Pop Theory: The Fantasy of Happiness in “Catfish”

Because of their “negative buoyancy” caused by their big fat, flat, bony heads, catfish are bottom feeders and bottom dwellers. The modern appropriation of the term in online parlance, according to the Urban Dictionary, is used to refer to a scheming romancer: a “catfish is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.”

A bottom dweller can only successfully feed off those who, let’s just say, dwell at the bottom.

This irony, however, is lost on the Brothers Schulman in their 2010 documentary Catfish as well as their eponymous MTV spin-off series which premiered earlier this fall. A half-dozen episodes in, this show feels like a combination of the faux-thriller Scary Movie series (coincidentally one of the Schulman’s co-directed the third installment of Paranormal Activity), plus the trashiness of Jerry Springer, plus the pathetic-pity-me-party of The Biggest Loser, all mixed together with a PSA about online dating.

As I mentioned in a previous Pop Theory column, technological advancements have rendered us “alone together” in that we’ve become more comfortable communicating virtually than physically; we prefer texting than talking in person. As Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, explains, “[w]e are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.”

And it’s not just comfort but conveniency—it’s really difficult to meet someone, especially someone new outside your friend circle. Not to mention that, if you’re a homo living in the middle of nowhere, it’s exponentially difficult to find a potential mate. Going online is the most efficacious way of meeting a special someone.

I understand—I tried online dating, once. For the first month, the emails were glorious, long, and laden with literary allusions. Romantic. Funny. “Intimate.” I fell in love with that virtual figure and, then, not surprisingly (because the ideal was already created in my head and ready to be transferred to the real, regardless of the reality of that real person), I fell in love with that person. Or at least the idea of her; one that was very much fabricated by the virtual “her” that existed a priori to the real “her.” While I may have seemed oblivious at the time, this was a case of intentional misrecognition at its finest.

One month into this email correspondence she suggested we meet up, because, she said, she wanted to see if I was real and, she jokingly intimated, she said that for all I know she could just be a monkey typing haphazardly on a laptop.

Ex jokes aside, I was admittedly reluctant to meet the person of my dreams’ dreams. Why? Because there is a significant ontological difference between “the virtual” and “the actual” (what I am also calling “the real”). In other words, “the real” never exactly matches up with “the virtual.” Fantasy is what breeds and lies between the physical distance between two virtual figures.

What also breeds in this physical distance and gladly entangles itself in the virtual net is catfish.

Watching the show, one can’t help but to be amazed by the gullibility of the catfished—these are not simply momentary instances of gullibility but sustained durations of idiocy. (One virtual relationship extended for 10 years!) Skype has been around since 2003, and yet many if not all of this show’s catfishers and catfishees refuse to use this real-time device, or they flat out refuse to see each other in person (Jarrod and Abby), even though they live in close proximity to each other, as in the case of Jasmine and Mike, who only live 15 minutes apart. This deliberate refusal bespeaks a profound insecurity about the self, whereby the virtual relationship, providing the protective shield of self-defense, is one tightly controlled by the individual who is capable of determining how and when (ie, G-chat at 9 p.m.) the virtual exchanges occur. The control of this relationship is intended to compensate or overshadow the individual’s insecurities. In the case of Alyx, a budding FTM, it allows a person to control not only the extent of communication but how they are perceived in that communication. Alyx, who has not yet had surgery and who just began hormone shots, was able to present himself as a man (using a false avatar) to communicate a future-projected self to Kya.

This type of psychological power-relation in the realm of the interwebs is similarly explained by UChicago scholar Lauren Berlant in her assessment of optimistic attachments, in her brilliant, award-winning Cruel Optimism (Duke UP 2011). Distance is essential for the fantasy of these attachments to continue, because in that distance is the space that makes the psychological projection and promulgation of those fantasies possible: “a silent, effectively present but physically displaced interlocutor [for instance, a lover] is animated in speech as distant enough for a conversation but close enough to be imaginable by the speaker in whose head the entire scene is happening.” This is why, for Berlant, fantasy is both “an opening and [a] defense.”

The psychic process of misrecognition—when, Berlant conveys, our “fantasy recalibrates what we encounter or that we can imagine that something or someone can fulfill our desire”—is fully operational in and critical to these virtual relationships.

All of the catfish appear happy and content with the current state of their virtual relationships; it is only the impulse to see what lies beyond the screen and in the flesh (and perhaps compounded by the desire to be a reality TV star) that motivates one person to seek out the physical other. In terms of self-realization, I also think there was an impulse for FTM Alyx and Chelsea, aka “Jamison,” to further explore their sexuality by moving their relationships from virtual space to real, public space.

This happiness is a direct result of the distance, again, established by a virtual connection. Because, as queer UK scholar Sara Ahmed contends in her study on multiculturalism and happiness, the notion of happiness is very much dependent upon a temporal—if not implicitly physical—distance:

Happiness is directed towards certain objects, which function as a means to what is not yet present. If objects provide a ‘means’ for making us happy, then in directing ourselves towards this or that object, we are aiming somewhere else: towards a happiness that is presumed to follow. The temporality of this following does matter. Happiness is what would come after. Happiness does not reside in objects; it is promised through proximity to certain objects.

What in large part sustains these virtual relationships is the promise of a future—manifested on the show as incessant talk about future ideas of marriage and babies. (See episode 1 with Southern Belle Sunny and her talk about popping out one or two gorgeous babies for evidence.) Ironically, then, the “happiness” touted is not found in the other individual but in a potential, ideal future. This is what Ahmed means by happiness not “resid[ing] in objects.”

It’s funny to think that idealized relationships consist of distance: that fantasy, desire, romance are very much products of distance, psychic, virtual, or otherwise.

Once someone told me that you have to get beyond romance in order to have a real relationship. At first, romantic Leo that I am, I thought this statement was complete rubbish—but now I believe it to be absolute capital “T” Truth. It may sound odd, but you can’t achieve intimacy when you’re caught in the swirling vortex of romance and fantasy. For Chelsea (“Jamison” in episode 1) this intimacy has more to do about herself and establishing an intimacy within her personal self (bisexual or, perhaps, even full-blown lesbian) before establishing intimacy with an other.

However, what many of us do is to latch onto these ideas—for security, comfort. For happiness. This is what Berlant means when she says that all attachments are saturated with “cruel optimism,” “a relation of attachments to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic[:]

What’s cruel about these attachments, and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that the subjects who have x in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object/scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well-being, because whatever the content of the attachment is, the continuity of its form provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world…. Cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object.

Actually, I’m pretty sure she’d read the relationships on Catfish as examples of “stupid optimism”: “the faith that adjustment to certain forms or practices of living and thinking—for example, the prospect of class mobility, the romantic narrative, normalcy, nationality, or a better sexuality—will secure one’s happiness.”

The catfish of Catfish are not cruel (even “Jamison,” who’s just a bitter idiot), they are just subjects of cruel optimism.

Catfish returns Monday, January 7 at 10/9c on MTV.