Breaking: Women revealed to have inner lives. News just out shows female people – widely believed to be emotionally transparent – to inhabit their own complex interior worlds.
Members of the male community have expressed shock at this revelation. Said one: “It’s just horrifying. Women say one thing, then think another. It’s almost as though they’re human or something.”
The cause of this latest revelation is a short story in the New Yorker magazine. Kirsten Roupenian’s “Cat Person” has proven a viral sensation, winning the applause of female readers while causing so much consternation among male ones that a whole new Twitter account, Men React to “Cat Person”, has been created.
The story of a short-lived, awkward relationship between a 20-year-old female student and a man in his mid-thirties, it’s a brilliant exploration of the self-deception that takes place in relationships when people do not really know one another. At the same time, it offers an unforgiving look at the way in which gender makes victims of us all.
The response of many straight women to “Cat Person” has simply been “yes, this”. I don’t think there’s anything intellectually immature in that. Perhaps male readers would like it to be so, at least in the case of this one story. Literature helps us to know the world and ourselves – as long as it’s literature written from the perspective of the default human being. Write something that makes a whole bunch of women say “yes, that’s how it is”, and suddenly we’re meant to feel embarrassed. But why should be? What if a piece expresses something we’ve long desired to articulate, but never quite trusted ourselves to say?
“Cat Person” is both brilliant and disarming in its exploration of the artifice of gender. While the power imbalance is clear – Robert fears being laughed at, Margot fears being killed – the question is never “which one of them is the victim?” It’s fascinating that some men are still able to read it that way.
We are left in little doubt about Margot’s vanity, the lies she tells herself, the way in which self-interest and self-protection intersect in the choices she makes. She is in little doubt herself. Her feelings towards Robert are at their most affectionate when he changes the way she sees herself: “She let herself be folded against him, and she was flooded with the same feeling she’d had outside the 7-Eleven—that she was a delicate, precious thing he was afraid he might break.”
In A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf described how “women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”. In Roupenian’s story, the man is the looking glass and yes, some might read this as straightforward tit-for-tat disempowerment. But it’s telling that Margot is reflected not as larger, but as smaller and more fragile than she really is. She may be playing the same game, but the deck is rigged.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this story was the way in which disempowerment and complicity are allowed to coexist. For me, as for so many female readers, there is a real sense of “oh, so it wasn’t just me”. Once you get beyond the obvious abuses to which the female body and psyche are subjected, once you get to that space where your own flaws and vanities have some space to roam, the guilt at what is done to you can be overwhelming.
I’ve slept with men I didn’t want to sleep with for the stupidest of reasons: embarrassment, fear of causing hurt, once because the man in question had bought me a baked potato with beans and I somehow felt I owed him. And then afterwards I’ve felt terrible, not simply because of how I felt, but because of what I may have led them to believe I felt about them. Is such a feeling unique to straight women? No. But the underlying fear of violence – the underlying sense that if, like Margot’s friend Tamara, you just cut the crap and tell the truth, you will be threatened in a specifically gendered way (“whore”) – may just be.
Describing the workings of patriarchy, the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards points out that “if women had acquiesced willingly [to male demands], there would have been no need for a colossal superstructure of law and convention to keep them in their place”. Deep down, men must know this, and it’s worth considering just how much insecurity this fuels.
If you know – and how can men not know? – that fear of rape and murder is always part of the background noise of women’s private dealings with men, how can you possibly trust them? How can you ever think of women as anything other than devious?
“It’s OK — you can murder me if you want,” she said, and he laughed and patted her knee.
It’s funny. It’s the kind of joke people make to break the tension.
But it’s also a reminder that abuse and deceit can become a necessary part of relationships between unequals. It is impossible to disentangle Margot’s constant second-guessing of Robert’s intentions and masking of her own from her subordinate social position. This isn’t to excuse her; it is to describe what is.
That this makes many male readers uncomfortable – so uncomfortable that they will aggressively feign boredom or puzzlement rather than, I don’t know, just ignore a story which apparently didn’t impress them – is understandable. Emotional truths, even those expressed in fiction, hurt. They force us to reposition ourselves in relation to others.
Who wants to do that? Not many straight men, it seems. It disrupts the narrative of how things should be. That’s why these stories matter.