So, what’s the easiest way to make a million dollars these days?
The answer, apparently, is to write a short story about an awkward sexual experience you pursued, but left you upset — and which made you feel like a victim. Then you have a shot at a $1 million advance from a major publisher.
That’s the news out of Simon & Schuster, which just picked up a series of stories from Kristen Roupenian, author of a viral story in The New Yorker titled “Cat Person.” The price: over $1 million.
For those who haven’t read the story, it’s essentially about a 20-year-old woman who meets a 34-year-old man, texts with him, has drinks with him, has awkward sex with him (she variably wants to have sex and doesn’t, then decides to go through with it despite not enjoying it), and then never responds to his texts again. The punch line: the man eventually texts her, calling her a “whore.” She is, the piece seems to suggest, a victim of circumstance and uncomfortable expectations.
But let’s analyze the piece in a different light. Let’s imagine, for just a moment, that the sexes were reversed. Let’s imagine that a 20-year-old man went to bed with a 34-year-old woman desperate for something deeper than sex alone — and that it went badly and the man never called the woman again. Is there any doubt that the man would be viewed as the villain in the story?
Now, the story apparently resonates with many women — it’s a window into thinking for women who feel pressured into sex, who feel obligated to have sex with men who have expectations of sex. The story is well-written and evocative — and even more so, it’s shaded (Margot, the female main character, isn’t exactly portrayed as an angel — she's shallow, self-deceptive, and vain).
But there’s something perverse about many of the commentaries on the story, which suggest that the somewhat generic male, Robert, is a stand-in for toxic masculinity, and that Margot is a victim of that toxic masculinity. In a society that draws no clear lines linking sex to commitment and meaning, vagueness abounds — and this story is the result of that vagueness. But many commentators are attempting to remove that vagueness and make the story a tale from the #MeToo moment, trying to draw a new Manichean dichotomy between women, who are apparently innocent of all sin, and men, who are apparently responsible for all sin. That’s inaccurate in real life, and it’s a shallow take on the story.
Unfortunately, that shallow take has become the new norm. It’s probably what will make Roupenian rich, and drain her work of its subtlety and complexity in the public mind. And that’s too bad, because her story raises questions that it doesn’t come close to answering.