Zola (Wells’ stripper name) is brash and smart, a characteristic some men claim is unappealing, but her profession as a stripper is all about pleasing men, which ultimately makes her an attractive character. There’s an inherent reason for the male audience to like her as she understands their pleasure and makes it her prerogative because it increases her income. Even though men are represented as violent and dangerous in Zola’s story, they play roles we’re familiar with through media: the concerned boyfriend; the angry pimp; and the strong, virile man protecting his woman (even while he’s putting her in increasingly dangerous positions). At the end of the day, men are still able to see themselves as the hero in Zola’s story and distance themselves from the outlandish events and less than savory character flaws attributed to the men in Zola’s life.

In Cat Person, men aren’t portrayed as strong, tough or protectors of women and ultimately of femininity. Instead, they’re insecure, unattractive, and unable to attune to a woman’s needs. Attempting to understand why those needs aren’t being met by the man in the story requires putting a mirror up to oneself in a way many bristle at. As a character, Robert is a weakling. He’s wishy-washy in his affections and doesn’t have as much power as he seems to think over Margot’s feelings about him. This lack of power and control is why he turns on her in the end. Margot hasn’t behaved the way he wants, and, therefore, he it is his right to cut her down. So many women have experienced this in romantic relations, in the workplace, and even on social media and, as a result, have learned to approach men and these situations cautiously. The reality is that if we don’t, if men lash out, we cannot protect our persons. If we’re lucky, that reaction happens over text, but in some cases, the face-to-face rejection of a man’s unwanted advances can be fatal.

The story of Zola is so over-the-top that most of us are able to immediately see the events for what they are. But Cat Person is more universal, more characteristic of a larger segment of women and, therefore, forces us to examine our own behaviors more closely. Margot, and women everywhere, know what it is to have an encounter where our needs aren’t being met— where we are too afraid to voice our desires out of fear of how we will be perceived; where we feel like we need to go along because we don’t want to disappoint anyone or feel that “it’s too late to back out now.” Margot is young and naïve, she doesn’t always behave well in the story and the way she breaks off from Robert is awkward and blunt, but it still doesn’t give him the right to hurl a engendered insult at her simply because her behavior is not to his liking.

“I would never do that,” is the response a lot of men have to Cat Person. While this is an awesome revelation, it misses the point: just because one man wouldn’t respond that way doesn’t mean this isn’t part of a systematic problem and a real experience for so many women.

By the end of the story, Margot has learned an implicit lesson: if I don’t act in the way a man desires, I might be subjected to insults, shame, or worse. The need to always stay polite, always be on the lookout for possible predators isn’t inborn, it’s something women learn after repeated encounters where we’ve been made to feel unsafe. This is why dating can be so difficult and so scary; this is why it’s also important to note these experiences are 100% more difficult and scary for women of color and transgendered women. This is why Cat Person is such an important read for women and men.

 

Did you Cat Person as much as we did? These books are similarly great reads:

The Love Gap, Jenna Birch

The Last Black Unicorn, Tiffany Haddish

 

Peach, Emma Glass

Girl Logic, Iliza Shlesinger

 

Rachel Carter grew up surrounded by trees and snow and mountains. She graduated from the University of Vermont and Columbia University, where she received her MFA in nonfiction writing. She is the author of the So Close to You series with Harperteen. These days you can find her working on her next novel in the woods of Vermont.

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