At the end of 2017, Kristen Roupenian’s short story, Cat Person, went viral. Published at the height of #MeToo, it described a “toxic date” (Nicolaou 2019) and a consensual but highly disturbing sexual encounter between Margot, a college student, and Robert, a man in his mid-thirties. Within a week, the internet was filled with a fierce online debate about what exactly had gone wrong. This was clearly “bad sex” (Donoughue 2017), but what was so bad about it? One influential diagnosis formed among anonymous women on Twitter and feminist-influenced columnists: Cat Person was a relatable denunciation of women’s powerlessness, a story about how women can be subtly coerced into sex that they do not want to have. But these popular interpretations failed to engage with the rich phenomenological description that gave the story its “skin-crawling” effect (Nicolaou 2019). Indeed, Cat Person paints a darker and much more complicated picture. The problem here is not simply undesired sex, but sex that is desired in a tragically alienated way.
To see this, I propose that we read the story through the lens of Simone de Beauvoir’s notion of ‘narcissism’. For Beauvoir, narcissism refers to “a well-defined process of alienation”. The narcissist is someone who makes herself both the subject of her life but also the absolute project of her life — she is pathologically self-involved. By thinking of herself as the only object of value, the only thing worth admiring and glorifying, the narcissist foregoes the angst and perils of having real life projects, of making choices, and of being judged by others. Beauvoir claims that “circumstances invite” women more than men to adopt this attitude (Beauvoir 2011: 667). A woman is often a frustrated actor in the world. In her socially prescribed roles as wife or mother, she finds herself only doing work for which she is not recognized as a singular person, with opinions and accomplishments of her own. At the same time, women’s socialization persistently encourages them to see themselves as primarily objects. When looking in the mirror, many women think of themselves as really the thing watched. Narcissism can then be an attempt to overcome this frustration and this separation from oneself, by trying to become the object of one’s own loving gaze. But this has tragic results. Busy worshipping herself, the narcissist turns inwards and loses her connection with the world (Beauvoir 2011: 680-681). Through a series of examples, Beauvoir shows how narcissism undermines the artistic and intellectual achievement of women, explains their volatile need for the good opinion of others, and leads them to being economically dependent on men. Narcissism is then deeply appealing, but ultimately self-destructive.
Margot embodies a contemporary version of Beauvoirian narcissism. She likes Robert, but what she really loves is seeing herself as desirable in his eyes. She is both subject and object of desire at these moments, both “priestess and idol” (Beauvoir 2011: 670), reveling in a relationship with herself first and foremost. Only this narcissistic self-love can make sense of her reaction to otherwise bizarre interactions. Robert kisses her on the forehead, calls her “honey”, “sweetheart” in ways that seem more parental than romantic. But Margot enjoys this because she is made to feel as if she were “a delicate, precious thing he was afraid he might break”. She notices “the way he was gazing at her; in his eyes, she could see how pretty she looked”. He is the mirror in which she appears as “an irresistible temptation”, a magical creature that can appease and control this burly man. Margot tellingly wonders at some point: maybe what she likes most about sex is the way young men look at her, stunned, drunk-looking, needy. Roupenian writes
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. (Roupenian 2017)
This is no mere fantasy. This is the narcissistic mode of engagement with the world that Beauvoir described: “when she abandons herself on the arms of a lover, the [narcissist] accomplishes her mission: she is Venus dispensing the treasure of her beauty to the world” (Beauvoir 2011: 675).
Margot is not a perfect narcissist. She catches herself being self-centered and worries that her behavior may be “bizarre” and “capricious”. Most importantly, she finds the price of her narcissistic enjoyment hard to bear and calls it a “humiliation that was a kind of perverse cousin to arousal” (Roupenian 2017). What excites her is getting Robert’s attention, but to achieve that she must make herself vulnerable and compromised. Margot is not wounding some clumsy, well-intentioned young man. Robert is himself alienated and predatory, seeking someone to stroke his ego, rather than a genuine peer. What he proposes to Margot is then a perverse trade of adoration for sexual submission.
If Cat Person is “more like a documentary than fiction” (Nicolaou 2019), then the fact that Beauvoir’s concept illuminates the story speaks to its relevance in our social reality. Narcissism highlights how patriarchal ways of life do not just operate on women ‘from the outside’ — they also depend on women actively sustaining them. Margot as a narcissist is an insightful character because she illustrates Beauvoir’s famous epigraph: “half victim, half accomplice, like everyone else” (Beauvoir 2011: 277). While it is true that eliminating the pervasive threat of sexual violence is crucial to changing the way men and women relate to each other, it is also important that women themselves reject the trap of narcissism. What women stand to gain from this psychological effort of self-transformation is not just some abstract victory against the patriarchy. Unlearning narcissism means unlearning habits that put us in harm’s way, that preclude intellectual excellence, and that make genuine loving relationships with others impossible.
Read the full article at https://journals.publishing.umich.edu/ergo/article/id/1123/.
- Beauvoir, Simone de (2011). The Second Sex. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, Trans. Vintage Books.
- Donoughue, Paul (2017, December 13). “Cat Person: Why a 7,201-Word Piece of Literary Fiction in the New Yorker Went Viral”. ABC News. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-14/cat-person-new-yorker-story-viral/9258044
- Nicolaou, Anna (2019, March 1). “Kristen Roupenian on ‘Cat Person’, #MeToo and Going Viral”. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/95d4456e-36b6-11e9-bd3a-8b2a211d90d5
- Roupenian, Kristen (2017, December 4). “Cat Person”. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person
About the author
Filipa Melo Lopes is a Lecturer in Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 2019 and specializes in social theory and ontology, feminist politics, sexual ethics, and the work of Simone de Beauvoir.