Monday, October 21, 2013

Sometimes I Feel Really Bad for Catfish

[Content note: light mentions of thin, cis, and straight privilege]

[Image text: promotional photo of Nev Schulman and his co-star/friend Max Joseph]
When I went to a movie theater in 2010 to see the movie Catfish, I thought I was seeing a creepy or horror-ish flick. I was epically disappointed when what I actually saw was the story of a guy, Nev Schulman, meeting a girl he fell in love with online and she turns out to be nothing like depicted. If I hadn't somehow misunderstood what I was going to see due to suspect marketing, I might have actually liked the thing. I know this because now that Schulman has his own show by the same name, where he helps people find out if they're being catfished, I am fascinated...

That is, until it also gets really sad.

You see, in watching several episodes of Catfish over its two season run thus far, I've noticed a few trends. The first trend is just how lonely so many people are. Aside from the occasional person who is just being a deceitful jackass for fun, the whole show centers on people who just want to make connections to others. And often the catfish live in fairly isolated rural areas where there isn't exactly a dearth of opportunities to meet new people.

The second trend goes hand in hand with this. A vast majority of the time, the person who is misrepresenting themselves (the catfish) is fat and every so often they carry another oppression like being a gender or sexuality minority. So they're not just lonely isolated people in general...they're lonely isolated people who really don't feel like they fit in or have been shamed or oppressed in some way. This observation didn't come lightly to me. I can't help but see how privileges are at play here. For example, it's not that fat people are somehow more deceitful or's that they have been so deeply shamed by their appearance that they pretend to be someone else as a way of connecting to another person behind a more socially acceptable facade.

It's kind of heart breaking.

I remember seeing one episode where when the confrontation had happened and Nev asked the catfish, a fat young woman, why she did what she did, one of her explanations was, "Look at me." In another more recent episode, another fat young woman was catfishing a guy she had know who had previously rejected her based of her appearance. But now, he had fallen in love with her, when it was her personality via phone and text, but another girl's picture. She was pretty clearly grief stricken at their "real life" confrontation because she didn't want what they had to end.

When I watch Catfish, I feel really bad for the people who have been deceived, of course. So often they feel a deep personal connection to the catfish who has strung them along under all kinds of lies and they are coming to that realization, which is painful. But I was surprised to see how often I feel equally horrible for the catfish. I didn't expect they would almost always be lonely, marginalized people--not cruel online bullies. When they tell their stories and the full picture of their situation is revealed, you being to understand that it's not as straight forward as them being "bad people."

As with the trend for "reality" TV, the show is exploiting this situation. While Schulman and Joseph do handle both the catfisher and the catfishee with at least some level of compassion and empathy, it all is ultimately about the spectacle of the situation. And I feel that the possible light it casts on issues like thin, straight, and cis privilege are lost on both the hosts and the wider audience.

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