More than one person has noted that the New Yorker short story “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian seemed like a trial run for the current controversy involving Aziz Ansari. (Note, I’m particularly troubled by the mob-shaming that’s happening in the latter.) Certainly, the story plays right into the transformative zeitgeist of attention to sexual and gender dynamics we’re in now, from consent to sexual harassment, assault and rape. I encourage you to read the story if you haven’t already, as well as the commentary, linked in the references below. (Minor spoilers ahead.)
Psychologist Jean Twenge’s research in her recent book iGen, highlighted in the Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, point to a decline in teen sexual activity. As Twenge points out, this is both good and bad. The teen birth rate has dropped, but young people are perhaps even more naïve about sex and gender dynamics than I was at age 20! (They are also more lonely, depressed, anxious and suicidal, which Twenge pegs on the smartphone, which became ubiquitous just as these measures spiked.) Add to that an increasing reliance on phones and social media to communicate, and you get a lot of uncertainty in relating, and the potential for mistakes to occur. And when abusive power is involved, people get hurt.
You see these factors in both what’s been revealed about the “Grace”-Ansari incident and the “Cat Person” fictional story. In the story, an older, somewhat insecure man and a relatively inexperienced, very young woman are superficially and giddily relating through texts. She spins off off into wild ungrounded imaginations and fantasies. She clearly doesn’t know him, suddenly fearing he might murder her. (Trust is at an all-time low, btw, particularly amongst young people.) We don’t know what he worries about – probably more on the order of rejection rather than murder though, to cue a disfavored Louis CK bit about the fears of men and women – but he is clearly insecure.
Margot’s feelings about their sexual encounter vary from excitement to ambivalence to distaste to regret and disgust. She rejects Robert, finally, and then we are treated to his fit of anger and name-calling, thus proving “what kind of guy he was,” according to one reviewer, thus justifying all the red flags Easter-egged into the story earlier.
Many have proclaimed the short story and the “Grace”-Ansari incident portray the difficulty that women have with men and making affirmative consent. Women are schooled to be compliant, while men are schooled to be aggressive – a power imbalance that leads to the victimization of women. “Enthusiastic consent” has been put forward as the standard for sexual encounters.
That’s all fair and reasonable, and yes, absolutely, we need a reset in the gender dynamics in the direction of empowering women, from dating to the workplace and society in general. But in assigning blame and suggesting a reset, we are also ignoring an important reality.
We are all insecure and vulnerable. Yes, women are often more vulnerable than men – but all humans are vulnerable.
Some respond to their own vulnerability and insecurity by asserting power, or even activating a ‘power complex’ (of aggression towards and devaluation of others, and grandiosity of self). That seems to be in the headlines every day, in the Trump era. Others, like Margot, get mired in their insecurity and are thus prone to being led on by others who may not have their best interests at heart.
We would all do well to recognize that our common humanity lies in the frailty, vulnerability and insecurity of the self. How we respond to this marks our character, integrity and relationship to others. If we react to our insecurity by viewing life as “me against them,” we will feel like we are in a death match where our survival and advancement depends on taking advantage of others. We end up blaming them when we don’t get our way, instead of recognizing that they are acting from their needs – exactly how Robert blames Margot, and perhaps how Margot implicitly blames Robert.
Margot, as the young naif, is clearly more vulnerable than Robert in “Cat Person.” Robert doesn’t recognize this, or if he does, he decides to take advantage of it. Robert hasn’t come to terms with his own vulnerability either. He’s still on a self-serving quest to get his needs met – to be loved, as opposed to being loving. In the end, though, it’s not clear to me who has been hurt more. Existentially, perhaps that doesn’t even matter. They are both hurt, because they both haven’t come to terms with their vulnerability and the vulnerability of others.
We are human relatings, not simply human beings. How we relate to vulnerability is the most important question before us.
I hope we choose compassion, the path to transcendence of self and ego.
~ Albert Einstein