By Marni Appleton
The short story’s brevity and its ability to focus on a single moment make it an ideal form through which to explore the negotiation of affective tensions and the slow, flat feelings that shape the experience of neoliberal femininity.
If you are interested in short stories, you’ve probably heard of ‘Cat Person’, the first short story to go “viral” on social media, after being published in the New Yorker in December 2017. The story centres on an undergraduate student named Margot, who goes on a date with Robert, an older man she meets whilst working in a movie theatre, and features an uncomfortable sex scene in which Margot “goes through” with sex with Robert despite her lack of desire for him. Twitter debate raged and numerous opinion pieces emerged, as journalists and culture writers scrambled to explain why a short story about modern dating had captured public attention. As someone who has written and published short stories myself, I watched, intrigued by the phenomenal response. There was something about ‘Cat Person’ that saw it become more than a work of fiction – it became a lightning rod for timely and complex debates about privilege, agency and consent.
‘Cat Person’ followed a trend I had already begun to notice in women’s short story writing. Relatively young women writers – such as Emma Cline, Lucy Caldwell, Abigail Ulman and Jenny Zhang – were all using the short story to explore experiences of girlhood and young womanhood. What’s more, these stories all shared a complex engagement with feeling. This was the jumping off point for my doctoral research. My work is animated by a few key questions: why the short story? Why now? And what are the particular feelings that shape these stories?
A key theoretical text for my project is Angela McRobbie’s The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change, in which she explores the “undoing” of feminism in what is known as post(-)feminism (2009, 24). This led me to a significant body of work exploring the contradictory nature of postfeminist discourses, and the way they use feminist ideas and language to achieve anti-feminist ends. For example, as McRobbie points out, vocabulary such as ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’ is subsumed in order to create a new individualistic agenda in popular culture and media, which stands as a replacement for feminism (2009, 1). In this way, postfeminism shuts down the possibility of renewed feminist activism, by declaring that its work is already done. Yet the ostensibly ‘feminist’ elements of postfeminism – such as the suggestion that women are equal to men and free to behave as they wish – coexist with persistent misogyny. For example, celebrations of ‘girl power’ and ‘independent women’ sit alongside hostile scrutiny of celebrities and other successful women in the media. At once, women and girls are told that they are empowered, yet they must conform to certain societal expectations or face punishment. The focus on individual choice as the primary route to women’s empowerment also obscures the persistence of structural inequalities – such as gender, but also including race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, and socioeconomic background – by dismissing the impacts of these inequalities as the bad choices of individual women, rather than recognising them as systemic problems. All kinds of structurally produced disadvantage are repositioned as obstacles to be overcome by working on the self, which makes women responsible for their own experiences of discrimination.
To understand the gap between the feeling promises of postfeminism (empowerment, positivity, confidence), and the feelings that postfeminism actually produces, I turn to the work of affect theorists such as Sara Ahmed, Sianne Ngai and Lauren Berlant, all of whom are concerned with the ways in which the conditions of neoliberal capitalism create certain feelings through situations in which suspended or blocked agency is masked by the illusion of agency. Their concepts of “cruel optimism” (Berlant), “ugly feelings” (Ngai) and interrogation of “the promise of happiness” (Ahmed) are particularly useful to me in thinking through the slow, non-cathartic feelings that emerge alongside the upbeat feeling performances of postfeminism. Bringing these concepts to bear on my own work enables me to tease out the ways in which the promises made to postfeminism’s subjects are slowly revealed to be hollow.
My PhD makes the case that the short story is the most adept literary channel for these complex and frustrating feelings. The short story’s brevity and its ability to focus on a single moment make it an ideal form through which to explore the negotiation of affective tensions and the slow, flat feelings that shape the experience of neoliberal femininity. Similarly, the epiphany – a structural principle built around fleeting insights, which build towards a moment of revelation – is often exploited in these stories to create a jarring feeling of uncertainty and disappointment. An epiphany is an individual experience that necessarily lends itself towards a change in perspective – an insight – which is a type of quick, transformative progress. I argue that the epiphany’s focus on the individual and a kind of “enlightened” forward progress means that it is ideally suited to perpetuate the project of neoliberalism. By resisting the revelation that we expect from a short story, these stories not only capture the stubbornness that characterises postfeminist feeling, but also the lurch that comes from moving towards a destination that is always shifting out of reach. Moreover, slow, lingering feelings that offer no emotional release are difficult to sustain over a longer work. These short stories often resist closure, and instead foster the kinds of ambiguity and inconclusiveness that are rare in longer literary works, since in order to be a satisfying reading experience, longer works usually at least gestures towards some kind of progress or resolution by the end.
We can see how these techniques have been used in ‘Cat Person’. The story has contemporary resonance (it was published within a few months of the height of the #MeToo moment), yet it resists the kind of black and white, good and bad binarism that characterised much of the #MeToo discourse. By pushing towards ambiguity and asking us to think about the ‘grey’ areas of consent, ‘Cat Person’ has been remarkably successful in asking questions of its readers and generating discussion about contemporary sexual politics. Similarly, the ending, in which we see Robert send Margot a string of conflicting messages, veering from “I miss you” and “you looked really pretty” to “whore” creates a sense of instability and leaves us questioning his feelings beyond the end of the story. Though ‘Cat Person’ might be the most widely discussed short story published in recent years, it is far from the only short story asking us to think about the conditions of contemporary girlhood and young womanhood. Whether they’re focused on sex, work, friendships or family, the stories I write about are linked by a refusal to resolve or answer, to state things in black and white. Rather, they leave the reader in the lurch – to wonder, to worry, and to work things out on their own. The short story offers a unique space in which women writers can grapple with the frustrating feelings that characterise the experience of neoliberal femininity without needing to tie up the narrative neatly at the end or gesture towards progress. In a world determined to move us onwards and sort everything into rigid categories, these stories ask what we might learn by dwelling in the grey.
Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.
McRobbie, Angela. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: SAGE.
Ngai, Sianne. 2005. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Roupenian, Kristen. 2017. “Cat Person.” The New Yorker, Dec 4, 2017. Accessed 21 May, 2022. www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person/
Marni Appleton is a postgraduate researcher in creative-critical writing at the University of East Anglia. Her doctoral research comprises a collection of short stories and a critical thesis that examines feeling and (post)feminism in contemporary women’s short stories. Marni’s writing is published or forthcoming in journals such as Banshee, The Tangerine, Alluvium and Contemporary Women’s Writing.