Why Isn’t Cat Person About “Cat Person”?

Something went very, very wrong here — and I think I know why.

The movie Cat Person is, I am told — by friends, by the filmmakers, by IMDb — based on the short story “Cat Person”: writer Kristen Roupenian’s fictional account of a no good, very bad date that went viral upon its publication in the New Yorker in 2017. Indeed, the movie poster is a close-up shot of co-stars Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun, evoking the discomfiting photograph published alongside the original story, which haunted readers almost as much as the story itself. (That orange stubble… May we all, one day, be free from its prickly grasp.)

But if you read “Cat Person” and then watch Cat Person, it’s clear that the movie has only a passing resemblance to Roupenian’s story. Sure, the film centers on the ill-fated romance between Margot (Jones) and Robert (Braun), the former a University of Michigan sophomore and the latter a 30-something Ann Arbor townie. As in the story, they meet after Robert purchases Red Vines from Margot at the artsy movie theater where she works; after an extended text conversation, they eventually go on one (1) cringe-inducing proper date; and then they have terrible sex that Margot all but grits her teeth to get through. She then tells him it’s over via text.

The whole time, Margot struggles to get a clear picture of the frequently confusing, socially challenged Robert, often projecting her own narcissistic fantasies onto him. At the end of the story, he calls her a “whore” over text, revealing he’s just an asshole. At the end of the movie… Well, we’ll get to that.

After Roupenian’s short story was published, many smart people opined on its literary quality and the ethics of the inspiration for it. But whether it’s good or bad or ethical or unethical is somewhat beside the point. It went viral because it struck a nerve, and it struck a nerve because it got at something sticky about how we date now — or at least, how we dated in 2017.

It went viral because it struck a nerve, and it struck a nerve because it got at something sticky about how we date now — or at least, how we dated in 2017.

Women who date men have always been tasked with sorting the good guys from the bad ones, and the truly dangerous from the merely weird. Thanks to this unspoken, deeply unfair responsibility and the True Crime Industrial Complex™, just about all women will tell you that at one point they’ve gotten into a man’s car or entered his home and had the same passing thought as Margot: “He could take her someplace and rape and murder her.”

That doesn’t even account for the advent of texting and messaging apps, which have created a whole new relationship phase: the pre-date textuationship.

Love letters are nothing new, but the attempt to figure out who your correspondent even is, all while playing an elaborate epistolary game, definitely is — waiting just long enough to respond, refraining from double texting. It requires building, testing, and constantly refining a model of your partner in your head. And especially when you’re young like Margot and have only dated boys your age, you don’t have the necessary context to read a man in his 30s: Is this a good guy? A serial killer? If you want to like him, and are imagining who he could be — in Margot’s case, a sweet, if inexperienced guy who’s in awe of her youth and grateful for her attention — it’s easy to talk yourself into ending up at his house, because you already put in so much effort. And then into having sex that you don’t really want to have, because, well, you’re already at his house.

It’s easy to talk yourself into ending up at his house, because you already put in so much effort. And then into having sex that you don’t really want to have, because, well, you’re already at his house.

This whole setup ensures that sometimes you’ll get it wrong, that you’ll think a guy is just awkward when he’s actually the type of misogynist who’ll label you a “whore.” That message will give you whiplash, leaving you dazed, wondering how you could’ve talked yourself into sleeping with him in the first place.

It’s all interesting and uncomfortable to dig into — were it not, the story wouldn’t have found nearly as many readers.

The movie, on the other hand, immediately precludes the possibility that Robert is anything but predatory. In the very first scene, as he approaches Margot to buy those Red Vines, audio from what sounds like vintage horror movie trailers spills out from the theaters. Later, she hallucinates finding a mauled stray dog in her dorm as if in a warning and mysteriously gets trapped in a closet with Robert; at other points, her professor (Isabella Rossellini) explains the vicious sexual dynamics between ants and other creatures. Throughout, the dialogue beats in the message with all the subtlety of a 10-piece band: It’s so dangerous to be a woman in a man’s world! [Warning: Spoilers for Cat Person ahead.]

This comes to an inevitably violent conclusion in the final act. Margot, convinced without much evidence that Robert is stalking her, breaks into his garage to place a tracker on his car. One thing leads to another, and the two get into a physical fight, during which a fire is accidentally started. To save their lives, they hide under a hatch in the basement. After firefighters put out the blaze, they discover Robert and Margot under the hatch, barely alive; by the time Margot comes to in the hospital, Robert has already left town without a trace.


And so, what made the story go viral in the first place — the destabilizing, sometimes-degrading experience of dating in a post-text world — is recast as a muddled, nuance-free tale about the perils of being a woman.

I have a theory about what went wrong here: horror brain worms. The same year “Cat Person” was published, Get Out unleashed horror brain worms on the public — brain worms that had less to do with the movie itself, which was very good, and more to do with how it changed the perception of horror as a genre. Suddenly, everyone realized that you could use horror as a tool for social commentary — despite the fact that horror auteurs had been doing this for decades. It took Get Out to get the idea in to public consciousness.

The brain worms cleared the way for some great films. (I like to imagine them eating the fear of “getting political” out of executives’ heads.) But they also gave us Men, a movie that dares to say “men can be scary to women.” They gave us Bad Hair, which Bitch aptly labeled a “superficial finger wag” of a movie. They gave us False Positive, a borderline inscrutable movie about IVF gone horribly awry that’s also thematically tied to Peter Pan somehow.

Sometimes a movie doesn’t need blood and guts and murder and screaming. Sometimes it’s more bone-chilling to watch a college sophomore stumble through a disastrous sexual encounter, to hear her inner monologue as she wonders why she went through with it at all: “At last, after a frantic rabbity burst, he shuddered, came, and collapsed on her like a tree falling, and, crushed beneath him, she thought, brightly, ‘This is the worst life decision I have ever made!’”

Thirty minutes in a room with a knife-wielding ghoul is scary. Thirty minutes inside the head of a mildly delusional, semi-infatuated college girl who increasingly sounds like me? Let’s just say I’d take the ghoul any day.