Where were you when you first read Cat Person?
When the 2017 short story written by Kristen Roupenian was featured in The New Yorker, it rippled through the internet, leaving vindicated women and confused, if not angered, men in its wake.
It didn't matter that this was a work of fiction - one that emulated the confessional essays at the time, the first-person pieces usually written by Millennial women, describing bad, and often sexual, experiences. It was an experience that was so common, it quite easily could have been non-fiction.
Cat Person had all of the same markers of those essays, speaking directly to the zeitgeist at the time. There was no denying that it had struck a chord and took on a life of its own. The fact that #MeToo had erupted just months before, in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, certainly had a part to play.
But, on a cultural level, it was the first time women were encouraged to share and at times commodify their bad sexual experiences in a very public way. What Cat Person had going for it was that it was generic and all-encompassing enough that it became the everywoman's point of view. Which is what drew such a strong response from male readers.
Now, almost six years to the day, that same story - with a little elaboration and some tweaking - is heading to the big screen, hitting Australian cinemas on November 23. And the conversation is set to heat up again, this time focusing on how much - if anything - has changed in six years.
Director Susanna Fogel remembers exactly when she first came across Cat Person.
It was about a week after it had been published and the conversation surrounding the story was already taking over pop culture. Knowing how all-consuming this conversation was, Fogel's first instinct was to avoid it completely - she didn't want to read it because she knew she would have to have an opinion on it.
"But literally everyone was sending it to me," she says.
"So I read it and my first thought was - knowing how provocative it was - why is this story controversial?
"This is just a specific, perfectly observed, perfectly crafted, intimate exploration of a young woman's sexual encounter with a man and all the feelings that go into that and her own feelings about herself and all of that, but I didn't understand why people were so angry. And when the anger itself became the narrative, that was interesting."
Cat Person tells the story of Margot (played in the film by Emilia Jones), a 20-year-old college student with a part-time job at a cinema, who goes on an awkward date with an older man, Robert (played by Nicholas Braun), who may or may not have cats, and may or may not be a murderer. That is, throughout the piece, Margot cycles between seeing Robert as this naif who is overwhelmed by her youth and beauty and also imagining him - quite vividly - as a vicious murderer.
It's this Schrodinger's cat conundrum of fear that this story plays around with - this idea that the same experiences can happen to two different people at the same time and be perceived very differently. Where one is seeing an exchange in vulnerability that marks the beginnings of a beautiful romance, that possibly will end in marriage, the other is experiencing everything but.
This is set up beautifully in the film by opening with the Margaret Atwood quote, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them" - something Fogel says was screenwriter Michelle Ashford's idea.
Dating in general - and in the story - requires you to be vulnerable. If not with your emotions, then with your safety. Going on a date does require you to meet up with a stranger and there is no way to completely trust them. And in the case of heterosexual relationships, it's also a case where the male has more power simply because of his size and strength.
But of course, you can't just hide away from dating experiences either. There will come a time when you go out on a date with someone and a time when you go to bed with someone as well.
For Margot, it just so happened that both of these things were on the same day, which is where a lot of criticism and debate comes from.
How is this woman complaining about having sex with this man, when by all accounts, she never gave him any indication that she didn't want to? How was this man so easily painted as the villain, when all he could hear was her saying "yes"?
And like all conversations surrounding consent, desire and shared sexual experiences in general, the answer is not that simple. And for that matter, the question doesn't take into consideration all the different shades of grey, to begin with.
"I think the conversation around desire and consent and what women want is so ever-present," Fogel says.
"But it's usually explored in a way that I think is a little bit - well, very - oversimplifying in the sense that the way we talk about what women want, it often just completely overburdens the woman with the responsibility of having to know what she wants, exactly what she wants.
"Some people refer to this as a movie about consent. And it's only a movie about consent, in that she does consent in terms of how we define consent. She says, yes. She says, yes, many, many times in many different ways. But to the careful observer, you see that's it's actually a no in the movie - you see her face says she doesn't want to be there.
"But he doesn't know her. He's not looking at her face. In that moment, he doesn't see the context clues. But he hears the word he's supposed to hear and he can't be faulted for that."
And it's an issue that is not just between two people. Cat Person - the movie - takes what the short story started and runs with it, showing that these expectations surrounding sexual encounters - the pressure to follow through with something that has already been set in motion - cannot be the result of just one person.
So much of Cat Person plays out over text. These two people meet at a cinema, Robert asks for Margot's number and they start to chat for days on end. And so it goes, until both parties start to imagine what the other is like, based on how they interpret what is being written.
No wonder Margot, at the very least, struggles to match up real Robert with text message Robert.
But while a lot of this relationship plays out using technology, there is a common element that has run through dating history, long before the text.
And in the sections where Cat Person, the film, fleshes out the original 7000-word story to make a two-hour film, it looks at where some of these expectations come from.
"It does really tap into a primal thing between men and women and that feels timeless," Fogel said.
"Dynamics that have existed since the dawn of men and women.
"For Hope Davis [who plays Kelly, Margot's mum] to be saying ... to the extent that you're told that empowerment means doing whatever you want, and asserting yourself and being their equal, you're going to repel men.
"That's advice that I've been given, that's advice that most women have been given one way or another by male friends, by different generations, by parents - it means you should assume a certain role to get the brass ring."
But what the film captures is more than that.
It's the moments that go beyond the short story's ending. After the moment where Robert lashes at out at Margot over a series of messages. After he plunges a metaphorical dagger into whatever relationship they had, in the form of one word sent over text: "Whore".
Of course, giving away the ending of a movie, particularly before it's been released, goes against every spoiler alert rule.
But what Fogel can say is that the big finale was, in part, inspired by the public's reaction to the short story. An attempt at capturing some of that anger sparked by the original iteration of Cat Person.
"Reflecting on this movie that I made a couple of years ago, I'm like, yes, it was a meta-commentary on the anger of the story," she says.
"But at the time, we just felt like we'd seen a lot of revenge narratives, we'd seen a lot of movies where it's men being held to accountability by women, women telling their stories, men listening to women's accounts of how toxic they can be as a gender. And I felt like that's a canon of movies that we got right at the height of #MeToo. And those movies are really important, but I think, in the years it took to get this movie made, I think we hit a bit of a plateau in terms of people's appetite for that.
"What's interesting to me was, what's next? What's the next story in that conversation? What do we do now? Yes, she gets a text that is toxic at the end of the story. But the question is, what does that mean?
"What if you see that person in the world? Is a text just a text? Is a text a threat? Is that a real threat? Is it a cowardly response that doesn't correlate to a real-life threat or is it an actual thing that we need to take on board as a serious threat that we need to be fearful of in a time that we're told to be fearful of every man?"
And that's the point. When you receive a message from someone who seemingly hates you so much that they call you a whore, you don't know what comes next. But you do know that whether something follows it or not, it's a moment that will stay with you forever.
And perhaps therein lies the power of Cat Person. The reason why so many people still carry this short story with them, returning to regularly reread it.
Because while so many people have had the Cat Person experience, no one quite knows what comes next.
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