The Social Crimes of the Catfish
words by Katie Walsh, images 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 Showdisciplines 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.