I read Kristen Roupenian’s excellent short story ‘Cat Person’, and had a really strong reaction to it - so here are some thoughts.
First, if you haven’t already, go read the story. Done? Good.
I’m not going to say much about Margot here: I’ve never been in her shoes and many women have already written about that aspect of the story (for starters, the author), so go read what they’ve said. I’m mostly going to be giving a male perspective on this, not because I think it’s the most important one here, but because it’s the one I’m qualified to give.
One thing I do want to draw attention to is Margot’s worries about violence. Here’s the author:
Louis C.K., who has obviously been in the news a lot lately, echoed Margaret Atwood’s line “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them” in a standup routine, by talking about how the equivalent of a woman going on a date with a man would be a man going on a date with a half-bear, half-lion. In the bar, Margot thinks of Robert as “a large, skittish animal, like a horse or a bear,” that she is taming, coaxing to eat from her hand. But what would happen if she stopped trying to coax and pet and charm him—if she said, bluntly, that she doesn’t want him, that she’s not attracted to him, that she’s changed her mind?
I actually attribute that same Louis C.K. routine (ironically) with opening my eyes to the issue. I don’t really have much to say about this apart from that it seems true and I hate it. Perhaps because I’m a wimp and I hate feeling afraid, I loathe the idea that I might inadvertently be threatening just because of my gender.
Okay, let’s talk about Robert.
Reading the story felt somewhat nightmarish to me, because as a young, socially awkward man, I was afraid that I might become Robert (at least in some ways). I’ve met Roberts, and a disturbing number of them looked like me when they were younger. And I recognize some of his pathologies in myself. So - uncomfortable reading, but I have a personal interest in what makes Roberts tick and how people become them.
I’m going to try and tease apart some of the bits of Robert’s personality. I don’t know whether the author intended all of them to be there, but there are a lot of small details that fit uncannily well, I guess from careful observation of real-life Roberts. I’m also giving a relatively sympathetic reading of him - while he definitely has a lot of straight-up asshole, I’m more interested in the more ambiguous parts of his personality.
First: persistent romantic incompetence and failure. Robert is bad at many of the aspects of a relationship. He’s a bad kisser, he’s bad in bed, he’s not very confident, he’s bad at communicating. There’s certainly a nasty feedback between these two problems: if you’re bad at relationships then you’re less likely to have relationships, so you don’t get practice, so you stay bad. And, of course, then persistent romantic failure itself becomes a suspicious trait that may put people off. So: everybody starts out being bad in bed, it takes practice. And it’s pretty clear that Robert hasn’t had that (it’s even implied that he might be a virgin).
Second: discomfort with discussing emotions. Robert basically doesn’t talk about himself, and the only time he’s able to talk to Margot about his feelings is when they’re watching a movie together and she’s half asleep. Which also means he is not looking directly at her (I noticed this particularly because it’s also something that I do).
Talking about your emotions is hard for some people, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to do it. Again: practice.
Third: performativity. I don’t think Robert actually wants to be doing what he’s doing. Does he want Margot? He doesn’t know what to do with her when he does have her. He is clumsy, and often seems reluctant to initiate things, or like he’s reading from a script. He’s surprised when he finds out how young she is (really?). It’s like he’s just executing the “boy meets girl” script and hoping that it will somehow work out. Perhaps he knows he doesn’t really want a relationship with Margot, but finding himself unexpectedly “succeeding” he is bound to carry on the play, because that success is so rare.
And then, of course, he turns vicious in the end, because he realises he has in fact failed again.
Fourth: tendency to retreat to cleverness. Robert is at his best when he’s being witty in texts. He is clever, and he knows it’s a good feature, and he’s comfortable using it. Intelligence is attractive, but it can’t substitute for everything else.
Fifth: passivity in communication. It’s an odd detail: Robert rarely initiates communication when they’re texting. This could be a performativity issue - there’s no prompt in the script for initiating communication, so he forgets to do it.
Another possibility is that Robert has (by analogy to responsive sexual desire) responsive social desire. I certainly observe this in myself: I enjoy social activities when they happen, but I am rarely struck by an active desire for them, and I have to consciously plan to make things happen. That means I’m much less likely to initiate communication with people. I don’t think this is just laziness, or shifting of emotional labour, I think it’s just a “people are different” thing.
However, many people don’t realise that having primarily responsive sexual desire is perfectly normal (or that it’s even a thing), and therefore perceive it as “not wanting sex”. In the same way, I hypothesise that people with more responsive social desire may be perceived as “not wanting social interaction”.
So how do people end up this way? I think we can see: start as socially awkward young person (introversion is a bonus); be romantically unsuccessful; and, crucially, fail to learn from your failures and improve at the skills that you need to actually navigate a relationship with another human.
I have a lot of sympathy for this kind of person, but at some point you have to take responsibility for your own failure to grow up. Maybe we could be better at teaching young men in particular how to communicate, but honestly, short of mandatory therapy throughout your teenage years and early adulthood, I’m not sure how you’d actually do that.