When you see Brandy for the first time, you are struck by how unremarkable she is. She is plainly pretty, pleasant, and plump. She looks like the kind of girl you’d chat amiably with as she cashed your check at Wells Fargo. She looks like the kind of girl who’s your favorite waitress and your best friend and someone that reminds you that there are still good people in the world. The problem with Brandy, then, is that she’s supposed to be Megan.
This is the crux of the ninth episode of Catfish: The TV Show’s third season and it’s a relatively standard-issue episode of the show. Most episodes of the show follow the same rough model: Someone is suspicious that the person they’re communicating with isn’t who they say they are, the hosts investigate, and high jinks ensue. Said hosts—Nev Schulman, subject of the film that spawned both the series and the term “catfish,” and his filmmaker friend Max Joseph—employ any number of basic search techniques to discover the truth hiding behind every false face.
The false face in this instance is “Megan,” a beautiful, blonde, Dallas Cowboys cheerleader-type who loves dogs and exudes grace at every virtual turn. “I’ve never heard her say anything mean about anyone,” her online beau Jeff gushes. “When she says she had a bad day, she doesn’t say it’s because of anyone. She doesn’t say anything hateful at all, really.” It’s clear from the way he speaks of her that it’s truly her personality he’s fallen for and the package she comes in is merely a bonus prize. Jeff is happy because he’s found someone good and true. Even having never met her, Jeff knows who Megan is.
But so does Brandy.
“Mostly everything was true except for, like, my job and my pictures and my name. Everything else I told him has been me.” Take a moment and really picture that. Everything she told Jeff was true except for: her career, her appearance, her name. It’s easy to scoff at this assertion, to derisively question what’s left to a person once they’ve lied about all of that, but it’s clear in the way she says it that this is what Brandy believes. Where she works and what she looks like and what she’s called are all containers she fills but not the actual substance inside. The idea that Brandy may be able to use this false persona as a representation of her true self isn’t a completely baseless claim. Often in interacting with people online, we’re able to express sides of ourselves we are generally unable to access, a kind of true-false face, if you will. Jeff loves Megan for her good heart. Brandy is Megan’s good heart. This is Catfish.
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Much of this side of the equation is lost when discussing Catfish’s impact on the culture at large. In this same episode, Nev and Max excitedly discuss Merriam-Webster adding “their” definition of catfish to the dictionary. This alone represents how ubiquitous the idea of the Internet true-false face has become. To mirror that, there are scads of articles warning people how not to get catfished in the wilds of the Internet. Concern trolling is a natural outlet for the sensation, but far more fascinating is the way that Catfish’s true-false face phenomenon seems to be leaching into unexpected examples of pop culture. Specifically: prestige, period dramas.
We often equate hiding our true selves in the pursuit of love with the Internet or technology in general. But that’s far from the case. Be it Cyrano De Bergerac or Mrs. Doubtfire or Tootsie—culture loves false-faced love. And as far as escaping our mundane lives through fantasy, online or otherwise, such matter has been revisited time and again in venues both modern (Community’s Dungeons And Dragons episodes and The Office’s dabbling with Second Life, for example) and historical (Dorothy’s adventures in Oz). What makes the use of role play in period piece so notable, however—and so reminiscent of certain elements of Catfish—is how it’s used not necessarily to escape or to deceive but to connect and reveal.
Consider “Behind The Red Door,” the sixth episode of The Americans’ second season. “Red Door” features a moment that resonates deeply between its married, Russian spy protagonists, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings. Set in the heart of the Cold War, the Jennings’ have a fraught relationship that warms as the series goes on. In one particular scene, Elizabeth is pushing Phillip to make love to her roughly, the way that Clark, one of Phillip’s (married) aliases, supposedly makes love to his wife. (They’re spies. It’s complicated.) The scene proceeds with Elizabeth wheedling and Phillip losing his temper and giving in, acting as Clark, and leaving them both in a stark moment of true vulnerability. This vulnerability, so fleeting in characters so deeply broken, came only through the freedom that accompanies not being beholden to who you’re expected to be. Sound familiar? Maybe this is Catfish, too.
Perhaps a better example still comes in looking at the third episode of the second season of Masters Of Sex. In “Fight,” protagonists and partners (in many senses of the word) Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson are continuing work on their groundbreaking sex study through slightly compromised means that involve them meeting in a hotel room under assumed identities. They playact as a married couple, crafting elaborate back-stories and building in motivations for the roles they have taken on, but as they do so, they reveal themselves. This is particularly resonant for Bill, as his intensely standoffish manner is softened when relieved of the burden of being himself. Within their false faces, these sometimes distant, sometimes disconnected individuals are able to reveal their secret pains and troubled pasts. Fact gets interwoven with façade, and in the end comes an understanding between them that far outstrips anything reality could have represented. This is Catfish, as well.
Both of these examples come from shows locked into their timelines, existing as artifacts of long-gone eras, and even they are not immune from the pervasive undercurrent of Catfish culture. Catfish certainly didn’t invent the idea that truer truths can be told through fiction, but it’s helping to take the idea mainstream in an extremely pervasive way. The Internet allows everyone to explore sides of themselves they’d always dreamt of but never had opportunity to explore, thus enabling Catfish, The Americans, and Masters Of Sex—among a wealth of other shows—to open the door to deeper, multi-faceted representations of what it is to be human and try to connect in this world. So often relegated to a sexy, throw-away joke on television, this season sees connection through role play and true-false face as tragic, having its day not only on the shows mired in the past but on those on the frontlines of pop culture conversation. The Girls episode “Role Play” featured a yes, amusing, attempt by Hannah to engage her boyfriend in role play, but also inadvertently triggered a moment of clarity in how each saw the other that cracked the very foundation of the couple’s relationship. Role play is no longer a desperate attempt to escape; it’s a frantic grasp at connection. An attempt to be honest that too often ends in failure. You put on your mask. You tell the truth. You hope for the best.
And maybe at its heart it’s not about what Catfish is changing, it’s what Catfish is reflecting. The show serves as a mirror to who we are, who we’ve always been, as a species. We are a people made of many faces, and while things like the Internet make it easy (or maybe hard) to delineate between which of these are true and which are false, the fact is that they are all true. And they are all false. Each day we wake up and we put on a version of who we think we are and who we hope to be and do the best we can, because perception—even our own—is messy and flawed and all a matter of approximation. We try these versions of ourselves on in order to understand which of them fits best, in order to understand that a persona is a wardrobe with no prescribed uniform. The Internet has made the exercise more visceral and hands-on, sure, but as we see in The Americans and in Masters Of Sex, these concepts aren’t new; these concepts are timeless.
When all is said and done, this should be Catfish’s legacy. When all is said and done, this should be the Internet’s legacy. Not a legacy of fear-mongering and concern trolling (the world is a dangerous place, Internet or not), but a legacy that acknowledges that the beauty of humanity is its ability to accept that though facts are immutable, the truth isn’t. This is Catfish, yes, but more importantly, this is life.