(Cat)Fishing for Love
Catfish: The TV Show (MTV, 2012-) is a reality programme based on the documentary film Catfish (2010) which followed a young man building a romantic relationship with a woman he had met on Facebook, but never seen in real life. When he travels across the country to finally meet his cyber love interest, it turns out that the real person behind the attractive young woman’s profile is a middle-aged mother impersonating various different people online.
Yaniv ‘Nev’ Schulman, the protagonist of Catfish, the movie, now hosts the homonymous television show together with his friend, the filmmaker Max Joseph. The reality format focuses on so-called ‘online relationships’ between young Americans whose romances unfold exclusively through Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, text messages and phone calls. Invariably, photos are exchanged. Invariably, attempts to meet in person or just to video-chat are regularly turned down by one of the virtual lovers, accompanied by a series of increasingly bizarre excuses. To break the cycle of hope and rejection, Nev and Max are called for help. Together they arrange for the desperate romantic to finally meet their mysterious online crush, usually to discover that he or she is a ‘catfish’. A catfish, according to MTV, ‘is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities’ (MTV 2013).
Nev (left) and Max skyping with a catfish (episode 3:8)
Often, the reality behind the catfish’s fake social media profile, which typically features pictures of a very attractive young male or female, is a profoundly insecure person who fails to meet mainstream standards of beauty, often in terms of weight (this has led one commentator to suggest, ‘Catfish could be called So, I Am Secretly Fat’ (Lyons 2013)). Other times, the deception has more to do with class anxieties: many catfish lie about their job – or the lack thereof – and their financial situation. There are also a number of cases in which the catfish impersonates someone of the opposite sex, either to take some form of revenge on the person he or she is deceiving, or as a means of negotiating their own sexuality: various Catfish episodes show homosexual, bisexual or transgender catfish feeling unable to communicate their sexual identity to their friends and family and choosing to escape into online relationships instead, as a way of emotionally connecting with a person they desire without having to admit to themselves, or others, the reality of their sexual orientation.
The backstories of both the catfish and the catfished frequently reveal complex social dramas: histories of dysfunctional families, drug abuse, illness and social rejection. A lot of times, both parties confess that they feel closer to their online lover than to anyone in their real-life social circle. For many participants, their virtual ‘partner’ is the only person they dare to open up to.
This constellation makes for real television drama. In creating and documenting a narrative of broken hearts and broken dreams, Catfish portrays almost the entire range of human emotion: desire, hope, anticipation, shock, disappointment, sometimes followed by anger and resentment, other times by understanding and forgiveness. The show thus draws on and combines a variety of genres, including the romantic drama, the detective story and the psychological thriller, often mixed with elements of absurd comedy.
However, what I find most fascinating about Catfish is not the underlying story of social anxieties of young Americans and what it tells us about modern society (although this message is deeply concerning). But the show does more than just expose the psychological effects of poverty, social isolation, or internet addiction. Each episode of Catfish also tells a story of true love. The intimate portrayal of deep, authentic emotions towards a person the catfished protagonist communicates with only through words and photos proves that romance is not dead.
Craig is devastated when he meets his catfish (episode 3:1)
Courtney is in shock about her catfish’s revelations (episode 4:2)
Mirada learns that her online boyfriend is really a girl (episode 3:8)
Even though some have called today’s youth ‘generation porn’ – a concept often implying concerns about a generation supposedly educated by pornography to engage sexually without connecting emotionally (see, e.g., Mills 2013) – the hopeful lovers on Catfish are neither numb nor cynical, nor are their relationships based on physical contact. Instead, what they find in their internet love is a person they can relate to on an emotional level, someone they believe they can trust and with whom they share not only their hopes and dreams, but also their pain and fears. It doesn’t matter that the object of their affection is often not quite real. Because love is real when it feels real. To me, Catfish’s portrayal of the reality of love is more shocking and more compelling than its overriding narratives of desperation and social exclusion. Ultimately, it is the authenticity of its participants’ romantic optimism that makes Catfish really good television.
Keyonnah is nervous to finally meet her internet crush (episode 2:15)
Solana is happy that her catfish is really who he said he was (episode 3:7)
Kya’s (left) feelings don’t change when she finds out that her online boyfriend is a transgender man (episode 1:6)
Jamila Baluch is currently working as a lecturer in media studies at the CIEE Global Institute Berlin. Her main research interests are representations of race and gender in American television’.
 The term catfish has become so widely used that Merriam-Webster has added a second definition for ‘catfish’ to its dictionary: apart from the fish, a catfish is also defined as ‘a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes’. See: Merriam-Webster, ‘catfish’, available at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/catfish [accessed 30/09/2015]
 In most Catfish episodes, the participants refer to the catfish as their ‘boyfriend’/’girlfriend’; some even claim to be engaged to the person they have been talking to for months, often years, without ever meeting face to face.