Recently, I have begun to notice a little twitch when I see the phrase “women’s voices.” Women aren’t being silent anymore, women are speaking out, women’s voices are being heard, and so on — as if women had, suddenly and en masse, triumphed over a cosmic Ursula the Sea Witch. The twitch is not, I should say, because of a problem with women, voices, or women’s voices. But there is a “now, for the first time” quality to the commentary. Pointing out that women’s voices were always there to be heard felt rude.
I believe I can trace this twitch to the end of 2017, with Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person.” “Cat Person” tells a story about two people — Margot, a college student, and Robert, a man in his thirties — who follow fall into a flirtation that eventually becomes and date and, eventually, unsatisfying sex. The response to this story was immediate and visceral. Vox explained it, National Review wrote an open letter to its fictional heroine, The Cutinterrogated male readers. It was “relatable,” said The Washington Post, The Atlantic noted that it had “women saying…‘Yeah, us too.’” Writing back in 2017 for the Guardian, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, despite not particularly appreciating the story, concluded her thoughts on it by asking: “If so many of us feel this way, in other words, then why has it gone unsaid until now? And, more importantly, will men start to listen?”
But if “Cat Person” gave a voice to the voiceless, then men are not the only people not listening. It’s a part of a tradition in American fiction: a story by a woman explodes onto the scene, as if from nowhere, to tell it all — a kind of anti-ingenue at the debutante ball. These women don’t really come from nowhere, and they may conceive of their fiction quite differently. But what we want from them is the same: something that can be read as a kind of autoethnography of modern-day heterosexuality, experience put direct and raw on the page. You can go all the way back to Mary McCarthy’s 1941 story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” and probably earlier, but you don’t really need to go that far.
For instance: You might remember Marie Calloway and her 2011 story “Adrien Brody,” which detailed a sexual encounter between a fictional-but-real Marie and a fictional-but-real writer in New York who is referred to throughout the story as Adrien Brody. At the time, the story made Calloway something of a microcelebrity (here’s one headline: “Meet Marie Calloway: The New Model for Literary Seductress is Part Feminist, Part ‘Famewhore’ and All Pseudonymous”). That fame proved fleeting. Almost nobody I mention her to these days seems to remember she existed at all.
Why blame a writer when we misunderstand her project in first place? Why do we want that story and nothing else?
Roupenian’s short story collection, You Know You Want This, just hit the shelves, but people who have picked it up eager for more bulletins from the frontlines of womanhood are finding themselves disappointed. Parul Sehgal, in her review for The New York Times, notes “There’s none of the simmer of “Cat Person” or its attention to language in the rest of these stories.” In The Washington Post, Emily Gould admits to feeling “absolutely enraged by its weaknesses.” It’s easy to see why. In the very first story, “Bad Boy,” a couple baits their sadsack friend (whose on-again, off-again girlfriend is sexually withholding) into becoming part of a threesome with them, and escalate their emotional abuse until they force him to murder his unsatisfying girlfriend and have sex with her corpse. This is also a bad date, in its way, but not relatably so. Where, the reviews ask, are the stories like “Cat Person”?
Without much liking “Cat Person” — or You Know You Want This, which I found both disgusting and dull — I nonetheless read these reviews and find myself sympathizing with Roupenian. Only one review that I’ve seen (Charlotte Shane, for Bookforum) really links “Cat Person” together with her other stories as part of a common project that, when one reads the collection, it clearly is. That that project was improperly heralded by “Cat Person” hardly seems Roupenian’s fault. We have a seemingly bottomless appetite for stories about women’s bad sex and a very short memory for them. Why blame a writer when we misunderstand her project in first place? Why do we want that story and nothing else?
Let’s return to “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.” Here, we follow a woman who is traveling to Reno for a divorce and, while on the train, has sex with a man she doesn’t know. As with many of McCarthy’s depictions of sex, there’s something a little unsettling and dubiously consensual about it; the woman takes a number of steps which she knows will eventually lead to it, but promises herself throughout she can back out. She goes to the man’s compartment, gets drunk with him, and wakes up next to him. The man is so smitten with her she decides to stick around:
This, she thought decidedly, is going to be the only real act of charity I have ever performed in my life; it will be the only time I have ever given anything when it honestly hurt me to do so. That her asceticism should have to be expressed in terms of sensuality deepened, in a curious way, its value, for the sacrifice was both paradoxical and positive.… Quickly she helped him take off the black dress, and stretched herself out on the berth like a slab of white lamb on an altar.
It’s worth quoting McCarthy at some length to highlight that what these stories share — aside from their reception — is an interest in sex. Going from “Brooks Brothers Shirt” to “Cat Person,” we find a similar moment; Margot instigates sex with Robert and then, as she realizes she’s lost interest, floats above herself:
she imagined herself from above, naked and spread-eagled with this fat old man’s finger inside her, and her revulsion turned to self-disgust and a humiliation that was a kind of perverse cousin to arousal.
Similarly, in “Adrien Brody,” Calloway writes: “I’ve never been able to figure out why I get off on being used as an object.” Her protagonist helps Adrien Brody relax by reenacting “a scene from a Japanese pornography I had once watched. I opened my eyes and looked into his and smiled up at him.”
Women’s sexuality in these stories is expressed not so much through forthright desire but through a rush brought on by seeing another person seeing you. What’s wanted is the gaze. Even as these stories provoke on the one hand, seeming to push the envelope on what can and can’t be said, they also rely on a certain kind of common-sense about gender. Men want and women want to be wanted; sex is a staged encounter that she does not enjoy but passively endures because she knows it shows her off to good effect. Or, to put it more crudely: sex is the price women are willing to pay for men’s attention.
The women in these stories are manipulative in a neutral sense: they enjoy the emotional control they have over men but are not ever really present. Their private removal lets them feel as if they can direct the scene, even if they also experience whatever’s going on as humiliating. In “Cat Person” and in “Adrien Brody” they escalate the encounter sexually, but almost to see simply how the other person will respond rather than out of any physical interest. A game of chicken played just as much with yourself as with a partner.
I would hardly dispute that this represents a way women can relate to men. Nor is it the job of fiction to model ideal encounters between the sexes in which desire is always reciprocal, directed wholly toward the other person, and proceeds on a foundation of mutual respect. But this point is not really about the stories; it’s about the readers.
Because in the end, it seems like this is the story we want to hear: that, on the one hand, encounters between men and women are grim and unsatisfying but, at the same time, everybody is getting what they want. There isn’t a better way for things to be; there is nothing else to expect. Heterosexuality is, and is only, the negotiation between two fundamentally incompatible sets of desires — and one ultimately controlled by women, who issue the stage directions, narrate their encounters, and provide emotional stimulus to get things rolling.
In “Cat Person,” Margot remembers losing her virginity as a “a long, drawn-out affair” involving her boyfriend, her gynecologist, and her mother, “who, in the end, had not only reserved her a room at a bed-and-breakfast but, after the event, written her a card.” Actually losing her virginity, however, isn’t a part of what she remembers; it’s the dramatic process leading up to it. In “Brooks Brothers Shirt,” Margot may have sex that she doesn’t want, but bestowing herself on another person for whom she feels nothing provides its own emotional thrill and a sense of power (although, as Mary McCarthy knew, feeling a sense of power and actually having power are two very different things).
And, finally, these stories give at least one half of this toxic dynamic what they want by reflecting back their experience: there, you’re seen now.
I don’t really know what “women’s experience” is, or if the expectation that women writers depict it for us in a straight-to-the-page fashion will ever go away. In these stories, it’s really heterosexual experience, and so shared with, mediated through, and defined by men. But presumably women also have experiences that do not involve men or sex at all — eating buttered toast, walking the dog, butchering a pig, that sort of a thing. They have their own desires and their own darkness and their own stories, and they always have.
These stories give at least one half of this toxic dynamic what they want by reflecting back their experience: there, you’re seen now.
Roupenian’s other stories are not like “Cat Person” in focusing on modern-day dating woes, but they retain the infamous story’s interest in recognition and manipulation. In one, a woman reenacts a scene from a movie so that she can be looked at by the actor in the way that she wants; in another, a princess falls in love with her own reflection. Even in the threesome necrophilia story, the couple’s obsession with their friend begins by wanting him to see and hear them having sex. The statement “you know you want this” is, after all, a cry for validation.
I don’t blame anybody for not liking these stories; I certainly don’t. The people in them are thinly sketched; even the horror is often left up to you. But without pleading the case of bad art, one can also point out issues with how the collection has been received, the ways it is and isn’t being treated seriously or read carefully. And we can ask why the story we want to hear is about one where the possibility of treating each other well is ruled out as unnatural.
When a writer who has been cast as the anti-ingenue turns out to have her own ideas about what she’s doing — even when the difference between expectation and reality is not as severe as it is with You Know You Want This — her audience begins to turn. The point of an ingenue, even a rebel one, is not that she has goals. The point is that she’s a blank slate to project on; that she has potential, not that she realizes it; that she’s fresh and unspoiled, not that she is working in a tradition or honing a craft. Once you’ve had one dance with her, your appetite can only be satisfied by somebody new.
There will be another one along the way to say these things as if for the first time. Perhaps one day she will find the readers she deserves. But for now, whoever she’ll be, she’s stuck with us.