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'Cat Person' and subtle expectations

In the throes of reading-period procrastination last semester, I stumbled across the New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” a young woman’s exploration of relationships, gender dynamics, and identity. In the story, Margot, a college sophomore, meets, flirts with, and hooks up with Robert, a slightly older man. On the surface, it has all the ingredients of an indie rom-com or drama, awash in the muted rosy colors of young womanhood. But as Margot and Robert’s relationship progresses beyond their bonding over Red Vines, from a date where he’s strangely distant to a night at a bar where he’s much too forward, the reality of the imbalance in their relationship hit me.

This inequality hits Margot too, right before she sleeps with Robert, as she realizes he is the opposite of what she wants, but that telling him no “would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon.” As the night ends, Margot walks home with a sense of relief, feeling glad she’ll never have to see Robert again. She politely dodges his texts over the next few days, until a friend responds to one of Robert’s importunate messages for her, telling him she isn’t interested. The story concludes as Margot and her friends go out to a bar near campus a few weeks later, where Robert is inexplicably loitering. The pair don’t speak, until Robert drunkenly texts Margot later that night, beginning innocently enough (“I really miss you…”) until his anger towards her rejection is revealed (“Whore,”).

As soon as I finished reading, I set my phone down, stunned… Then immediately sent the link to friends. The instant, almost visceral responses that rolled in confirmed the weird gut feeling I had while reading—I know ten, fifty, a hundred versions of Margot—I am one myself. Although my experiences may not exactly mirror hers, the uncomfortable contortions of personality, subservience, and erasure of autonomy are all things female-identifying people experience regularly. It’s not that people are regularly texting me and calling me a whore, it’s that my professor thinks it’s okay to point out during class that he thinks I look like a porn star, and that afterwards, a male classmate tells me to go ‘do some math’ so I can feel better about myself. It’s that I have friends who have avoided rejecting advances from guys they weren’t interested in, solely to avoid the discomfort of telling them to stop. It’s that every single day, all kinds of women, from Hollywood actresses to hotel maids, are harassed, demeaned, and assaulted. It’s that it has taken a massive public reckoning to even attempt to fix a problem that is endemic to every level of our society.

The story of Margot and Robert reflects just how deeply internalized female subservience has become. From the disparate amount of emotional labor women are expected to undertake to sexual norms, these outsized expectations are at work everywhere, including right here on Duke’s campus. The number of times I have watched a friend or have personally agonized over the punctuation of a text, the angle of a Snapchat, or the time taken to respond to a Facebook message demonstrates the stupidity of this imbalance. Why should anyone let someone else make her feel dumb because she sent the last message, or liked a post, or responded too quickly? The pressure to strike the impossible balance of caring enough while maintaining the appearance of not caring at all can make you feel like a crazy person, an immense emotional weight no one should have to bear.

While ‘progressive’ fraternity parties are thankfully a thing of the past at Duke, the mindset that accompanied them is not. As rush events have consumed many social calendars, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the past week or so worrying about my appearance. While I’d normally like to think I have enough self-confidence to feel assured in most situations, the thought of going through a process that relies, in part, on first impressions, has caused me and almost every other girl going through Panhellenic recruitment to examine the way we present ourselves to the world. These pressures, which we’ve largely internalized from the society that surrounds us, combined with events like fraternity date functions, which exist with the subtext that potential members are evaluated based on the physical appearance of their date, can provide hints as to why forty percent of Duke undergrad women and ten percent of Duke undergrad males will be sexually assaulted during their four years on campus—both figures that are significantly higher than national averages. Even if one never experiences physical assault, the emotional toll this objectification takes is one that no one—male or female—should have to bear.

As I sat in my dorm common room articulating my thoughts to a female friend, a male classmate couldn’t help but ask us what we were talking about. Curious to hear his thoughts, we sent him the link. 

After reading, he looked up from his laptop with just one comment: “I thought it was well-written, but, come on, I mean, this seems a little dramatic.” His dismissal of a matter-of-fact, far too realistic description of all the ways casual misogyny touches the lives of women was not entirely due to his personal ignorance, but partially a product of a society that is loath to lend women’s stories the weight they deserve, and instead dismisses them as dramatic or unrealistic. As Duke students, we all have a responsibility to examine ways in which we may—unwittingly—contribute to the perpetuation of these attitudes. According to its mission statement, our university claims it produces graduates committed to “high ethical standards and full participation as leaders in their communities.” Let’s live up to this statement and strive to lend all stories and people the respect they deserve. A community of ethical leaders does not sit complacently in the presence of sexism or ignorance, but rather challenges and addresses pervasive injustices before they evolve into outright oppression.

Ann Gehan is a Trinity first-year. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.