We Need to Talk About Catfish

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An angry rant about MTV's hit show, Catfish.

Submitted: May 06, 2017

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Submitted: April 24, 2017

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As an avid binge watcher of television shows, I have subscriptions to almost every video streaming service there is. Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, Amazon Prime Video; I have them all. Due to my television addiction, I often find myself running out of things to watch. The other night, I was scrolling through the library of television shows on Amazon Prime, about to give up my search and watch Parks and Recreation for the hundredth time. I then noticed at the bottom of the page a show I had completely forgotten existed: MTV’s Catfish.

When Catfish first premiered on MTV in 2012, it was extremely popular. It was a spinoff of a 2010 documentary of the same name that told the story of Nev Shulman, a man who had fallen in love with a girl online only to discover that she wasn’t who she said she was. The girl was a catfish, or someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using social media to create false identities to pursue online relationships. Recovering from his “heartbreak,” Nev decides to help people in similar situations by researching their online significant others and trying to convince them to meet in real life. The show presents itself as a romantic indie docuseries determined to help people find true love, but I’m calling bullshit on that.

I didn’t expect much from Catfish other than it being some guilty pleasure television, but I soon found myself dissecting every aspect of the series. There was something about Catfish that annoyed me to my core. As I watched the pilot episode, the first thing I noticed was how much time was devoted to telling Nev’s story. The intro shots all feature Nev and his filmmaker friend, Max, as they travel the country helping victims of catfishing. For a show about different people and their experiences with online dating, Nev and Max sure do enjoy a lot of screen time. With their sexy haircuts, hipster outfits, and artistic filmmaking, Nev and Max inevitably become the focus of the show. This irritated me, as I already felt like the show was exploiting the suffering of those who had been catfished. 

As I made my way through the first season, I observed that Catfish had the same formula for every episode. At the beginning of each episode, Nev and Max are filmed in their hotel room reading desperate emails from individuals who suspect they are being catfished. They inevitably agree to help the person, establishing themselves as the “heroes” of the show. Upon meeting the potential catfish victim, they inquire about the online relationship and how long it has lasted. The show has a tendency to cast these victims in the most pathetic light as possible. They talk about how much they love and trust the person they met online, despite obvious red flags. The next feature of the Catfish formula is the clichéd scene where Nev and Max sit in a cozy, local coffee shop with their MacBook, “researching” the individual and if they actually exist. What I hate about this part of the show is that Nev and Max are trumped up to be these catfish “experts.” In reality, they just know how to use Google. There is no special software or investigative tactics. They literally just search for the person’s name on the internet. That is the extent of their inquiry. About 99 percent of the time, they immediately find out that the person in question has been lying about their name, aspects of their life, and what they look like. By dropping images into a Google search, they frequently find that the pictures sent to the victim belong to someone else’s social media account. What confuses me is why these catfishing victims don’t do this on their own. They don’t need Nev and Max when search engines exist.

One of the most appalling aspects of Catfish is the glaring exploitation of both the participants of the show and the catfish themselves. The participants of the show are portrayed as these gullible fools trying to make excuses for the suspicious behavior of the person they’re talking to online. Many of them admit that they are in love with their online significant other, some even going as far to send them money and gifts. It’s hard not to judge the naivety of these people, especially when it is so obvious that the person they are talking to is lying. However, I can understand how people fall into these kinds of relationships. When you find someone you care about, either online or in person, it’s easy to become attached. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems ridiculous that an individual could fall in love with someone they’ve never met in person or, in some cases, have never even spoken to on the phone, but it happens. That’s why it is so heartbreaking to watch the moment when they find out the person they loved is a complete stranger. Imagine having one of the most embarrassing and disappointing instances of your life broadcast on national television. It’s disturbing how a show can utilize someone’s sorrow and vulnerability as entertainment for others.

The participants aren’t the only ones being exploited for the cause of good television; the catfish aren’t treated well either. These individuals lie about things like their weight, how many children they have, their arrest records, their gender, their age, and even their sexual orientation. I am not condoning the deceitful actions of these people, but I think the show goes out of its way to portray them a very harsh light. The people who catfish have their reasons. They are insecure, lonely, and have such low self-esteem that they feel it’s necessary to take on an entirely different persona in order to find love. As these online relationships become more serious and feelings inevitably become involved, it’s hard to continue living a lie. When Nev and Max call the catfish and bully them into meeting their significant other in person, it is sometimes clear that the catfish  is eager to finally reveal the truth. It’s an exhausting and bitter life when you have to lie about who you are. For these people, Catfish is their one opportunity to come clean and attempt to mend their fractured relationship. The problem is, when the cameras come on and the person is confronted, it often turns ugly. During each episode, after all the “research” has been conducted, Nev and Max travel with the participant to meet the online stranger in person. There’s always this dramatic moment when the participant knocks on the door, expecting to see the person they’ve been in an online relationship with, and it turns out to be someone completely different. The participant gets understandably upset, the catfish tries to explain themselves, and Nev aggressively asks why they lied. As much as I sympathize with the victim, I also end up pitying the catfish.

It’s interesting how lies about weight and appearances are most often the deal breaker for the participants on Catfish. In the instances where the person has been truthful about everything except their physical appearance and they are still dumped, I have to wonder how shallow our generation really is. The show makes it seem like if you’re overweight, poor, or lonely, you don’t deserve love. It’s set up so that the audience will automatically pity the victim and hate the catfish. It’s a fucked up dynamic if you really think about it.

Most episodes conclude with an update from both people, usually stating that they have decided to remain friends. Very rarely do people actually find the online love of their life and I think the producers want it to stay that way. It doesn’t make for good television when the person the participant has been talking to ends up being who they say they are. Viewers want drama and despair and Catfish certainly delivers that. When Nev and Max do their detective work at the beginning of each episode, it is always glaringly obvious that the person they are researching is lying. Rather than tell the participant and let him or her down easily, Nev and Max get their hopes up and encourage them to find the truth themselves. The “best” episodes are the ones with the biggest lies and the biggest heartbreak. As innocent as the premise of Catfish seems, I think it has much crueler intentions. It is human nature to want to be loved and feel connected, even if it’s with a fraudulent online lover. Catfish exploits this trait of human nature and viewers eat it up. In the words of Vulture writer Margaret Lyons, “Catfish is the embodiment of American shame.”

Maybe I’m overreacting, but I do feel like we needed to talk about Catfish. There are a myriad of problematic television shows I could have dissected, but Catfish really just got on my fucking nerves. Between the exploitation of gullible people, the ridiculous “research” efforts of Nev and Max, and all the fucking Mumford and Sons songs played in the background, I decided to stop watching Catfish and find a show didn’t give me such a visceral reaction.  


© Copyright 2018 Sofia Elizabeth . All rights reserved.

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