I simply love MTV’s series Catfish (Tuesdays 22:00). This is a series inspired by the eponymous 2010 documentary directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The film focused on the romantic disappointment of Ariel’s brother, Yaniv (Niv), when he finds out that the pretty twenty-something woman he’s fallen in love with on the internet does not actually have that age or physical appearance. Niv was soon flooded with messages from other Americans claiming to have gone through similar experiences or suspecting they were, hence the MTV show, which Niv hosts. Each week he and his buddy Max play amateur detective trying to unmask the often sad reality behind the lies people feed each other on the net. By the way, the title comes from a comment by a man in the documentary who explains that catfish were used to keep cod alert on long export trips; otherwise they faded away and died. Ariel and Niv borrowed the concept, calling ‘catfish’ whoever keeps you on your toes by doing fishy things on the net.

Last week I saw the memorable episode 4 of season 2: “Lauren and Derek.” Memorable because it has a happy ending. Let me explain that usually Niv and Max discover that the partner in the online couple reluctant to making face-to-face contact is lying. The reasons are diverse but usually have to do with having a physical appearance they don’t feel comfortable with. The tricked partner has to deal with the mismatch between the photos they assumed to be authentic and reality, which often results in heart-breaking disappointment. Lauren, who had never met the man she had been in touch with for 8 long years, asked Niv and Max for help. They, seeing how pretty Lauren is, were, logically suspicious that the handsome guy (Derek) in her photos did not exist as such. When it turned out that he did and that the love story was genuine enough, the surprise was, well, colossal.

Derek’s reluctance to meeting Lauren was so extreme that although they were clearly in love all the time (they met online when she was 14, he 16), he allowed her to go through a broken engagement and even a pregnancy. When a totally flabbergasted Max asked him why, Derek answered that his online communication with Lauren was so fulfilling and perfect that he was afraid of spoiling it with real contact. Her son added yet another worry to Derek’s many worries that sharing real physical space might spoil their virtual love. When they did meet, thanks to Max and Niv, however, all was perfect between them and between Derek and young Mason. Many tears of happiness were shed in America on the evening the episode aired (check Twitter!).

I’ll put my Cultural Studies thinking cap on to try to explain the attraction of the show and, in particular, of this story. Yes, we all love gossip but that’s not the (whole) point. This is rather the impact of the internet, and particularly Facebook, on dating. The USA are a territory big enough for actual contact to be potentially difficult, which makes long online relationships a possibility. Amazingly, Niv and Max use very basic detective skills that the persons concerned could also use –yet there is in most cases a reluctance to spoiling the dream of a perfect match. Inevitably, though, someone feels the need to touch and hug, and the dream collapses.

The show reveals, on the whole, two main difficulties in modern love. Although the protagonists often have a very solid connection which they call love, this often depends on believing in the physical attractive of the online partner –the real meeting mostly destroys this love, though it turns it into a more honest friendship in a few cases. Second, although the importance attached to physical attractive seems to dominate our notions of love, actually the show proves that contact based on conversation (written, spoken) matters even more than sex. Lauren and Derek’s case is happy and perfect, in any case, because there were no lies on Derek’s side, just fear. And both are equally attractive.

This fear is in itself fascinating –you might simply call it a typical male fear of commitment (or immaturity), but I believe it is not. On the same day I saw the episode I explained to my students the love story of JS Mills and Harriet Taylor who were bosom friends for 21 years, as long as her husband stayed alive, for fear of scandal. The class agreed that this platonic love (=asexual love) didn’t make sense anymore as conventions have changed; today JS and Harriet would simply move in together as soon as she divorced. Derek’s post-post modern brand of platonic love, however, has nothing to do with fear of scandal but rather with the fear that daily contact kills off true romantic love, as often happens. Time will show whether Lauren was right to force a meeting (perhaps leading to marriage… and divorce) or Derek to prevent it, paradoxically, for the sake of their romantic relationship.

Quite possibly, Catfish doctors the stories to put a more interesting spin on them –after all, this is a TV show. Still, they are very good stories as each episode ends up discovering yet another motivation for the ‘catfish’ to lie. The show has built its own generic conventions and is, thus, forced to offer a new twist at the end –besides, now it’s so popular I doubt many ‘catfish’ feel at ease any more. Its focus on love and not, for instance, business (this could also be a possibility) makes Catfish, at any rate, a very singular approach to the very open conventions that now determine the most important relationships in our life.

Lauren and Derek: good luck!!

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