MTV's Catfish: New Phenomenon, Same Old Transphobia

On "Catfish," I saw a cute love story. The hosts saw a freak show and let their millions of viewers know it.

Feb 19, 2013 at 1:30pm | Leave a comment

MTV’s "Catfish" was cable’s highest rated new show in 2012. Based on the sort-of documentary of the same name, Catfish follows young people in online relationships as they meet their significant others for the first time. Of course, everyone is lying to everyone else. Welcome to the Internet, would you prefer a booth or table this evening?

My partner Liam and I tuned in on a whim. We expected mental cotton candy but found something with more bite. Multiple episodes feature LGBTQ people experimenting with their identities online. The premiere’s widely publicized shock was that the subject’s online boyfriend -- an Abercrombie model, naturally -- turned out to be a teenage lesbian. Another “catfish” was a transgender guy from California posing as a cisgender guy from Switzerland. In a more recent episode, the person being “catfished” thinks that his online Betty is trans, but she later reveals that she is a cis woman.

We watched the whole season in one sitting. Every time it turned out the person doing the “catfishing” was queer, we were overcome with the nervousness we get whenever LGBTQ folks are portrayed on screen. How will the world see us?

Unfortunately, the image wasn’t so sunny.

"Catfish" could spark discussion about identity formation on the Internet. For me, that’s the One Direction of intellectual inquiries. Thinking about the ways young people -- especially queer young people -- figure themselves out on the Internet makes my mind melt.

I have been trying on personas online since I was old enough to sneak onto AIM chatrooms. Clearly, I am not alone. Whether or not people play pretend in relationships is obvious. What’s worth exploring is how we go about finding ourselves on Facebook and LiveJournal and VampireFreaks.com.

But "Catfish" never gets there. 

The problem with "Catfish" isn’t MTV. MTV’s other Monday night hit, "Teen Mom," is flawed, but it allows the girls to share truths about their sexuality overlooked elsewhere on TV (outside of gentrified Brooklyn). The True Life documentary series, which Catfish’s style closely mimics, has won GLAAD, Prism and NAACP Image awards for sharing marginalized people’s experiences with MTV viewers. 

The problem is the host and executive producer, Nev Schulman.

Nev plays the sympathetic confidante to people he is exploiting. He speaks to each dupe like they are old friends, telling them that he hopes their partner is who he says he is. Of course, there would be no Catfish: The TV Show if these people’s relationships worked out, and as executive producer, this is something Nev knows full well. You can almost hear the cartoonish cash register noises running through his head as he looks at one falsified Facebook profile after another.

Nev seeks to solve problems by exacerbating them. He makes people with perfectly happy online relationships meet in person to prove their worth. In Nev’s world there is always a liar and, like it or not, he will find them. It’s like when Maury tries to help the woman afraid of cotton balls by sicking a cotton ball monster on her.  

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The most dangerous aspect of Nev’s game is that he ends up interacting largely with LGBTQ people, a marginalized group he fundamentally misunderstands. Nev’s experience being catfished by a middle-aged married woman is not the same as bullied kids using the Internet to safely experiment with their sexual and gender identities. 

The risks are highest when Nev meets transgender people. By seeing everyone as either victims or predators, Nev plays into old stereotypes about trans people’s desire to fool and confuse cisgender people. These tropes aren’t just tired -- "The Crying Game" came out the year I was born. They also justify a culture of violence wherein trans people are worthy of whatever horrors befall them.

The choice for someone to stay closeted is not seen as a response to discrimination or a desire for privacy. Instead, it justifies the idea that gender non-conforming people are unnatural outsiders trying to snatch the place of “real” men or women. These tropes killed Brandon Teena and, in 2012 alone, hundreds of others.

One episode disturbed us more than the rest. Kya is in a long-term, online relationship with Alyx, a man from Switzerland. They talk on the phone but she has never seen his face. He says he recently moved to California and wants to meet once they can afford it. Kya agrees to participate in "Catfish" primarily for the free flight.

Nev digs into investigating Alyx. It turns out that Swiss Alyx is actually American Dani. Then, the big reveal: Dani is transgender. 

When Liam and I learned that Dani is a trans man, we paused. I’m not normally afraid of television, but its magnitude -- how many millions of people digest what it spits out -- can turn missteps like a transphobic sitcom joke or an exploitative Today show segment into my own Cotton Ball Monster.

I am more concerned about murders and criminalization and other violent garbage, but wouldn’t it be nice to keep transphobia off my MTV?

Liam decided we should keep going. He said that it’s not like he, or any other transgender person, can ever completely escape people like Nev, and he was curious to see how the dynamic played out on MTV.

Kya, who identifies as pansexual, isn’t disappointed or disturbed that Dani is transgender. She is just sad that he thought telling her the truth would push her away. The couple, unlike the others on Catfish, decides to stay together. I shed three happy tears.

Nev and his co-host Max do their best to tarnish this love story. The hosts navigate the discovery that Dani is transgender -- which they glean using subtle hints like that his Facebook wall is a collection of “You Know You’re Trans* When” memes -- like they are on safari. Be careful, he might charge when Poked!

When they finally meet Dani, the hosts do a modified version of the Jerry Springer Paternity Test Shuffle: Instead of you are not the father, it’s you are not a “real” man. The pair misgenders Dani repeatedly, reminding the audience that “he is actually she.” Pictures of Dani wearing dresses as a child flash across the screen. 

Nev confronts Dani about whether he is sure about this whole “transgender” thing, which is maybe the most insulting thing you can say to a gender non-conforming person. Nev also pushes Dani to detail every step of his physical transition, from his testosterone injections -- which totally freak Nev out -- to which surgeries Dani would like to get in the future. 

Dating shows don’t usually force people to talk about their genitals on the first date. Transgender people are rarely afforded privacy, though, especially in media representations where their humanity is replaced with shock value.

The worst part is that Nev thinks he is progressive. He stresses that Kya’s mother will be beyond shocked that Dani is transgender, as if there is no way she has ever encountered a trans person before. Max adds, “Does your mother know you’ve dated girls before?” 

At this point Kya, who is a total badass, is over the hosts’ foolishness. She had been politely correcting the pronouns they used to refer to Dani all day. By the time Max goes for the one-two punch of, first, asking if her mom knows her sexual history and, then, calling her boyfriend a girl, Kya has had enough. She just wants these dudes to shut up so she can hang out with her boyfriend. Dani is not a girl, she snaps. 

It turns out that, Nev’s projecting aside, the mother isn’t worried about Dani’s gender identity, as long as Kya is happy and hasn’t been kidnapped, Craigslist Killer style. It’s almost as if there are millions of transgender people in America, and none of them are zombies hungry for human flesh.

On "Catfish," I saw a cute love story. The hosts saw a freak show and let their millions of viewers know it.

Representations of transgender people on television will never be perfect, especially with cis people at the wheel (yes, that includes me). Still, thanks to its diverse cast, "Catfish" has the potential to chip away at misconceptions about gender identity if its hosts stop embracing tired stereotypes and offensive language.

Between its stellar ratings and the Manti T’eo scandal, Catfish was renewed for a second season. My plea: Will someone please get Nev Schulman to a Trans 101 training before season two filming begins? I will help put together the Kickstarter.