December 4, 2023

Cat Person and the Horrors of Dating Over Text

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Warning: this article contains spoilers as well as discussion of sexual assault 

Cat Person, a movie which recently showed at Cornell Cinema, is based off of a short story written in The New Yorker by Kristen Roupinian. This thriller perfectly represents what it feels like to be a college girl dating in the smartphone era. The movie opens with a quote from Margaret Atwood across the screen: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them. Women are scared that men will kill them.” This sentiment bleeds through the whole film as the main character, 20-year old Margot, questions the intentions of an older man she meets while working at a movie theater. They see each other in person a few times, but their relationship exists mainly over text. Virtually, Robert is charming and relatively caring, but in person he’s extremely boring, immature — despite his being 33 — possibly creepy. Most of the movie, the audience wonders, along with Margot, whether he’s a predator or just a dud. 

The film cleverly voices Margot’s fears by playing out the horrid, worst-case scenarios of what Robert could be capable of, then switching back to a reality wherein he’s just extremely unimpressive. For example, she’s in his car and begins to imagine the child safety lock click as he reaches over to attack her, then the scene cuts back to the reality of awkward silence in the car. 

Alternatively, it also demonstrates her thought process through imagined scenarios wherein Robert is a thoughtful, sensitive man discussing his interactions with Margot in therapy. In these invented scenes, Robert’s slovenly khakis and t-shirt are switched for a sleek, cable-knit white sweater. A clear voice replaces his monotone mumbles as he talks to his therapist, revealing that he’s actually quite emotionally intelligent. These scenes provide light comedic relief. The movie cuts back to reality, demonstrating how Margot makes sense of the disparity between the virtual and in-person versions of Robert by seeing him in the best light possible.

Through an extremely unpleasant sex scene, the film demonstrates the complications to the seemingly simple act of just saying “no.” During the scene, Margot sees a second version of herself, standing across the room, yelling at her: “Just tell him you changed your mind!” The audience watches Margot become disgusted by Robert, and we see him in a new, less innocent light. The best way to accurately explain the gray area of feeling uncomfortable with a sexual encounter, but not being able to voice it is by demonstrating it as this movie does.

After this terrible encounter, Margot sends him a text telling him she’s no longer interested. He first responds very appropriately, thanking her for the time they had together, but the written short story ends when, a few days later, Robert comes back, over text, and his tone has shifted. He asks her a series of prying, vulgar questions theorizing why she doesn’t like him and the story ends with his final, one-word text: “whore.” Until the very end of the written story, Robert seems relatively harmless, albeit cringe-worthy. With this last text, you realize he’s not innocent at all. It substantiates Margot’s fear of telling him “no” in bed, because you see him react to rejection with cruelty. 

The movie hugely shifts as it extends beyond the short story. The plot takes some crazy turns, but the movie ends with Robert’s house being set on fire as she tries to escape it. We learn that Robert actually was a creep who had been stalking Margot all along.

During the movie, we get glimpses of Margot’s rich, interesting life. She does research in a lab and has a cool, older female scientist mentor, she has a complicated relationship with her mother, she has a friend group of vivid characters, but we learn little about any of this. The entire movie centers around Robert, a wholly uninteresting man. She walks through the library or she’s writing down data in her lab, but the focal point for her and for the audience is the buzz of her phone from Robert’s text. She’s home for fall break and, still, he consumes her attention. This story, too, is relatable to many of us: An undeserving man getting all our attention, taking away from the colorful parts of our lives, just so we can feel active in the dating world, even if this is mostly virtual.

The film is very validating to the fears that live in the back of women’s minds, often written off as dramatic. The audience experiences Margot’s fear as she’s walking home alone, at night, and her phone dies. We feel her discomfort when she’s trapped in a sexual situation. The movie gives life to experiences that are difficult to put into words and, often, awkward to admit. We question why Margot, a smart, beautiful woman, would ever give her attention to this man. We sympathize with her simultaneous rationale of Robert’s mediocrity but, still, a craving for his validation.

Cat Person, in addition to being an important conversation starter, has an engaging plot, a great soundtrack, and is visually pleasing. Margot’s wardrobe is enviable. I highly recommend this movie to anyone, but especially to college-age girls. 

Rachel Cannata is a junior in the Hotel School. She can be reached at [email protected]