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Film & Discussion

Sex, Dating and the Joy of Consent in the Post-MeToo Era

Cat Person

Thursday, 30 November, 8:00 pm

film screening followed by a discussion with author & philosopher Manon Garcia, moderated by journalist Nadja Vancauwen­berghe

USA 2023, 120 min, director: Susanna Fogel, cast: Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Isabella Rosselini

Cat Person
© Studiocanal GmbH / David Giesbrecht

“It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad; Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing.”

Margot, a 20-year-old college sophomore works at the local “artsy movie theatre”; 34-year old Robert is a customer. She flirts with him. The following week he comes back and demands her number. The pair engages in a heated texting romance, by which Margot’s projections and expectations run high. But as witty and engrossing his messages seemed to her, she finds real-life Robert in turn opaque, awkward and ultimately threatening when they finally meet…

Based on a New Yorker’s short story gone viral at the peak of the MeToo movement in 2017, “Cat Person” is an unsettling tale of ‘meet-cute gone wrong’. It explores the abysses of modern dating and the grey area of sexual consent in the post-MeToo age.

In its screen adaptation by director Susanna Fogel, Kirsten Roupenian’s story loses some of its wit and nuance in favour of suspense, turning “Cat Person” into an efficient psychological thriller. But the fundamental – and highly relatable, issues of the original story remain; so does their polarising potential across gender and generations. This explains the widely diverging reactions sparked by the famously cringy sex scene at the film’s Sundance premiere. As we witness how Margot painstakingly justify to herself going through with a sexual intercourse she’s no longer wishing and already regrets, we squirm and wonder.

What besides a clear and loud “no” can signal unwanted sex? How much does age gap account for power imbalance in a sexual encounter? What about this unspoken ‘gender casting’ that keeps ascribing women to the subordinate role, as the person to whom sex happens – the one who’s supposed to ‘consent’? Why are women so prone to be so stoic, so ‘polite’? Why is it so hard to change one’s mind and say “no” in sexual situations like in other social contexts?

These are some of the many issues explored by Manon Garcia in “The Joy of Consent: A Philosophy of Good Sex”, published by Harvard University Press last month. In her second book, the French-born philosopher deftly unravels the complexity of gender relations in heterosexual sex, and reframes the polemical notion of consent as an ally of pleasure rather than a legalistic killjoy.

Manon Garcia will be our guest for a unique Q&A + discussion with our audience (in English).

Exclusive Interview with Manon Garcia

“I think it is a strange idea to think that any sexual relation in which no one has said ‘no’ is consensual.”

Ahead of our special screening of “Cat Person”, Manon Garcia spares a few thoughts on the issues raised by the famous New Yorker short fiction turned motion picture. Don’t miss the highly anticipated discussion with the author of “The Joy of Consent” right after the film!

Manon Garcia
© Astrid di Crollalanza
Manon Garcia

“Cat Person” first rose to fame at the peak of MeToo in 2017, as a humorously introspective short story about a date gone wrong. Why, according to you, did this particular New Yorker fiction piece hit such a nerve back then?

I think the most striking aspect of the short story is that it tells a story with which many women can relate: an experience that can feel terribly wrong without corresponding to the legal definition of a rape. One of the core issues with the mainstream discourses about sexual violence before MeToo is that they were mostly legalistic – is this a rape in the legal sense? Will the perpetrator go to jail? “Cat Person” managed to shed light on the experience of what scholars call the grey zone, this zone between rape and sex that you actually want to have.

Would you say that Margot’s story in “Cat Person” adequately expresses this ‘grey zone’, i.e. the ambiguity of sexual consent? Here’s a young woman who ends up going along with a sexual intercourse, which she initiated but no longer wishes. She doesn’t verbalise her change of heart…

Non-consent does not have to be verbalised. I think it is a strange idea to think that any sexual relation in which no one has said “no” is consensual. I’m purposely taking an extreme example but I remember that when I was in high school in France, the common joke to deride a passive woman in bed was to call her a “starfish” – her arms and legs spread motionless. But actually, unless it’s a practice that has been discussed between the partners in advance, a woman who does not move during sex is not a woman who consents to sex!

What besides a clear “no” can possibly flag sex as non-consensual?

This is not the right way to put the question: we should not ask what flags sex as non-consensual, we should rather wonder why partners do not actively seek the other partner’s consent. Contrary to what many people believe, non-consensual sex is rarely the result of miscommunication – people think men are not good at understanding it when women do not want to have sex with them. Actually the studies on this show that men understand consent as well as anyone else. They are simply more likely to not care about non-consent.

Interview by Nadja Vancauwenberghe

Manon Garcia is one of France’s foremost political philosopher on feminism issues, and a go-to expert on themes as varied as sexual violence, oppression, consent, and internalised gender roles in our (patriarchal) society. A specialist on Simone de Beauvoir, Garcia owns impressive academic credentials ranging from fellowships at Harvard and University of Chicago. She also taught philosophy at Yale until moving to Berlin, where she’s been teaching at Freie Universität since 2022. In 2018 she first published the highly praised We Are Not Born Submissive: How Patriarchy Shapes Women’s Lives, which has been translated in English, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Italian (Turkish underway). Her second book, The Joy of Consent: A Philosophy of Good Sex first published in French in 2021, came out in English and in German (as Das Gespräch der Geschlechter) in October 2023. Translations in Chinese and Slovenian are underway. It won the Prix 2022 of the Rencontres philosophiques de Monaco.

exBlicks – A Monthly Film & Chat Series in English.
Watch German and foreign films and meet the people who make them in a real Kiez Kino!
All screenings with English subtitles, followed by Q&As in English with the filmmakers – and a customary glass of wine after the screenings!
The series is curated and hosted by Nadja Vancauwen­berghe.

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