What Bubbles Under the Surface of MTV's Catfish

Why do I continue to love this show? Despite the fact that it's formulaic--and continues to be after years of being on the air. Despite the fact that it's fake. Despite the forced moralizing that occurs at the end of each episode, wherein the catfish is supposed to feel bad for catfishing but often doesn't. Despite the hokey "hosts being adorkable" thing (I like Max, but not a fan of Nev). 

It's the same story over and over. A youngish person ostensibly contacts the show with a story about how they have been in love with someone for several years that they met online, but they have never met in person. The other person--the catfish--refuses to videochat/ has a broken phone/ lost their truck and therefore can't meet the catfishee. Nev and Max arrive with their high tech investigative skills (ie, they look on Facebook and Instagram and do Google image searches, which apparently no one else has figured out). They contact the catfish when they've collected enough "evidence," and the catfish always miraculously agrees to not only meet up and be filmed (show spoiler: typically the catfish actually contacts the show, which is why they never run into a catfish who refuses to meet). Despite the fact that it's the same thing over and over, I find myself completely riveted during act three, the moment when they're knocking on the catfish's door and you have no idea of who is going to come out. I will run out of the kitchen in order to not miss the reveal. (NB: I am never sitting in front of a TV and just watching it, so when I actually have my eyes on the TV for more than 3 seconds, someone has done something right.) 

Forty percent of the time, the catfish is someone who is LGBT but closeted, often in a small town where no one ever says, "Wait, which gay bar with the roofdeck and the bartender with the arms?" (#DCLife). Forty percent of the time it's just someone who used the pictures of a (culturally-dictated) more attractive person because they're insecure. The remaining 20 percent is a grab bag of more interesting cases: pure sociopaths, best friends who were secretly in love with the victim for years, and one recent rarity: and old gross dude trolling for young women. (sidebar, why doesn't that happen more often? And I can't even think of an instance of the catfish turning out to be married.) 

The show often sends the hosts to meet victims in places where reality TV typically doesn't go: Oklahoma, small towns where one can apparently be the only LGBT person in their entire class. You see small houses and trailers, and tons of people of adulting age that live with their parents and yappy dogs and work regular jobs. It seems a stark contrast from the constant parade of TV/movies/books that focus on New York City, LA, London, places where people who would be poor in real life live unrealistically opulent lives (not to use a dated reference, but it's beyond laughable that we're supposed to believe that Carrie Bradshaw can afford all those designer shoes when she's a freelance writer). Every so often on the show when the host takes the victim to meet the catfish, they find out that the victim has never actually been on a plane before. In some cases, they've never even left their hometown. The hosts often respond with a chipper, "You've never been on a plane before?" How quaint! Median income in Oklahoma is (let's ballpark it based on this dated website) is $45,000; in my hometown of DC its $93,000 (to be fair DC has one of the highest median incomes in the US, and using the median rather than the mean glosses over the income disparity the city has but whatever). There's even been cases where it clearly seems that both the catfish and the catfishee were faking just so they could meet each other (maybe just to get on TV, or maybe so someone else can pay their airfare.) 

I wish the show would get more in depth about the psychology behind this incredibly weird phenomenon. In between the movie and the TV show, the concept of catfishing is so well known that they added the new meaning of the word to the dictionary over at Merriam Webster. People on the show know what this is, but still fall for it. Or maybe they don't fall for it at all-- maybe they know the whole time that these relationships aren't real. Sometimes the people involved are somewhat isolated--just in general, not just in terms of not being willing to pursue other romantic relationships because they are spoken for. Sometimes they are approached by other would-be mates, but turn them down in favor of a relationship that is purely electronic. In either case, they've settled for an electronic facsimile of a relationship: no physical presence, not even videochatting, just a stream of texts, phone calls, emojis, and maybe an occasional picture stolen off Instagram. 

We don't really talk about loneliness in this country. Usually we're kidding when we are: making fun of cat ladies and "Oh no I'm going to die alone LOL." Even for introverts, the desire for companionship is so fundamental to what it is to be human that being denied companionship can often be lethal. Suicide is the tenth largest cause of death in America--it's right up there with cancer and heart disease. Even amongst people who can both articulate their feelings and are willing to do so, they're far more likely to say they are "sad," "bored," or "depressed" than to say that they are lonely, or lacking in human companionship. Some turn inwards toward depression (self-directed hate), some turn outwards. We always talk about lone wolf mass shooters. They're "lone." I don't feel bad for them, but I wonder about the power of the sickness that is loneliness, not feeling part of a community, or not feeling validated. 

Last week I was at a speakeasy (#DCLife again) with some friends and one lamented that he wanted to move into a commune in the woods and just not deal with anything. Easy to feel that way when the news is pretty stressful, but we were also talking about how the very structure of life--at least here and now in America--is isolating, overly focused on work, overly focused on nuclear families. In this scifi thing I'm writing, there's this character from a planet that has been destroyed that is often described as a utopia. People sitting on porches calling out to each other, a town where everyone knows your name. One thing I based it off of (here's a knife in your heart) was something one of my Arabic teachers told me about her childhood growing up in Damascus: a large house that is more like a compound, shaped like a square with a courtyard in the center, the whole extended family living in the same house so closely that the cousins are like brothers. So . . . not sure what it says about me that I had this planet destroyed.