The Sadness Behind The Catfish- Manti Te'O and the Digital Significant Other Phenomena

by - Sunday, January 20, 2013

I will, somewhat with minimal shame, admit that I have been totally drawn in with the Te'o story since the deadspin article first started being passed around earlier this week. Everyone knows now the Notre Dame football player had a girlfriend for years who tragically died the same week/day (??) as his grandmother and despite his grief, he apparently did some fancy football things. She was actually a character played by another Hawaiian Mormon guy, so the sense that Deadspin had was that the two men knew eachother. Beyond that, it is hard to tell. Was he in on the scheme and working it for publicity? Was he on the DL and the Lennay character was a front? Or was he just a dupe?

I kind of think there is more than one right answer to the question, but deeper than that, the Te'o situation brings a lot more attention to something that is a broader cultural phenomena.

Inspired by the drama (or just blessed with exceptional timing), MTV aired a Catfish marathon this Friday. I am pretty sure everyone knows what a catfish is by now, but the premise of the show is that Nev, who was the subject of the original film, works with his "filmmaker" friend Max (who from what I can tell makes videos with his snap and shoot while bouncing kindnesses off of Nev) investigate fishy internet significant others for (sort of unsuspecting) people. In the episodes I saw, a girl took a road trip with them to see her digital model boyfriend of a year and a half only to find that her "boyfriend" was an 18 year old girl coming to terms with her lesbian identity. One finds their boyfriend is not like the pictures and is battling with his weight. There was another where the man, who had a small child, went to meet his Barbie doll girlfriend to find a girl struggling with her weight who genuinely loved him but was afraid he wouldn't be interested if he saw her (he wasn't).  Over and over, we hear people excited to finally meet their long-term (usually at least 6 months) significant other only to find they are a different person to varying degrees.

I think the show does a good job of avoiding simple antagonism of either party. In one episode, a girl catfished (is that the verb?) as a guy to stick it to a rival for a boy's attention, but by the end even her cruel intentions to humiliate are tempered by the amount of pain the girl is grappling with. The strangest thing that comes out of watching the episodes back to back is the deep and incredible sadness that come out of these individuals. The intimacy/anonymity the internet offers them is turned into a new identity. That identity is taken on so they can be who they want to be (attractive, able to openly express sexuality, etc), and it seems they can't even see past their own pain to understand the person on the other side might be hurt by this.

Only one of them that I have seen ends in a happy way (though to Nev and company's credit, almost all of them seem to maintain a friendship). In this episode, a woman who also lied about her attractiveness and size is instantly accepted by her pansexual boyfriend when she reveals her identity, but he does not reciprocate. When they finally catch up to the Catfish, he is a transitioning FTM transperson. Their meeting is slightly awkward, but there is no anger there, and the woman is so open. And then they fall in love for real. It was genuinely romantic, but you start to wonder if that happy ending can be credited to their ability to let go of the fantasy they have created. They give each other mercy because they both played both roles.

This episode made me think about the tragedy of all the people being conned. Though it would be easy to frame them as the victims, I am not convinced they aren't victimizing themselves. It is so easy for Nev to crack the code (hello Google Image search) and when they are faced with the truth, they almost always seem to be actively denying it. I wonder if the appeal of going after a catfish isn't about choosing to keep feeding your own fantasies rather than actually facing the difficulties of real relationships. I feel like that in some ways is natural to all relationships. We get attached to our vision of people rather than who they actually are, which is always messier. You have to ask why these things can last so long before they come to a boil. It's because people want them to.

I feel like this whole trend, and the way it has blown up in public consciousness in a way that is compelling but not exactly shocking says something deeper about who we are and one of the strange roles the internet offers up. I don't know exactly what it is yet, but I find it so compelling. Especially because we all sort of knew this, right? Even if we haven't taken advantage of it to that level, the internet can be a space to project our best selves. We have the ability to perform our ideal selves and have someone else believe it. We have the kind of anonymity and irresponsibility actually gets us closer to the truth. It's like a romantic comedy you can play out in your own way. There is a way to work through sexuality, using other people, that doesn't risk deep personal vulnerability. But, it shows the limit of performativity. You can act it out, or conveniently believe in it, but even your agreed upon new reality is threatened by actual reality.

I can't decide if the show itself is ethical. Even as I find it totally compelling (though a day of watching MTV and its ads was a LOT), I wonder whether Nev Schulman is just promoting himself. Because who is he really helping by doing this? And if they want to break the illusion, why would they choose to do so for television? I especially question that based on the sometimes ugly responses the tricked person gives, are we meant to only identify with the deceivers? Nev Schulman takes advantage of this grey area (compare it to something like to Catch a Predator), but does this even hand actually antagonize the people who have been deceived?

Which brings me back to Manti. Even if he didn't know, I think somehow he did, and much of the strangeness of his responses come from the genuine shame that comes from that. It is easier to have a fantasy girlfriend who goes to Stanford and works with children and is on her way to sainthood than to deal with a real person. I kind of believe the answer to whether he knew was "both" He may not have known at the beginning, but I think he was in on the choice to kill her off, to move on from the lie. I am fascinated to see what happens with the story, and I am still marinating what the story says about contemporary sexuality. Do you think he knew? Have you ever made friends on the internet you didn't know in person first? Have you ever pretended to be someone you weren't? I'll admit, when I was a kid, I would tell the people at Hoss's all sorts of crazy names,because it was more fun than my own (my brother thought it was super annoying). Have you seen Catfish yet? What do you think of Nev?Can this show sustain?

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