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If you haven’t read “Cat Person” yet — Kristen Roupenian’s short story in the New Yorker of an ill-fated relationship (aka an uncomfortable one-night stand) between Margot, a 20-year old college student, and Robert, a 34-year-old man whom she met at the movie theater where she works — I’m betting you have at least heard of it. It went viral for all the right reasons, and a debut book has reportedly been sold for about a million dollars.

No matter what you think of “Cat Person,” Roupenian hit a nerve with her story — well, many nerves, from  bad sex to gender power, sexual consent to male aggression. The one I want to explore is why Margot  misrepresents herself and her desires in order to appease a man, how all too often women are raised to be people pleasers, something I’ve written about before because, hey, I am one. Or was one. I got better — maybe sorta kinda.

Roupenian expresses clearly how girls grow up to become Margot in a post-short story interview. She says:

I think that assumption is bigger than Margot and Robert’s specific interaction; it speaks to the way that many women, especially young women, move through the world: not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy. It’s reflexive and self-protective, and it’s also exhausting, and if you do it long enough you stop consciously noticing all the individual moments when you’re making that choice. tweet

I agree. Many women do make that choice, but I’m not sure why.

Why do women feel that we need to take responsibility for other people’s emotions? Why do we believe we need to make everyone happy? Why are we so worried about making people angry? This is in part why we are seeing so many women respond to #MeToo — we have compromised ourselves so that others — men? — don’t have to feel bad, angry or uncomfortable.

It’s distressing.

Clearly, we need to teach our daughters a different message. But how?

Raising girls to be ‘good’

For psychology professor Carol Dweck, the problem is clear — girls are often praised for being “smart” or “good,” while young boys are often praised for “trying hard.” That kind of talk sets up girls to avoid challenges while trying to look smart, she says, making them give up easily if they can’t be perfect on the first try. Meanwhile, boys are told to keep trying, which helps them think that ability can be developed.

In a New York Times op-ed, author and lawyer Jill Filipovic says we’re not benefiting girls by teaching them conflicting messages: Be mighty and be good:

Now-pervasive “Girl power” messaging declares that girls can be anything they want. But in practice, the more subtle rewards for compliant behavior show girls that it pays to be sweet and passive. The sexual harassment revelations that have come to light over the past few months show just how dangerous this model can be. Routinely, victims of harassment and assault didn’t challenge their abusers or immediately file complaints not just because they didn’t want to endanger their own careers (although there was that, too), but because women have been conditioned for acquiescence to authority and male power their whole lives. tweet

So what are parents to do? Filipovic suggests parents raise boys more like girls — “fostering kindness and caretaking, not just by telling them to respect women, but by modeling egalitarianism and male affection and emotional aptitude at home.”

Kindness, respect and modeling are important, and the way to encourage and support that is through having men experience caregiving beyond the breadwinning-provider model, part of what I call carenting.

Can we get past that?

Yes. Because we must.

Believing Taylor Swift

I’m not a big Taylor Swift fan, but I’ll say this — when the pop star recently confronted the man who groped her years before in court, for no monetary gain beyond a dollar, I had to respect her. What was more complicated was what her mom, Andrea Swift, had to say. In her tearful testimony at the trial, she acknowledged just how complicit she’d been when her daughter told her a man grabbed her ass. She wondered what kind of messages she’d passed on — “as a parent it made me question why I taught her to be so polite in that moment.” I’m guessing it’s what she herself had been taught as a young girl.

As a mom, I, too, have to question what kind of messages I’ve passed on to my sons. I’ve taught them to be polite but I wonder if it’s a different kind of polite than I’d teach a daughter. These messages, to girls and boys, have ramifications that go way beyond bad dates in our youth — it impacts the way we approach and maintain our romantic relationships throughout life. Many women try hard to avoid conflict, but, boy, does that not work out well for us.

Nothing speaks more to that than when Margot briefly imagines sharing her bad-sex fling with Robert with a sympathetic boyfriend at some point in life — only to realize that she’ll probably never find a man she’ll feel comfortable being herself around and sharing her past with without facing his judgment: “but of course there was no such future, because no such boy existed, and never would.”

Is that true?

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One Response to “What ‘Cat Person’ says about relationships”

  1. Jono says:

    Margot should know that boy does exist and also exists in the form of some of us old men. We should all be polite, but it is often difficult to discern where that politeness needs to stop. That needs to be taught as well.

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