words by Katie Walsh
illustration by Vanessa Motorhead Crook

In the 2010 documentary Catfish, the husband of the woman who has created a host of fake identities in order to communicate with the film’s protagonist, Nev, shares a short anecdote that gives the film, and the phenomenon it documents, its name. Vince tells them that when cod were shipped from Alaska to China, they were kept in big vats and the lack of activity during the trip would cause their flesh to turn mushy and bland. Someone came up with the idea of introducing catfish into the tanks to keep the cod agile during the trip. Using this example, he talks about how some people are catfish in real life; they keep you on your toes, keep you guessing, keep you sharp. And with this film, the name of a social phenomenon, “catfishing,” was born.  So too was Catfish: The TV Show, on MTV, a social and cultural phenomenon that explores the world of online relationships wherein one person presents a fake identity.

But Catfish: The TV Show doesn’t celebrate those people who keep you on your toes, keep you sharp; Catfish: The TV Show disciplines those who misrepresent themselves when entering into the social contract of an interpersonal relationship. Foucault argues in Discipline and Punish that the spectacle of punishment (as in torture and execution for crimes) has long left the public sphere, but it seems plausible to state that this spectacle has instead traveled to the world of mass media and television. Whether it’s experiencing the second-hand embarrassment of misguided and clueless Bachelor/Bachelorette contestants, or judging the scheming inhabitants of the Big Brother house, public spectacle of punishment hasn’t gone anywhere: the crimes we prosecute are social ones now, impoliteness and infractions of the social code. Catfish, while on the surface purporting to be a show about bringing people together, is really an opportunity for viewers to witness the exposure and embarrassment (and thus punishment) of someone guilty of the social crime of lying.

The hosts of Catfish, Nev (himself the victim of a catfish in the documentary), and his “filmmaker buddy,” Max, serve as amateur sleuths to help to uncover the deception and reveal the “authentic” persons behind the online front. The real drama of the show comes from the reveal of the actual body behind the constructed persona, with tension resulting from the fact that these people have misrepresented themselves as a person of more cultural value. As sociologist Erving Goffman describes in his discussions of misrepresentation in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, this person “did not have the right to pay the part he played, that he was not an accredited incumbent of the relevant status.” The relevant status that Catfish traffics in is by its nature corporeal, predicated on race, gender, weight, and sexuality. There is shock value in the reveal that a front, or persona, of a thin, white, straight female was constructed by an obese, black, gay man, and the resulting tension that is represented on Catfish: The TV Show is indicative of the higher cultural status that is placed on certain bodies, which have a higher value in a capitalist structure.

The inner logic of Catfish takes on these reveals, or unveilings, as a moral imperative that eliminates the dishonesty in these relationships, and allows the parties to move on, either with or without each other. Catfish places honesty and authenticity at the apex of morality within this world, and disciplines those who do not adhere to these principles through exposure and humiliation. That the bearers of this discipline are the urban, upper middle class, white, straight men, Nev and Max, seems relevant, especially when there is a significant amount of class, race, gender, and sexuality-based infringements and deceptions that they must uncover and rectify within the show’s running time. When Max snaps “NOT WHATEVER” at a Latina mother of one of the catfish when she refuses to apologize for the expensive gifts and money that her daughter accepted, it’s hard not to wince at the disciplinary action and disrespect that is only engendered by Max’s superior place in the social hierarchy

For the victims that have been catfished, the sanctity of trust and the desire to uncover truth becomes the singular driving force in their journey. And yet, if a construction itself is real, is it any less authentic? Even Goffman is willing to accept these constructed selves, saying that, “there is often no reason for claiming that the facts discrepant with the fostered impression are any more the real reality than is the fostered reality they embarrass.” The drive to seek authenticity in a society built upon the successful performance and reception of socially acceptable fronts can be a futile (or meaningless) quest, because aren’t we all constructions of performed selves? An individual’s successful navigation through society depends on it. Goffman states, “it may not even be necessary to decide which is the more real.” Perhaps the veil is better left down, to preserve the sense of awe and mysticism created in a careful construction or performance. However, Catfish trades in on our voyeuristic tendencies and need for authenticity in order to exploit those desires for our entertainment in the reveal and subsequent humiliation of a false front.  Goffman, a social scientist whose work depended on understanding how people present themselves to others, even argues for the preservation of the veil, saying “often the real secret behind the mystery is that there really is no mystery; the real problem is to prevent the audience from learning this too.” Maybe mystery is more satisfying, more soothing and world preserving than authenticity, and maybe this is what social performances, whether they be in person or online, have been engineered to protect. Maybe authenticity is too much to bear.

The catfish is a bottom dwelling creature, inhabiting the murky depths of rivers and streams. Wikipedia states that they “generally feed through suction or gulping rather than biting and cutting prey,” and that some species “have a suckermouth that allows them to fasten themselves to objects in fast-moving water.” These tendencies of the animal catfish seem akin to the qualities of the human catfish, who seek out and suction onto their prey, but, we can’t forget, as Vince described, that the purpose of the catfish with the cod was to agitate, to keep agile and fresh. The fisherman shipping cod to China were happy to have better cod to sell, thanks to the catfish, and both those catfish and the catfish of MTV are relegated to sink back into the tank after their cod are lifted out and sold to the highest bidder. This quality, which is embraced in “Catfish: The Movie” is exposed and punished in Catfish: The TV Show. Apologies for catfishing are demanded and given before Nev, Max, and the camera crew leave, forcing the catfish to atone for misrepresenting themselves. Little credit is given to the catfish for exercising their friends, for keeping them smart and aware and more willing to properly use Google. If it weren’t for the catfish, there would be no entertainment at all. ◥