The summer before last, I was stuck in my Wisconsin hometown. I’d just graduated with an MFA in creative writing and I couldn’t figure out my next step. I spent my days carrying an oscillating fan around my parent’s house—from the dining room where I pecked at job applications, to the kitchen to make smoothies, and then to my room, where I lay scrolling listlessly through Instagram. I frequently went to the gym in the middle of the day on a month-to-month membership. The elliptical running machines faced a wall of windows. Outside I could see a padlocked dumpster, Karate America, and a paint store. Beyond this small pocket of development lay cornfields and a road named after my great aunt’s husband’s family. It was too much corn, too much Wisconsin. I turned instead to the gym TV. To my surprise, I found a show that reflected my queer spending-the-summer-in-my-hometown sadsack feelings — Catfish: The TV Show.
Catfish is an MTV original series about online relationships. Since its premiere in 2012, Catfish has become a full-fledged reality television phenomenon and inspired spinoffs like Catfish: Trolls and Ghosted: Love Gone Missing. Even if you’ve never watched the show, you’re probably familiar with the term “catfish” to mean a person who creates fake social media profiles and talks to people online under the guise of being someone else. A typical episode begins with the show’s hosts, Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, introducing that week’s “hopeful.” The hopeful is the show’s word for someone who’s in an online relationship with a catfish. When the hopeful tries to connect with their online love in real life – sometimes going as far as buying a plane ticket or relocating to a strange city – the catfish is nowhere to be found. The catfish supplies excuse after excuse: their car got stolen, their mom is dying of cancer, they got kidnapped, they moved to Switzerland to pursue a modeling career, they stayed in California because they had a prophetic dream that they would die in New York. (These are all real examples from the show.) The hopeful realizes that something is fishy and calls Max and Nev for help tracking down their catfish and uncovering the truth about their online relationship. Is the catfish who they say they are and if not, who have they been talking to this entire time? Did the catfish ever really love them? Can their love survive this deceit? It’s a weird ride.
Catfish is populated by fat queers, rural queers, poor queers, disabled queers, and queer people of color. There are queers who live in mobile homes and work the night shift. There are queers who have been disowned by their families and queers who are supporting their families on minimum wage jobs. In the episode entitled “Blaire & Markie,” we meet a young lesbian who lives in a motel with her best friend and her best friend’s toddler nephew, who they’ve committed to raising together. I don’t see many queer chosen families on TV, let alone a multiracial queer chosen family formed by homeless teen parents. The episode “Aaliyah and Alicia” also follows a homeless teen, Aaliyah. When Aaliyah and her mom are evicted from their home in Oakland, Aaliyah finds comfort and stability in an online relationship with Alicia. Alicia is an obvious catfish – she demands money from Aaliyah and only provides a handful of photos. She lives nearby, in Oakland, but tells Aaliyah that she’s too busy to meet in real life. Aaliyah is too exhausted balancing school and homelessness to question Alicia’s motives. The hopefuls on Catfish are frequently contending with unimaginable stress: the loss of a parent, bullying at school, or homelessness. When each day is a struggle for survival, you don’t have the mental capacity to think critically. It’s enough that another person cares about you, or at least pretends to.
The relationships featured on Catfish are far from casual. There are proclamations of love and marriage proposals. Hopefuls describe their catfish with words like “my soulmate” and “the one.” Many of these relationships have been going on for over a year and in a few cases, over a decade. In the episode “Kiaria and Cortney,” a woman sends her girlfriend $1,000 to have a baby via a surrogate mother (a quick Google search quotes the cost of surrogacy as $90,000 to $130,000). This episode is one of Catfish’s brazen and unimaginable deceptions – Kiaria and Cortney have never met in real life, despite both living in Virginia Beach and dating exclusively for two years.
My favorite episode of queer Catfish, hands down, is “Whitney and Bre.” Whitney and Bre are black queer women who have been in love for over four years without ever meeting face-to-face. Whitney lives in New York and works at Wendy’s six days a week to support her mom and four brothers. Bre lives in Los Angeles and is unemployed. In a truly genius plot, Whitney pretends to be a hopeful so that MTV will pay for them to finally meet. “I just get so freaked out when people can just sit across from you and lie like that,” says host Max, after uncovering hundreds of messages and video calls between Whitney and Bre. After much deliberation, the hosts decide to be chill because Catfish is a show about love and sometimes love makes people lie on reality TV. In the episode’s epilogue, we see Whitney and Bre strolling through a Los Angeles park. Their joy at finally being able to kiss and hold each other is palpable. I love Whitney and Bre. I hope they always love each other. I hope they never stop scamming corporations.
Despite all my praise, Catfish is far from perfect. There is a lot to critique. The hosts often use dismissive language to describe sex workers and strippers. It must also be acknowledged that Nev, the host and executive producer, has a history of assault accusations (including one against a lesbian) that can be easily Googled. But I do think the show, generally, walks an impressive line of alchemizing relationship drama into entertainment without mocking or further marginalizing those involved. The hosts give everyone a chance to explain their actions, even the catfish. Oftentimes, catfishing is an act of self-preservation. The catfish feels guilty about lying, but does not believe themselves deserving of love as their authentic selves. In “Dani and Kya,” for instance, social media is a safe and accessible means of gender expression for the catfish. The hosts dispense some solid relationship advice — namely, don’t make excuses for your partner’s bad behavior, every relationship is an opportunity for growth, and healthy relationships aren’t built on deceit. There’s an emphasis on shared responsibility — Max and Nev are just as interested in the catfish’s motives as they are in why the hopeful falls for what is usually a blatant, painfully obvious lie.
Every episode of Catfish promises intricate lies and deceit, but the actual experience of watching an episode from start to finish is kind of boring. Reveals are strategically placed after increasingly frequent commercial breaks. Every ounce of conflict and intrigue is discussed and stretched too thin, like a friend who gets a cryptic text from their crush and can talk about nothing else. When I was researching this piece, I fell asleep in front of my computer and when I woke up, the episode entitled “Vince & Alyssa” was playing. Max and Nev are helping Vince, an earnest young man who loves his grandma and exclusively dresses in basketball shorts and t-shirts. The three men drive to Jasper, Indiana – a farming community with a population of 15,000 – to find Alyssa, the shadowy internet woman who ended Vince’s relationship with his irl girlfriend. I wonder if this is the first time anyone has undertaken a road trip between Cincinnati and Jasper. At the very least, this is the first time anyone has filmed or otherwise documented a road trip between Cincinnati and Jasper. As someone who spends a lot of time in farflung places, this feels important to me.
All this to say that Catfish has been serving diverse, bittersweet queer representation for almost a decade and it seems like nobody notices. The most recent season of Are You the One? received endless praise from the queer internet. If you don’t know, AYtO is another MTV reality show. The premise is that a bunch of people are placed in the same house and must pair off into “perfect matches” as determined by scientific algorithms and relationship experts. Season 8, which aired this summer, made waves because every cast member identified as pansexual, bisexual, and/or sexually fluid. Therefore any two cast members could potentially be each other’s perfect match. Whereas Catfish depicts bodies as complicated and painful questions to be answered – what does it mean to love someone and build relationship in the absence of their body? What body would you chose if you could? What happens when people feel that their body renders them underserving of love? – the cast members on AYtO are uniformly thin, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive. Their bodies are sites of joy and pleasure, always on display in swimwear and lingerie. One is not more radical or truthful than the other, but I just relate a lot more to anxiety and weirdness when it comes to bodies.
The cast members on AYtO are removed from their everyday lives and placed in a beach house that looks like it was decorated by a cool middle schooler with full rein of a Pottery Barn Teen catalog. Unlike Catfish, nobody on AYtO is a parent or a caretaker. Nobody is living in poverty or working a minimum wage job. There is zero tolerance policy for shame. Even Max, the only cast member openly struggling with shame and internalized homophobia, is given an easily digestible narrative of self-acceptance. We watch as he receives mentorship from the other cast members and finds a loving, supportive queer community. The beach house has an entire room dedicated to queer sex — it’s called the Boom Boom Room and it’s located right off the living room. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. There are orgies and drag shows and group therapy. On AYtO, being queer means having more options for love and intimacy.
I have never catfished anyone. I have never been catfished. As a white cis woman with a lot of structurally affirmed power, I am unlikely to get a visit from Max and Nev. Still, Catfish resonates with my queer experience in a way that AYtO never will. The opening paragraph of this piece, I realize, makes it sound like being in Wisconsin was a temporary space for me. In actuality, most of my adult life has unfolded in snowy, midwestern cities with more steers than queers. As a result, most of my romantic relationships have been LDRs with people I met online. I make deep emotional deposits in these relationships. Sometimes after a few weeks of texting, I’ll suggest meeting irl and the person will become evasive and shifty and I’ll realize that I am just a placeholder to them, a nice person to text on a long bus ride or a lonely night. But about once a year, whether I intend to or not, I board a plane to meet someone for a weekend. Sometimes there is even a follow-up weekend, but never a third.
The logical side of me knows that it’s not my fault. If conventional wisdom says that the perfect first date is something easy like coffee or drinks, then meeting someone for the first time and spending an entire weekend together is a fool’s errand. Expectations and nerves run high — it’s stressful to spend unmitigated, continuous time with someone new. Money is emotional and plane tickets are expensive. It can be difficult to navigate the financial implications in a fledgling LDR. But the emotional side of me is left feeling gutted and insecure. I worry that my mannerisms and personality are off-putting in real life. Without a screen, I am boring and ugly and overall a huge disappointment. I describe myself as “fatter irl” jokingly but it’s true, I am fatter irl. My online relationships make me feel like Kimmy Gibbler — an unwanted visitor, a girl who climbs through your bedroom window for a few moments of comic relief.
This summer, I lived in a big city with lots of queers and no shortage of places to meet and hook up. Once a week, my friends and I gathered to watch AYtO. We lingered afterwards to laugh about the show’s most ridiculous moments. Did Nour really call Paige a “giraffe ass bitch”? Why does it fall on Basit to educate Jonathan about they/them pronouns? How old are these people? Eventually, the conversation would turn to me and my love life. My friends would ask if I was on Tinder, if I was going to go on any dates while I was in the city. And in truth, I really wanted to take some fresh photos and put myself out there. Really! But I just kept hemming and hawing and not downloading Tinder. At my core, I realized, I believe dating should be difficult and wildly inconvenient because some part of me still views my queerness as an obstacle. I don’t know how to go on a normal first date – one where we don’t exchange one million texts beforehand, one that doesn’t begin with me getting picked up from the airport. Maybe someday I’ll embrace the Boom Boom Room and oceanside dance parties but for now, I remain a Catfish queer.