“Cat Person”, a short story from the New Yorker, recently achieved viral status. Within it, Kristen Roupenian tells the tale of a brief yet ill-fated ‘relationship’ between Margot, a twenty-year-old college student and the story’s protagonist, and Robert, a man in his mid-thirties whose indistinct character is an uneven assemblage of Margot’s unstable projections and his own ambiguous actions and statements. Starting with a couple of brief flirtatious interactions between the two of them while Margot is working in a movie theatre’s concession stand, the relationship develops through a few months of light-hearted exchanges by text.
When they finally meet for something resembling a traditional date, it starts in an inauspicious fashion, with Robert having to reassure an uncomfortable Margot that he isn’t going to murder her, before they proceed to watch a depressing Holocaust drama together. Having somewhat ambivalently determined to get a drink together, the underaged Margot is turned away from a bar and starts crying. Robert gives her an unpleasant yet seemingly well-intentioned kiss and, following a few drinks at a different establishment, during which time her impressions of him shift, at her instigation they wind up back in his house.
Despite her ego initially being gratified at the sense of being the object of intense desire, Robert’s doughy body, his clumsy kisses and caresses, various miscommunications and misunderstandings between the pair, and the unsettling intrusion of his porn-infected fantasies into their ungainly love-making, combine to kill any attraction Margot might have harboured for him. Matters aren’t helped by Robert’s subsequent disclosure of his romantic feelings for her.
When Margot gets back to her dorm, she ceases all contact with Robert, although Robert continues to text her until Margot’s friend Tamara snatches Margot’s phone and sends a text to tell him she isn’t interested. When she sees Robert again a month later, she is at a bar with her friends, to whom she had already recounted a version of her experience with him. Having seen Margot at the bar, Robert tries to re-initiate contact by text, telling her that he missed her, but by this point she is not only revolted, but also scared of him. As she continues to ‘ghost’ him, Robert’s texts become increasingly accusatory, until he ends up calling her a ‘whore’.
That Roupenian’s story has received so much laudatory attention is evidence that it struck a nerve. A great many women have seen their own experience within the story; for a few days, one could barely move on the Internet without encountering people’s reflections or think-pieces on it.
For Roupenian, like many of her readers, the concluding insult from Robert completely lays to rest the question of his true character that has underlain the entire story, nullifying any legitimacy to his perspective upon the situation (the attempt of an anonymous writer on the BBC to imagine Robert’s perspective wasn’t kindly received). Robert’s designation of Margot as a ‘whore’ is ‘unequivocal evidence about the kind of person he is.’ The story was thus established as a depiction and protest of women’s deeply unpleasant experience of men in the prevailing dating culture, its depiction of ‘bad sex’ powerfully resonant in our #MeToo moment. Roupenian compares women’s experience of dating in its earliest stages to a ‘kind of Rorschach test.’
The impression that Robert’s insult settles the question of his character, thereby invalidating his perspective, is rather convenient, as it also has the effect of dulling the potentially traumatic questions that Robert’s perspective might raise about Margot’s own character. Intense intersubjective encounters, which expose our very selves to the perspective and desire of another, afford a new vantage point on ourselves that can be at once unsettling and exciting.
What am I for you? What do you want from me? What is it in me that makes you desire me? In such questions, the self is confronted with what some have termed the abyss of the other’s desire, a realm from which the deepest existential challenges can emerge. Faced with a vertiginous sense of uncertainty about who we are in the face of the other’s unknowable desire and their perspective upon us, our temptation is to dull ourselves to such an unsettling question, or to cover over the abyss with a fantasy. The belief that Robert is merely a misogynist provides just such a fantasy, a fantasy that can protect Margot from any disconcerting reflection upon her own actions as they might appear to Robert, any reckoning with her impact upon Robert’s own subjectivity, or consideration of how she might register within his fantasy frame. Robert’s misogynistic designation of Margot as a ‘whore’ probably achieves the same purpose for him.
Abandoning of the question of Robert’s character also absolves the reader of the challenge of considering the ways that the perplexing and often distressing existential questions raised by the abyss of the other’s desire are experienced by both Margot and Robert and shape the experiences and the actions of both. Both Margot and Robert experience the other as a sort of shifting Rorschach test. Beyond this, treating Robert’s accusation as definitive proof of his character may reduce our awareness of the measure to which both Robert and Margot’s navigation of the existential questions of the other’s desire—questions as old as humanity itself—are fraught and compounded by modern sexual and technological culture.
What Roupenian most perceptively highlights in “Cat Person” is the yawning gulf between the way that the other is rendered in our fantasies and their actual reality. She observes:
Especially in the early stages of dating, there’s so much interpretation and inference happening that each interaction serves as a kind of Rorschach test for us. We decide that it means something that a person likes cats instead of dogs, or has a certain kind of artsy tattoo, or can land a good joke in a text, but, really, these are reassuring self-deceptions. Our initial impression of a person is pretty much entirely a mirage of guesswork and projection. When I started writing the story, I had the idea of a person who had adopted all these familiar signifiers as a kind of camouflage, but was something else—or nothing at all—underneath.
At occasional junctures in the story, there are unsettling moments when Margot is jolted to the awareness of how little she truly knows about Robert, before she returns to a fantasy that inures her to this reality. When the fantasy that she had constructed around Robert is progressively broken by his unattractive physicality, his clumsy and demeaning sexual behaviour towards her, and the insistence of his unrequited affections, she is left with an unnerving and revolting sense of his creepiness.
It is hard to understand creepiness without some sense of the intersubjective realm of desire and the abyss of the other’s desire. The creepiness of Robert arises from the insistent demands that his unreciprocated desire made upon Margot. Margot is shocked to awareness of the alien-ness of Robert’s desire, a desire which she is implicated in, but from which her fantasies no longer protect her. After arriving at a sense of this, Robert’s very desire towards her comes to feel invasive and disgusting, as some sort of existential violation.
The accusation of ‘creepiness’ is one way of handling the desire of the other when it makes excessive or unwelcome demands upon us, when we are exposed to the abyss of the other’s desire in potentially traumatic ways. It can place responsibility for the unwanted desire tidily onto the shoulders of the other party, saving us the task of wrestling with the intersubjective character of creepiness. Creepiness is something more typically associated with males, on account of the generally greater aggressiveness of their desire. Creepiness is excessive desire that doesn’t stay within its appointed social boundaries. However, these boundaries are unstable and framed by the intersubjective interplay of fantasy and otherness. Had Margot reciprocated Robert’s desire, it wouldn’t have been creepy. However, the unrequited character of his affections rendered his desire invasive and violating. It feels unpleasant to be the object of the other’s undesired desire and can provoke our sense of disgust and our purity instincts. We can feel polluted by the other’s unwanted desire.
For Margot, Robert’s true otherness is veiled by the essentially narcissistic fantasies that she projects onto him. His desire towards her functions chiefly as a pool within which she regard herself: ‘in his eyes, she could see how pretty she looked, smiling through her tears in the chalky glow of the streetlight, with a few flakes of snow coming down.’ Later, when she undressed for him:
The way he looked at her then was like an exaggerated version of the expression she’d seen on the faces of all the guys she’d been naked with, not that there were that many—six in total, Robert made seven. He looked stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a milk-drunk baby, and she thought that maybe this was what she loved most about sex—a guy revealed like that. Robert showed her more open need than any of the others, even though he was older, and must have seen more breasts, more bodies, than they had—but maybe that was part of it for him, the fact that he was older, and she was young.
As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.
The existence of a real, yet alien, desire behind the desire she had projected onto Robert comes as an alarming surprise to Margot. In gratifying her desire to be desired, she didn’t really reckon with the otherness of Robert and the existence of an actual other’s desire towards her that would disrupt any narcissistic self-regard on her part.
Reading the story, one can see ways that Robert is likely struggling with the abyss of Margot’s desire. In trying to make sense of her actions and statements, he has been playing out his own romantic fantasy in his head:
Then, out of nowhere, he started talking about his feelings for her. He talked about how hard it had been for him when she went away for break, not knowing if she had an old high-school boyfriend she might reconnect with back home. During those two weeks, it turned out, an entire secret drama had played out in his head, one in which she’d left campus committed to him, to Robert, but at home had been drawn back to the high-school guy, who, in Robert’s mind, was some kind of brutish, handsome jock, not worthy of her but nonetheless seductive by virtue of his position at the top of the hierarchy back home in Saline. “I was so worried you might, like, make a bad decision and things would be different between us when you got back,” he said. “But I should have trusted you.”
He is seemingly afraid of how Margot might regard him in light of the fact that he is thirty-four, fearful of the way in which his very self might be defined to him by her judgment. He does not dare to ask it, yet his unspoken question lingers uneasily in the air: ‘was it good for you?’ … Am I good?
It would not surprise me were the vulnerability and neediness of Robert the basis of his sexual behaviour towards Margot and, finally, of his verbal attack upon her. It is easy to assume that Robert’s porn-shaped sexual behaviour is engaged in purely for his own gratification, yet I believe that this is probably not the case. While Margot enjoys a sort of narcissistic pleasure and a rush of power in her sense of the desire of Robert, Robert seems to have a profound sense of vulnerability before the desire of Margot, sensing that his most intimate self is being weighed in her scales. For Robert, the traumatic encounter with the abyss of the other’s desire seems to be far more keenly felt.
For Robert, enacting pornographic fantasies may function as a sort of prophylactic measure, a means to assume control and lessen his vulnerability as he is most intimately exposed to the abyss of the other’s desire. In practiced sexual technique and a pornographic charade, Robert hopes to avoid an unguarded encounter with the other, an encounter that might unman him entirely, exposing him to an unfavourable judgment that might prove existentially devastating. The objectification of porn both dulls his awareness of the troubling otherness of Margot and limits his self-exposure; by employing second-hand sexual techniques and behaviours upon her, he might think that he can avoid truly revealing himself.
The venom of his concluding remarks should probably also be read against this background. Robert exposed himself to Margot, both sexually and emotionally. While she had seemed to reciprocate his desire, after what he assumed to be the intimacy of their sexual encounter, she cut him off in a manner that seemed cruel. He had exposed himself to the judgment of this woman: she had weighed him and apparently determined his worthlessness. He may even have realized that she had shared her unfavourable judgment of his sexual performance with her friends, heightening his humiliation. Robert may be struggling to salvage his self-worth in the face of the stinging rejection of a woman he felt he had genuinely desired, yet who had seemingly used him without regard for his feelings, initially pushing for sex then cutting off all contact with him after he had laid himself bare before her.
While it functions differently from the judgment of creepiness, calling Margot a ‘whore’ is Robert’s means of navigating the intersubjective realm of desire. For both parties, this insult enables the dismissal of the other as ‘bad’, relieving them of the discomfort of tarrying with the ways in which they are implicated in the unsettling desire of the other. More troubling, in Robert’s insulting Margot, an unwelcome partial truth about both individuals is revealed in the parting. On the one hand, Robert’s underlying misogyny is revealed: a misogyny that can be traced through different points of the story. Margot’s genuine otherness was always resisted by him. She was supposed to be a passive and affirming screen for his self-indulgent fantasies as a dangerously insecure man.
On the other hand, the ‘whore’ insult comes a little too close for comfort as a characterization of the objective aspect of Margot’s sexual behaviour. Whatever fantasy frame she might cast her actions within, when that frame is removed, she is a woman who, before her ambivalence kicked in, pressed a man who was almost a complete stranger to her into sex to gratify her ego, gossiped about his sexual behaviour to her friends, then responded to his vulnerable self-disclosure with a devastating silence.
The reader is expected to sympathize with Margot’s character, which is often easy to do because we are privy to her fantasy frame. Yet, if there is one thing that should be learned from such a narrative, it is the instability and unreliability of such frames. We all tell self-indulgent lies to ourselves. We all dull ourselves to reality by inhabiting our fantasies instead; we produce self-exculpations by positing some great depth to our psychology and we subject all reality to the self-flattering filter of our fantasies. We also invalidate the subjective perceptions of others, so that our own might not be threatened or relativized.
“Cat Person” is overwhelmingly read as a story of women’s unpleasant experiences in dating and of the unsavoury men that they encounter. While a few dissidents try to read the story in ways that defend Robert or accuse Margot, most readings seem to be focused upon the accusations and recriminations that exist between the sexes in dating scenarios. However, it seems to me that both Robert and Margot are experiencing different aspects of the same problem—the opacity and potential treachery of the other’s desire—and are doing so in contexts that exacerbate and precipitate such problems, rendering healthy engagement with the desire of the other increasingly difficult.
Contraception and abortion have relieved sex of much of the risk of unintended pregnancy, rendering it ‘cheap’, as Mark Regnerus argues: women no longer feel the need to hold man to high standards to obtain it. A woman like Margot is happy to sleep with men like Robert—virtual strangers—confident that they won’t have to rely upon those men to raise their children. Men like Robert, in turn, have no reason to commit or shape up as they would in a society where marriageability was the general requirement for regular sexual relations. They can obtain cheap sexual satisfaction through hook-ups, uncommitted relationships, and porn. As Regnerus points out, it isn’t that men can’t or won’t commit: they just don’t need to. The Roberts of the world are in a symbiotic relationship with the Margots of the world. As long as women like Margot ‘put out’, men like Robert won’t need to shape up. The flipside of the greater sexual freedom and career opportunities that contraception afford women are less satisfying personal relations and less committed men.
The fact that sex is ‘cheap’, however, does not make it safe. Even when pregnancy is ruled out, sex still intimately exposes us and renders us vulnerable to the desire of the other, in interactions that can be life-giving, corrosive, or destructive of the self, depending on how we engage in them. The cheapness of the desirable physical pleasures of sex and the frisson of intimate connection can leave us unmindful of the dangers that attend it. Like Margot, we may be unalert to the alien-ness of the desire of the other and the ways that we may be violated by it. Like Robert, we may be wounded by the unfavourable judgment of the other upon our prematurely exposed selves. We may, like Robert, resort to the unreliable emotional prophylactics offered by our sexual culture, to dating and sexual technique and to the fantasies of porn, all of which seem to present us with ways to limit our vulnerability to the other.
Beyond the cheapness of sex, the false intimacy of modern communications technologies plays an important and illuminating role in this story. The privacy and intimacy of our devices can easily make us forgetful of the deep otherness of the other persons with whom we interact with them. Our mobile devices can invite the other into the very sanctum of our solitude, producing an illusory sense of closeness. Within this realm, however, the other’s presence is an attenuated one. Their physical presence is absent and we can easily so clothe them in the attractive garments of our fantasies that the actual person is hidden. We can become unmindful of the fact that they also have a perspective on us.
A heightened self-consciousness can be encouraged by social networks as realms of self-presentation and self-projection, realms in which the other can arrive at the most comprehensive of assessments upon our characters from the subtlest sfumato of our oft-unwitting virtual self-portraits. This can result in the partial re-situation of our grappling with the other’s perspective upon us from an inter-subjective to an intra-subjective realm, as in our projections we both objectify and identify ourselves to ourselves, assuming the part of the other ourselves.
At times this can even invite a sort of solipsistic reflexivity, as in our solitary interaction with our screens we engage with largely imagined others, who have no real existence independent of their orbit of our personal subjectivity. Truly registering the fact that people have extensive and complex lives beyond the political opinions that they voice on Twitter, that their Facebook profile does not give much of a window into the reality of their lived existence, or that the virtual stranger we might be flirting with by text has a full subjectivity of their own is not something that tends to come naturally online. The privacy in which we commune with our devices easily blinds us.
There is an inherent ‘creepiness’ to the world created by the Internet and our mobile devices, devices which increasingly invite the alien other into intimate realms of our lives and identities, exposing us to the desires of others that recognize no clear boundaries. That people should often feel violated or threatened by the desires and judgments of others in such a world is not surprising. We should be more mindful of the ways in which our technologies expose us.
The place of porn in this picture is important to consider too. Porn is a fantasy that can replace exposure to the other. It offers sexual gratification without the risk of existential vulnerability before the desire and perspective of the other. As I have already suggested, the techniques and behaviours of porn can further serve as existential prophylactics for men and women who do not wish to render themselves vulnerable to the judgment of others in their sexual encounters. In such a way, porn can be an essentially shameful practice, a practice driven by shame. Mastery of sexual technique and assumed behaviours can both be ways to avoid genuine encounter with the other and the terror of actual intimacy. In a society whose structures and customs are inherently creepy, where the self is routinely exposed to the invasive desires and judgments of relative strangers, we should expect a proliferation of self-protective fantasies and a gradual hardening to actual encounter.
As Christians, we are people who should seek to maintain a clear sense of the desire and judgment of the other, both open ourselves up to it when appropriate and maintaining fitting boundaries when it is not. At the very heart of Christian faith is the awareness of God as Other: only as we knowingly stand in the illumination of his sight can we come to a knowledge of ourselves—‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’
This exposure to the desire and judgment of the other is also something that should be manifest in our sexual relations. The Christian emphasis upon marriage is, among many other things, a protection of the conditions most conducive for the intimacy of true self-exposure, enabling us both to be naked to another person without shame and to confront the mystery of their otherness, without clutching to ourselves the fig leaves of technique or veiling them in our projected fantasies.