‘It is not every day’, wrote Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian this week, ‘that a short story goes viral’. She was talking about Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, published last week in the New Yorker, and subsequently shared, discussed and dissected by thousands of readers.
What has made Cat Person a sensation is not its literary qualities. It is basically, as Cosslett says,
a tale, straightforwardly told through the eyes of a young woman, of an unpleasant sexual encounter that she has with a somewhat ambiguous stranger who turns out to be actively unpleasant.
But the response it got from women readers was extraordinary. Their comments emphasised its ‘relatability’, the way it resonated with their experiences and their feelings: some said it was as if Roupenian had read their minds. Among men, on the other hand, reactions ranged from simple bemusement (‘I don’t get it’, tweeted one, ‘it all seems very mundane’) to outright hostility. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given how unflatteringly the central male character is depicted:
During sex, he moved her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head. When she was on top, he slapped her thigh and said, “Yeah, yeah, you like that,” with an intonation that made it impossible to tell whether he meant it as a question, an observation, or an order, and when he turned her over he growled in her ear, “I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits,” and she had to smother her face in the pillow to keep from laughing again. At the end, when he was on top of her in missionary, he kept losing his erection, and every time he did he would say, aggressively, “You make my dick so hard,” as though lying about it could make it true. At last, after a frantic rabbity burst, he shuddered, came, and collapsed on her like a tree falling, and, crushed beneath him, she thought, brightly, This is the worst life decision I have ever made!
Many commentators have put the extreme responses–both positive and negative–down to the novelty or shock value of seeing heterosex depicted from the woman’s point of view. ‘If so many [women] feel this way’, asks Cosslett, ‘then why has it gone unsaid until now?’
Actually, it hasn’t gone unsaid until now. Cat Person is utterly contemporary in its language and its setting (it belongs to a world of dating apps, flirting by text and learning your moves from internet porn), but its depiction of sex–more specifically, of bad sex–reminds me strongly of some fictions that struck a similar chord with women in the 1970s.
In a 2003 article called ‘Beyond trashiness: the sexual language of 1970s feminist fiction‘, Meryl Altman discusses three novels written by American second wave feminists–Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1973) and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973)–which became popular successes, selling enough copies outside the political subculture that produced them to ‘[carry] feminist revolutionary thought into millions of homes’. And the secret of their popularity, Altman suggests, was the way they approached the subject of sex.
They included lots of explicit heterosexual lovemaking, described from the women’s point of view, and they were forthright and clear that sexual satisfaction was important to women as well as men, that this was a reasonable and normal expectation – albeit an expectation often frustrated.
Among the recurring themes Altman identifies in these popular/feminist fictions are ‘the routine harassment and abuse of girls by boys and women by men’, ‘the expectation that [women] would both arouse and police desire’ and ‘an emphasis on sexual disappointment and male inadequacies, described in graphic detail’. Cat Person ticks the same boxes, especially the last. And just as commentators on it have been reminded of Margaret Atwood’s aphorism ‘men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them’, so the 1970s novels very often depict men’s behaviour as simultaneously threatening and ridiculous.
Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, for instance, opens with the narrator Sasha telling her husband Frank that she has slept with another man. He responds by demanding sex (and reminding her that since they are married, she has no right to refuse):
I began to struggle in earnest. His breath on my neck made me very nervous. “Please, Frank, no fair.”“Please, Frank, no fair,” he mimicked, adding, “bitch!”…he pushed me onto one of the beds and deftly pinned my wrists over my head. With a wrench of his head he shook his glasses off; they dropped to the floor. I had a picture of myself as a comic-book victim, strangling on my own bra, which was flopping around my throat, and I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to laugh. But Frank looked so helpless without his glasses, dewy-eyed and unfocused, that bitch or no, I struggled not to laugh at him. …Instead I said, “I’ll scream!”“Scream, then”, he mumbled. And, transferring both my wrists to one of his hands for an instant, he prepared with a minimum of undressing to rape me.
But then things take an unexpected turn:
There was no way out…to the accompaniment of my finally unsuppressible laughter, off we went on our last trip together.
I daresay that not a woman reader will be really shocked and that the average man’s hair, regardless of length, will automatically stand on end from page to page.
Men may curse, they may howl . . . yet men owe it to themselves to see themselves plain, as their wives and girlfriends perceive them.
Shall I rejoice that the novel, steadily in print since 1972, remains sufficiently alive to the times as to warrant a new, celebratory edition? Or should I bemoan the conditions that keep its social satire current?