9 Short Stories About Modern Womanhood That Will Feel Scarily Familiar

Ashley Batz/Bustle

Barring the possibility that you were stranded on an unpopulated island in the Pacific or unconscious during the week of Dec. 11, 2017, you heard about “Cat Person” — the 4,000-word short story about a short-lived and cringe-worthy relationship that sent the internet into an utter conniption and shortly thereafter earned its author, Kristen Roupenian, a seven-figure, two-book deal with Scout Press. And though 20-year-old Margot’s ill-fated intercourse with the 14-years-older Robert is indelibly imprinted in my brain forever, as I’m sure it is yours, I’ll refresh your memory just in case: girl flirts with boy; boy asks girl out; boy exhibits a pattern of awkward and/or red-flag behavior over the course of two underwhelming dates and approximately 175 text messages, all of which girl overlooks until the inevitable co-mingling of their squishy bits is so insufferable that she all but ghosts him. A month later, Robert obsessively drunk-texts Margot, resulting in the determination that Margot must be a "Whore."

And then the internet lost its mind. Real-life “Cat Person” anecdotes flooded the blogosphere. Men who’ve always secretly suspected they might be “Cat Person” themselves suddenly decided if you’re not Ernest Hemingway or Jane Austen, you’re not worth reading. We all realized that Americans no longer understand how to distinguish between the short story and the essay (hint: one will be published as “fiction” and the other “essay”.) Theories about “Cat Person” and it’s author abounded. And every 20-something young woman who has ever lived “Cat Person” herself (based on the response, that would be most of us) suddenly felt understood and validated — if a little queasy.

But while the viral nature of “Cat Person” might be an anomaly, the conversation it initiates about the nuances of consent should not be. Perhaps the most uncomfortably relatable moment in “Cat Person” comes when Margot arrives at Robert’s house, presumably to have sex, and realizes she doesn’t exactly want to be there anymore, but is highly attuned to the fact that if she doesn’t just muscle through she will be perceived as spoiled and/or rude. And tolerating terrible sex is far preferable to exhibiting a displeasing personality. Plus, she flirted, so it’s her own fault that she owes him now. None of this is actually stated explicitly. Robert — while odd and a rather intense — has in no way indicated that he will respond unfavorably if Margot decides she’d rather go home and paint her nails. Margot herself admits she doesn’t feel threatened. And yet, herein lies the unspoken realities about consent in 2018: we can rewrite the student codes of ethics for every university in the country and espouse the importance of repeated verbal consent and the right to revoke that consent at any point, but until the voice of consent grows louder than the lifetime of subtle social cues women absorb about the ways they are and are not allowed to exist in the world, consent — and the passive revoking of consent, from a safe distance — is going to look a whole lot like “Cat Person”.

If you loved Roupenian’s story — or even if you’re not sure how you feel, but are willing to wade into this whole complicated realm a little further — here are nine short stories to read about dating, love, and sex as a young woman:

“Quality of Life” by Christine Sneed

Telling the story of an unhealthy and controlling May/December romance, Christine Sneed’s “Quality of Life” — featured in her short story collection, Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry — takes readers into the mind of a young woman who is given everything by her wealthy, older lover: payment (often for sex), opportunities, a great job, an apartment, and even the space to fall in love and become engaged to another man. But what he won’t give her, freedom from their arrangement, ultimately becomes the only thing she wants.

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“It Doesn’t Have To Be A Big Deal” by Rebecca Schiff

Included in Rebecca Schiff’s collection, The Bed Moved — in which almost every story speaks to the spirit and conflict of “Cat Person — “It Doesn’t Have To Be A Big Deal” is the story of the narrator’s emotionally unfulfilling and sexually unstimulating relationship with a marijuana grower whom she flies across the country to visit — only to discover all he does is sit in his house and smoke pot all day, and that she will be responsible for arranging and funding their entertainment during her visit.

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“How To Be A Mistress” by Lorrie Moore

From Lorrie Moore’s collection Self-Help, “How To Be A Mistress” is written in second person and takes the reader though what is essentially a step-by-step guide to becoming someone’s mistress. The instructing mistress, Charlene, is a young college graduate who has a affair with a married man and begins to lose herself in what she finds to be the degradation inherent in their relationship.

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“Chagall’s Wife” by Abigail Ulman

Another short story collection worth reading in full is Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands. The story “Chagall’s Wife” in particular, will draw readers of “Cat Person” in with it’s detailing of the slightly-off, line-crossing interactions between a young student named Sasha and her high school science teacher Mr. Ackerman, who bump into one another at a coffee shop and wind up spending the day together, before the inevitable, day’s-end: “Do you want to go somewhere else?” moment.

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“Souvenir” by Yiyun Li

Tucked into Yiyun Li’s short story collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, “Souvenir” is a near-flash fiction piece about a young, unmarried woman who is buying condoms in a drugstore, only to be followed and harassed by an older gentleman who compares her to his dead wife, before shaming her for her purchase.

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“Difficult Women” by Roxane Gay

The title story of Roxane Gay’s recent collection, Difficult Women, “Difficult Women” catalogs a series of “types” of women and breaks down the stereotypes they’re often subjected to. There is the Loose Woman — who doesn’t see anything when she looks in the mirror; the Frigid Woman — who was pregnant when her mother died; the Crazy Woman — who just wants her iPad back; Mothers — who feel disconnected from their children; and Dead Girls — who are, of course, the most interesting and beautiful of all.

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‘Lesser Bohemians’ by Eimear McBride

The lone novel (albeit, slim) on this list, Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride tells of another May/December romance — this one between an 18-year-old aspiring actress and an older performer, who have a violent, consuming, haunting, obsessive, and unfulfilling relationship that unfolds over the course of a year and threatens to destroy both their lives.

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“Girls & Jerks” by Lena Dunham

Included in Lena Dunham’s essay collection Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” (so, the only nonfiction piece on this list) “Girls & Jerks” describes a college sexual encounter that Dunham describes as not “feel[ing] like a choice at all.” The young man she is having sex with, Barry, is aggressive and has even discarded the condom, an act which ends the encounter when Dunham discovers it hanging from one of the plants in her apartment.

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“You’re Ugly, Too” by Lorrie Moore

Another story by Lorrie Moore — because honestly, she’s just the best, “You’re Ugly, Too” was also featured in the New Yorker and is included in her collection Like Life. In “You’re Ugly, Too”, a college professor named Zoe is languishing in her Midwestern college town, where the men are all hoping for someone a bit more demure and pleasing than Zoe finds herself able to be, and her cynicism combined, with the sexism she experiences, makes her unable (and arguably unwilling) to connect with men in any fulfilling way.

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