“On Chesil Beach” and What Is Expected of Women

How the viral story Cat Person, incels, and Ian McEwans book—plus its adaptation starring Saoirse Ronan, now in theaters—all connect, with insight from the films director Dominic Cooke.

Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” was published in The New Yorker last December to great acclaim, the only short story to ever go “viral.” I tweeted something offhand about the piece myself—essentially lamenting how many women on my Twitter feed had shared it, but so few men, not exactly a revelation—and that tweet got five thousand favorites, plus many inane comments I didn’t want to sift through. (To be fair, some were insightful.)

“Cat Person” is narrated by Margot, a twenty-year-old college student asked on a date by a seemingly benign older gentleman named Robert. They get to know each other first via text, then over a single unpleasant evening during which Margot discovers that Robert is actually kind of a douche. She feels pressured to have sex with him anyway, and later agonizes over how best to break things off. It’s not easy: he calls Margot a whore and even stalks her a little before the story’s end.

Scores of male Twitter users were surprised by the outpouring of feminine support for the story, and by the piece’s lack of empathy for Robert’s point of view (um—it’s told from Margot’s perspective). Plenty more felt the knee-jerk demonization of Robert unwarranted, since he had done nothing explicitly malicious to Margot until after she rejected him, and he received no direct corrections from her along the way. Few of us labeled Robert an abusive figure; we’d merely responded to the familiar romantic hoops Margot felt obliged to jump through in order to please and placate her date, and by extension every man like him with a delicate ego. “It’s definitely an uncomfortable read for both men and women,” someone tweeted at me. “Women relate to Margot’s experience, whereas men fear being Robert.”

A distinction commonly attributed to Margaret Atwood is that “men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.” These stakes seem hardly comparable. Men who recognize hints of their own sly techniques in Robert, then, must indeed be disgusted with themselves: Margot is alternatingly drawn to and repelled by the guy, regaling her friends with tales of their shitty sex. She doesn’t, however, admit to them that she didn’t want to have sex in the first place, but “the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon.” Saying “no” to a man can have dire results. Her mockery of Robert to her friends is justified—he’s mean-spirited and negs her throughout their date, though Margot does ultimately get one of her friends to dump him via text, and not very kindly. She’s too scared to do it herself.

One group wholly demonstrative of Atwood’s philosophy are the incels, recently in the news. Short for “involuntarily celibate,” these are men who believe women owe them sex. Increasingly sullen in our progressive modern era wherein women have agency, a right to choose, and laws prohibiting rape that occasionally dole out punishment where it’s deserved, incels rail on message boards about the injustice of girls refusing to screw them, plus discuss various violent means by which the female gender could again be enslaved. A braindead New York Times op-ed contributed to the debate a few weeks back, suggesting the problem might be solved if sex was doled out or “redistributed” to lonely boys like healthcare (oh, wait). Unfortunately, incels aren’t looking for mere companionship—what they really want is male supremacy, formal obedience, total surrender.  

All this leads us roundly to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, a book that is now a film starring Lady Bird’s Saoirse Ronan and Dunkirk’s Billy Howle. The 2007 novella is slim, and takes place in Britain circa 1962: A young pair named Florence and Edward have just been married, and now face their first night together as man and wife in a remote seaside hotel. Although madly in love, Florence is terrified by the prospect of having sex with Edward. Living on the cusp of the sexual revolution, neither has the language to express their intimacy issues yet. She’s possibly asexual, possibly traumatized past the point of desire on account of childhood abuse, while he worries about climaxing too rapidly. The stakes are low, but also monumental. Erotic fulfillment was promised in their wedding vows.

The relationship’s rapid dissolution begins when Edward finishes too quickly during foreplay and Florence (insulted and ignorant) rushes from the room and onto the beach. When he follows, she proposes an open marriage, wherein they spend their lives together but Edward sleeps with other women, rather than expecting her to satiate a lust she can’t reciprocate. Edward doesn’t take kindly to this suggestion, assuming her rejection of sex—something he’s waited and hoped and longed for—to be the ultimate dismissal of him as a man. Without so much as an attempt at understanding her hesitation or questioning his own entitlement to her body, Edward breaks things off.

While men might fail to recognize how intimidating the expectation of sex can be for women, it’s something McEwan’s novel (and the film, for which he wrote the screenplay) hinges upon with exquisite delicacy.

In his 2007 New York Times review, Jonathan Lethem called On Chesil Beachas fundamentally a horror novel as any McEwan’s written, one that carries with it a David Cronenberg sensitivity to what McEwan calls ‘the secret affair between disgust and joy.’” (Cronenberg’s cinematic genre is body horror—the mutation, disease, and general crudity of our fleshy forms). While men might fail to recognize how intimidating the expectation of sex can be for women, particularly when inexperienced or ill-educated, it’s something McEwan’s novel (and the film, for which he wrote the screenplay) hinges upon with exquisite delicacy.

McEwan has always composed from a female perspective well, and Saoirse Ronan, who also stars in another of the author’s adaptations, Joe Wright’s Atonement, told McEwan she was similarly struck by his “incredible understanding of the mind of a woman.” Ronan is an Irish-American actress singularly beloved for her roles in Brooklyn and Lady Bird—both somewhat overpraised films, I might argue—but she’s perfect here as Florence; cold and imperial in a vivid turquoise dress, never deliberately sensuous, embodying both the primness of the time period and a forceful temperament tugging at the restraints beneath. She does love Edward—portrayed by Billy Howle with a kind of unwashed tenderness—even though she can’t bring herself to give him what he wants.

“Cat Person”’s Margot exists in an era considerably more laissez-faire than Florence’s, as she’s already slept with several men by the time she meets Robert. Whereas Florence considers Edward’s body alien and daunting, Robert’s is all too familiar for Margot, if equally uninviting—and her going home with him signs and dates a consummation treaty not unlike the vows taken by Florence and Edward, though much less official.

On Chesil Beach is the debut film from theater director Dominic Cooke. The adaptation proved an ideal fit for the first-timer, as the book is an interplay between two people, stage-like; his challenge lay in the novel’s interiority, somehow imparting the characters’ memories and subjectivities on screen. Cooke does it via frequent flashbacks to Florence and Edward’s lives pre-marriage, piecing together how they ended up miserable on the Dorset seashore.

“Half of it was to do with making sure the two actors had the ability to communicate their inner lives while staying true to the social structures of the early ’60s,” Cooke says when we speak. “It’s an acting challenge, but one they were able to overcome brilliantly. I saw Saoirse could do that in Brooklyn; somehow behaving one way, but feeling very differently on the inside. The formal behavior is conditioned into these young people. A lot of the time I told them, ‘Feel it—but show less.’ I remember with my grandparents, that generation, especially in the UK, how withheld people were emotionally.”

Many women would have simply “closed their eyes and thought of England—suffered through the love-making and pretended to enjoy it, in other words—but Florence stands her ground, objecting to a long-standing tradition of females treading carefully to avoid patriarchal irritation. Her offer to Edward of a non-traditional relationship is a compromise ahead of its time, so naturally he rejects it. He wants to get laid now, damn it. Of course, neither one of them is strictly wrong.

“Now the pressure comes from the normalization of extreme forms of sexual behavior—what young people often feel they are expected to live up to.” — Dominic Cooke

The taboo nature of sex in those meek years before the Swinging Sixties is largely responsible for the couple’s demise. Both sex and the portrayal of it in popular culture has evolved considerably since then; now graphic porn is easily accessible, and mainstream film and TV offer healthy dosings of nudity. But the casual ubiquity of the act has led to a fresh set of problems: “With young people’s sexual performance, there’s a huge amount of anxiety nowadays, in a way there would’ve been for Florence and Edward, but for very different reasons,” Cooke points out. “Now the pressure comes from the normalization of extreme forms of sexual behavior—what young people often feel they are expected to live up to. It can be hugely inhibiting and doesn’t really allow a connection with vulnerability or intimacy.”

Cooke’s On Chesil Beach is a wonderfully faithful adaptation, up until the last twenty minutes; the ending marks the most significant departure from the book, with a conclusion that’s both more emotionally satisfying and more sentimental than the novel’s. McEwan called this end cinematically irresistible and Cooke says he wanted to give the audience “a catharsis that wasn’t in the book,” a better look inside the burden of Edward’s decisions. “The narrator of the book is a slightly distant, colder voice, writing from the present looking back,” Cooke says. “It’s like an adult voice that can see the folly of the choices the characters are making. But you can’t have that perspective in the movie—you’re there, with them.” Spoiler alert here, but in the book, the two characters never see each other again, and in the film they do, wordlessly mourning What Might Have Been.

The new conclusion is probably truer to the times we’re in currently. Seeing how it all turns out, how they both ended up, is more than possible in present day: Edward would know Florence got married to someone else because he’d be lurking her Facebook photos while sitting on the toilet. But he likely also wouldn’t have waited for sex until marriage, making the whole thing less touchy and pressure-filled—and, consequently, less heart-wrenching. Perhaps a version of Edward coming of age in 2018 would’ve read “Cat Person,” followed the #MeToo movement, and become wise to his mistakes. He would encourage Florence to get therapy, go slower, discuss sex so that she felt more comfortable—or they wouldn’t get married at all, after noticing their fundamental incompatibilities. At least we’ve got more options. FL

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