Social media is a small numbers game: 280-character tweets, 15-second Instagram stories, 10-second snapchats. Generally speaking, if you were looking for 7,000-word longform, feminist fiction – social media is not the place to find it. Well, that was until a simple story about bad sex and imaginary cats surfaced the web last year.
Published by The New Yorker, Cat Person was named one of the top online reads of 2017. After clawing its way to the site’s most popular stories for eight straight days, Kristen Roupenian is still one of the most talked about writers of 2018, securing a book deal with Scout Press and selling a horror screenplay to production company A24. To think only three months ago, Roupenian was an unknown, young writer with fewer than 200 followers on Twitter.
I will admit when a friend said, ‘You must read Cat Person’, I had a furry taste in my mouth. ‘Just another generic, millennial, cat-lady story,’ I thought. My scepticism was reinforced by the viral Twitter outcry of 10,000 people tweeting ‘this story is important’, ‘everyone should read this’, ‘this happened to me.’ I eventually relented and began to read it. After reading Cat Person for the first time, then a second time and even a third time, I found myself searching the web for answers about why I and many others found this story so moving.
Beginning with a cute meeting between college student Margot and a much older suitor, Robert, the story leads to bad, confusing sex and an inevitably bad breakup. I realised that it is a significant piece of work because, although it seemed like a simple ‘girl-meets-boy’ story or even a cautionary tale about murky millennial dating, it is more than that. It is a feminist story that specifically speaks to the millennial generation because it illustrates the grey area of sexual consent. Like the countless young women who found solace in Roupenian’s work, I too found my own experiences mirrored in the text. Although Roupenian says the story was inspired by her own nasty encounter with a man she met online, she describes her work as fiction. Factual or fictitious – for millennial women dating in the post-Weinstein-revelation world – Cat Person is the real deal. It voices a negative experience that is all too familiar for many women.
From memoirs to viral personal essays and fiction about sexual harassment, the #MeToo Movement has spawned a new genre of writing in the form of feminist, millennial stories. Pouncing between descriptions of modern-day dating and the difficulties women face, Cat Person can be described as a literary combination of both millennial and feminist fiction. Roupenian writes about emoji hearts and flirty texts then, before you know it, she nosedives into the underbelly of millennial dating to make an important statement about the murkiness of sexual consent.
Cat Person may not sound like ground-breaking stuff, but it has a secret weapon. What Roupenian creates in her millennial story is a cipher for young women to relate to it with their own stories about sex, dating and harassment. The reader’s reaction doesn’t derive from Margot’s narrative. Instead, they compare their own personal story that happens to surface when reading the text. For women, this story is usually an experience of sexual harassment and for men, they may fear being labelled ‘Robert’. Therefore, when you look at these online stories and responses from readers, you can see that there is much more to Cat Person than a simple story about sex with relative strangers. When young people talk about Cat Person, they are engaging in a valid discussion surrounding millennial fiction and its relation to young women.
Earlier this year, British millennial writer Emma Glass released her debut novella called Peach, a harrowing account of a young woman grappling with the aftermath of sexual assault. Where Roupenian presents the blurred lines of consent in millennial dating, Glass demarcates them. The story begins with a college student named Peach stumbling home after being raped. Forcing the reader to confront the bodily transformation of assault, we follow the protagonist after her assault reading about her vomit, her torn skin and blood dripping between her legs. Even though Glass refuses to sugar-coat or embellish sexual assault, this doesn’t mean Peach is a gory horror story: it’s a story about something horrible that happens to a lot of women. As we continue to hear real-life stories about sexual assault in #MeToo literature, millennial writers are more accountable than ever for the authenticity in their stories and voices. For Roupenian, this was redefining sexual harassment in the millennial age of texting, social media and dating apps. As for Glass, it’s the tragic responsibility that comes with being a voice for young readers who cannot articulate their own experiences of sexual assault.
Although millennial feminist fiction does not speak to all women, it opens a new window into experiences that some women haven’t had but want to understand. In Roxane Gay’s collection of feminist shorts, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, Gay discusses her personal account of being gang-raped as a young girl. The book shifts to an anthology of personal essays about rape culture in general, allowing readers to relate and listen to the lives of everyday women. Like Gay’s anthology, millennial fiction is driven by a chorus of female writers banding together to legitimise each other’s stories.
The advances of millennial feminist fiction depend on the support from other feminist writers as can be seen in the release of 58-year-old Meg Wolitozer’s latest novel, The Female Persuasion. A young, millennial feminist writer, Lena Dunham, wrote The New York Times book review. Following the review, the newspaper tweeted, ‘Lena Dunham. Meg Wolitozer. Our work here is done.’
The pairing of Dunham, a millennial feminist, and Wolitozer, a feminist from the second-wave generation, correlates Wolitozer’s book about a young college student sexually assaulted on campus who turns to a second-wave feminist icon for help. As seen during the #MeToo movement and women’s marches around the world, Wolitozer’s novel praises the strong bond of intergenerational feminism between millennial and feminist women, while still emphasising the struggles unique to the millennial generation. That said, Wolitozer’s novel has also been criticised for its lack of intersectionality and racial diversity. Feminist website Jezebel recently wrote a piece about Wolitozer’s failure to accommodate intersectionality, to which Wolitozer responded, ‘Something I did try to do deliberately is portray the white feminist leaders in the book struggling to build a multi-racial movement.’
The Jezebel article and Dunham’s review show that #MeToo literature is headed in the right direction by commissioning women writers to review other women writers, and allowing younger feminists to challenge second-wave narratives.
Just like the #MeToo movement, millennial fiction will continue to shape its literary form, with incredible work seen from both emerging and diverse writers. Featured in Lenny Letter, Buzzfeed and The New Yorker, millennial activist Morgan Jerkins just released her new collections of essays, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America. Jerkins interweaves commentary on misogyny and racism with her own experiences and challenges of being a young black woman in America and Russia. There is also a slew of new millennial fiction in YA titles such as Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human, which tackles subject matters like teenage gender dysphoria and sexual assault.
In feminist fiction, we often associate defining moments of history to a female voice or writer from the same generation. With a multitude of #MeToo literature in 2018, readers don’t associate feminist fiction with a single female writer or voice but a choir of young women that demand to be heard.
We need to make room for this type of literature that is further defining the remarkable #MeToo movement that has already spoken to so many people. Besides, isn’t that why Twitter increased their word count? To make room for more millennial feminist fiction?
Georgia Gallo is part of the Grattan Street Press team in Semester 1, 2018. Georgia believes in the healing powers of coffee, whiskey, 70s soft rock and RuPaul’s Drag Race.