When The New Yorker published Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” in late 2017, the short story became an unexpected viral hit. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why it so readily embraced. The story followed Margot, an inexperienced college girl ill-considered relationship with Robert, an awkward 30-something manchild who unleashes a series of ugly text recriminations after his fragile ego is lightly bruised. The story captured the zeitgeist of incel-related male rage. But more importantly, the situation was immediately and painfully relatable for so many readers.
The recent publication of Roupenian’s short fiction collection You Know You Want This will put “Cat Person” in front of hundreds more people, male and female alike. And many male readers will find themselves wondering if they see themselves in Robert, a grown man shockingly bad at kissing whose mixture of vanity, pornography-borne solipsism and social cowardice boils into a toxic stew of anger.
If you see yourself in Robert, it’s time to take a hard, sobering look at yourself and make serious changes to your life. The guy’s a parade of red flags well before she does. Robert’s a withdrawn, thin-skinned, unkempt, possessive loser with shit social skills dating a girl 14 years his junior.
There are a lot of Roberts out there. And each Robert’s situation is shitty in its own unique way. Still, the story points to a very helpful first step for all Roberts out there: don’t make sexual advances on women while they’re at work. It’s Robert’s original sin and the one his fellow losers need to understand and learn from.
Robert meets Margot when he buys Red Vine candies while she’s selling concessions at an artsy movie theater. In a brilliant grace note the story notes that Margot flirts with him out of habit and boredom and unwittingly sets off a slow motion disaster.
Margot didn’t do anything wrong by flirting. The fault lies entirely with Robert’s misbegotten sense of entitlement and social ineptitude. He saw a lackadaisical attempt at keeping boredom at bay and assumed Margot was interested in him even though he hadn’t done anything worth being interested in.
When you’re a withdrawn loser like Robert, approaching women is difficult. You’re scared of rejection but you’ve avoided rejection so long that you’ve developed a destructive narcissism. You feel superior to the people putting themselves out there in the dating world. That feeling of superiority leads you to hole up into yourself and pursue antisocial activities like obsessive love for pop culture and playing video games.
With all of your energy directed inwards, the only women you speak with are relatives and women who are professionally obligated to speak with you, like your co-workers and people in the service industry. Because you don’t talk to enough women, you may mistakenly believe the professional courtesy and kindness of your co-workers as romantic. Acting on those mistaken beliefs won’t work out the way you want it to work it. You makes women uncomfortable, appear creepy and risk getting fired.
Then there are the baristas, waitresses, bartenders and girls behind the counter at GameStop. Some of them are going to flirt with you. It’s important to understand they don’t really like. It’s also important to understand that that’s not not a big deal. They’re flirting to increase their tips or for the reasons the Margot flirts in Cat Person: out of a reflex informed by service industry work or as a way to pass the time. Don’t invest too much thought or energy into this interaction. They’re speaking with you out of professional obligation and that’s as far as it goes.
Don’t keep buying Red Vines hoping the girl at Gamestop will make the same joke. Devote that energy into figuring out how to get the attention of people while they’re off the clock instead.