- There's No Such Thing as a Cat Person:A Lacanian Approach to Literary Criticism in Light of #MeToo
In December of 2017, Kristen Roupenian's short story, "Cat Person" achieved something short stories rarely achieve: in the words of Australian ABC reporter Paul Donoughue, it captured the zeitgeist and went "truly viral" (2017, n.p.). But Donoughue was not the only journalist or social commentator caught up in the frenzy. Articles that appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Economist, to name just a few—as well as a follow-up interview with the author in The New Yorker, where "Cat Person" was originally published—were all geared towards accounting for the story's intense and unexpected popularity. Writing for The Washington Post, Lisa Bonos found herself asking why a fictional story that was "seemingly so mundane becoming such a firestorm" (2017, n.p.), just as Rozina Sini used her platform at the BBC to query just what it was "about the story of a 20-year-old student's date with an older man that [had] captured the attention of so many?" (2017, n.p.). The Village Voice's Larissa Pham claimed that it was "easy to see why "Cat Person" struck such a chord: It's zeitgeist-y, relatable, and…feels piercingly real to a millennial readership" (2017, n.p.), while readers of Vox needed to go no further than the subtitle of Constance Grady's piece to be assured that it had something to do with "gender, sex, and privilege" (2017, n.p.).
Of course, underlying all of these analyses and, no doubt, the story's firestorm reception is the particular socio-cultural moment we currently find ourselves in: the #MeToo moment, which Dutch sociologists Dubravka Zarkov and Kathy Davis label "a global phenomenon" whose end is "nowhere in sight" (2018, 3). Reading through this first wave of analyses and adulations, the timeliness of Roupenian's thematic exploration is an observation that escapes no one. In an article for The Conversation, Tony Williams labels "Cat Person" as "a cipher in a larger conversation about gender politics" (2017, n.p.), while Australian journalist Jenny Noyes says that it "fits neatly into current conversations swirling around #MeToo, male entitlement, sexual power imbalances, sexual consent, harassment and victim-blaming" (2017, n.p.). Roupenian herself helps to ratify such analyses when she states [End Page 241] in a follow-up interview with Jonah Engel Bromwich that "the themes of the story (sex, gender, power, consent) are ones that I've been thinking about, and trying to write about, for years…[and which speak] to the way that many women, particularly young women, move throughout the world" (2017, n.p.)—an experience that, as Megan Garber notes, "is so resonant with the current moment, indeed, that many people, receiving and then sharing the viral story on social media, seemed to interpret Roupenian's work of short fiction not as fiction at all, but rather as a personal 'essay'" (2017, n.p.).
In an article titled "Literature as History of Social Change," K. N. Panikkar maintains that "[t]he relationship between history and literature is most pronounced in thematic convergences" (2012, 4), that is, where history is responsible for identifying change-making forces and literature for aestheticizing these forces "through the medium of inter-personal relations and emotional experiences" (5). As Panikkar makes clear, such convergences function both constitutedly and constitutively, which is to say they are affected by social process just as they affect social process. With a work like "Cat Person," we see the duality of this process in action. On the one hand, the story can be read as a literary rendering of the way "men and women interact, romantically and otherwise, in a post-Weinstein world" (Donoghue 2017), while, on the other hand, it can be credited with challenging that milieu by identifying and interfering with the historical and ideological forces that make such conditions possible in the first place—this final point serving as a reminder, perhaps, of Theodore Adorno's prescription of the greatness of a work of art lying in its power...