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MTV’s Catfish Is the Embodiment of American Shame

Catfish is stupid. Catfish is fake. Everyone is in on it. The catfisher is the one who calls the show. No one knows how to use Google suddenly? Doesn’t anyone have a bullshit detector? And, oh God, why are you sending money to someone you’ve never met?!

Oh, Catfish my Catfish — it is indeed often stupid and frustrating and not at all credible. But the MTV series, which concluded its second season last night, is fascinating, too, as a perhaps accidental snapshot of social and sexual anxiety. The cases depicted on Catfish, as well as both participants in these somewhat fraudulent relationships, reflect some of the most damaging messages of American culture: Don’t be fat. Don’t be poor. Don’t be lonely. And if you are, for God’s sake, don’t tell anyone about it.

Catfish started as a “documentary” about a guy, Nev, who fell in love over Facebook, only to discover that the person he thought he was communicating with was not in fact a 19-year-old hottie but a middle-aged mom. Catfish the TV show finds Nev and trusty sidekick Max traveling the country and helping — well, “helping” — people in similar situations. Each episode starts with a lovelorn catfishee asking Nev and Max for assistance in figuring out who their online paramours really are. Every time, Nev and Max act almost comically hopeful about a good outcome, but rarely is the catfisher the person he or she has been claiming to be. They bring the two parties together, let the sparks fly (or not), and then head off on their merry way, like a road-trip version of The Jerry Springer Show.

This season, only one of the fifteen episodes focused on a couple that involved two parties who had been using their real identities. Most episodes of Catfish could be called So, I Am Secretly Fat. That’s by far the most common lie, and it’s one that some of the catfishees themselves lie about, too. And that’s not so surprising — this is America. We’re told as children that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, but anyone with a body that does not strictly conform to contemporary standards of beauty knows that that’s bullshit. Of course people on Catfish lie about their bodies. And while the show reminds us over and over that it’s bad to lie, it also subtly confirms that most of these people were right to: Nearly all of the catfishees, when confronted with the information that their catfishers were overweight, changed their tune about how in love they were.

Weight is certainly not the only lie on Catfish, though. People lie about how many children they have and with how many partners. A few have lied about their criminal records. (Like the dude who was arrested with a sawed-off shotgun and charged with possession of a WMD.) People lie about their gender, their sexual orientation, their jobs.

One of the under-acknowledged facets of Catfish is how frequently poverty plays a role in one or both people’s lives. Homelessness and the threat of homelessness have come up on multiple episodes. The unspoken answer to “why haven’t you guys ever met?” is often “because neither of us could afford a plane ticket.” In a few instances, catfishers and -ees have given and received money, and Nev and Max treat these transactions with horror. Poverty is often treated as a moral failure in America — perhaps it’s easier to be forthcoming about one’s financial struggles to someone who doesn’t see you every day, whose face you can’t see register judgement.

For all of Catfish’s many shortcomings — such as why Max is holding that stupid point-and-shoot camera — the series still winds up being a potent portrayal of how powerful loneliness actually is. People want to feel loved, they want to feel connected, and if the only way to get that is on MySpace with someone who’s obviously lying, well, it’s better than nothing. Over and over again, people on Catfish decide, consciously but mostly subconsciously, that it’s better to be defrauded than to be alone. Living in denial has its comforts.

Catfish: The Embodiment of American Shame