Cat Person; Damn Fine Fiction, or Fat Shaming? I Don’t Know

The New Yorker has a short story called “Cat Person,” written by Kristen Roupenian. Margot, a college sophomore, meets Robert at the cinema where she works at the concession stand. They get off to a bad start, but later they are texting, and Robert is witty and funny. The texting part of the relationship is fun, and soon Margot has a crush on him. As their involvement changes to dating, things get awkward as Margot confronts the things that she was studiously looking away from. Margot’s denial, and the ultimate shredding of that denial, is nicely written and, in a few places, incandescently honest. It’s a good story.

It’s gotten some backlash, too, because Robert is described, deep into the story, as being fat, and folks are shouting “Fat shaming! Lazy writing!”

I’m not sure I understand the argument. I’m fat, or at least overweight. I didn’t feel that Robert’s description was merely a stand-in for bad behavior. Margot notices that his shoulders slump forward and he’s a little heavy when they first meet, but then it drops out of the story for quite a while. For me, I checked off about four other serious red-light check-boxes before the searing, honestly uncomfortable sex scene in which Margot begins to obsess over Robert’s weight (and what a bad time she is having). Robert hit Passive/Aggressive, Controlling, Too Old and Probably Dishonest long before I remembered that, oh yeah, looks like he has a pot belly.

Roupenian brilliantly captures Margot’s conflict. Robert wants her to be what he imagines. Margot wants to be what he imagines. She spends their first date trying to read his mind, trying to figure out what he wants, and trying to be that. It was heart-breaking to me that a woman coming of age now, in 2017, is still trapped in this behavior. The use of texting (texts are described, mostly, in the first half of the story) remind us of what we already know, if we think about it – online, or on-text, we have time to think, to compose, to edit, to make ourselves look good. The very name of the story indicates how fundamentally shaky Robert’s persona is, how big the gap is between what he texts and who he is.

The fact that Roberts knows her age and she does not, until much later, know his, is another power imbalance addressed in the story.

When Margot initiates a sexual encounter based on a moment of arousal, she soon realizes that things are increasingly awkward, and she is not having a good time. This is not a rape or a coercion. Margot is going to go through with a thing she no longer wants to do because it would  be impolite to stop. In one split second, Margot’s reaction to one of Robert’s controlling questions obliterates the illusion; neither of them can deny what is going on and how badly mismatched they are. Neither can ignore the fact the Margot is not Robert’s perfect imaginary girl—and that is what Robert seems to want, an imaginary girl.

I wondered at the actions of Margot’s room-mate a bit later in the story, but I didn’t wonder about the change in the tone of Robert’s texts. As soon as he is forced to confront the reality of the actual woman he was having sex with, his tone becomes punishing.

I did not enjoy this story. Enjoy is not the right word for what is depicted. I think it’s a strong story, and important story. I do not see how Robert carrying a few extra pounds is lazy writing, or a stand-in for his other behavior, but if you do see it that way, I am eager to read your reasons and your opinion.

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