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Power and Powerlessness in Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person

In addition to how Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” (the New Yorker short story that has recently gone viral) resonates with the #MeToo movement, what struck me about it was the nuance of power and powerlessness in everyday interactions between men and women and the extent to which women can sometimes see themselves through men’s eyes.

In Roupenian’s story, Margot convinces herself to have sex with Robert after their prolonged courting ritual—mostly via text, and replete with awkwardness and ambiguity, as modern dating tends to be. She decides it’s easier to “bludgeon her resistance into submission” than to seem “spoiled and capricious” by navigating the labyrinthine emotional terrain of saying no. Once she decides to just go with it:

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 more she imagined his arousal, the more turned-on she got.

This moment in “Cat Person” reminded me of this part of the poem “Winners Circle” from Sarah Jean Grimm’s collection Soft Focus:

I’m kind of an expert on this one thing

Which is

My heat on your fingers

My hair on your clothes

My feet in your shoes

My camera in your retina

The female gaze is all about me

Looking at you

Looking at me

Which is to say

It’s like the male gaze but more aware of what it’s doing

With a wink to the whole concept of the male gaze in film, this poem is so powerful because the speaker sees not only her image in his eye but also her “camera” in his “retina.” So she’s not only gazing at him gazing at her but also capturing his gaze via her own figurative camera. In this sense, she makes herself not merely the work of art but artist, too. She’s an “expert,” after all. The play of power and powerlessness of this stance reflects so sharply on the issues of control and consent in “Cat Person,” but also in our society at large right now.

It’s worth mentioning that in “Cat Person” Margot meets Robert at the artsy movie theater where she works; she’s no stranger to cameras and retinas. Far from it. She attempts to take back the power by flipping the camera, and at times even identifying with the power given over to the male cameraman in society, so to speak.

“Cat Person” catches in action the murkiness of when and how a woman feels she can assume power. In the story, when Margot has sex with Robert, she doesn’t take on the obviously empowered role of leaving when she doesn’t want to do it in the first place; instead, she attempts to take the power back later by becoming the gazer instead of the gazed upon, by powering her own engine on the fuel of his desire for her.

She’s ashamed of what she perceives to be her “fantasy of such pure ego,” of imagining him unable to contain himself when faced with the sheer magnitude of her hotness. She gets turned on not by his pudgy, hirsute body but by watching her own body through his eyes. What’s more, she plays us the film of this—her camera in our retina. “Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking,” and thereby we imagine thinking.

We all know by now that gender and sexuality are performance arts, but the depiction of this sexual encounter in “Cat Person” really takes it home: Margot watches Robert watch her performing herself.

So, in a sense there is ego there, but there is also its opposite: an extinguishing of the self, a making of her own subject into object, a projecting of the active viewer and actor in general onto him. What intrigues me here is this simultaneous ignition and extinction of her power that women negotiate every day in, and outside of, the bedroom.