Thursday, November 12, 2015

MTV’s Catfish Might be Fake and I Don’t Care

Machine Gun Kelly, Nev Shulman, and Hundra in a recent episode of MTV's Catfish: The TV Show.

November: the days are shorter, the nights are colder, and, especially for those of us who pay our bills by working retail, life gets a little bit more stressful as the December holiday season rapidly approaches. At the end of the work day, when my brain has inevitably turned to mush, sometimes bad reality TV is the only thing that speaks to me. We all have our vices. On one such occasion this week, I threw caution to the wind and indulged in my pet favourite garbage television show: MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show. I regret nothing.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Catfish is a reality TV series spin-off of Ariel Shulman’s acclaimed 2010 documentary feature by the same name. The original feature length documentary followed little brother Nev Shulman on his surreal journey to connect face-to-face with a woman he became romantically involved with on the Internet. The spin-off TV show, now in its fourth season, follows Nev (long since recovered from his predictably disastrous experience in the documentary) and filmmaker buddy Max Joseph as they connect hopeful contributors with the mysterious figures they’ve fallen in love with exclusively through text, photos, and social media.

This week, I hit up the MTV website to stream episode 4.17 which told the story of Hundra, a Haitian-American girl willing to expose herself as a lesbian despite her family’s homophobia in order to meet the first woman she’s ever had romantic feelings for. In this episode, rapper “Machine Gun Kelly” fills in for our usual co-host, Max Joseph, who is editing his recently released feature film, We Are Your Friends. While Max’s easy silver fox charm was absolutely missed, Kelly brings a certain freshness to the show on his first “ride along,” not only becoming an excellent surrogate for the audience’s incredulousness as the drama inevitably unfolds but also doing so in some sort of fierce man tank-dress creature to boot.

“Kells” and Max meet up in a hotel to Skype with Hundra who regales the dynamic duo with the story of her interactions with Internet babe Emily. The main conflict seems to be that Hundra comes from a conservative Haitian background where homosexuality is still apparently taboo; naturally, her friends and family are unaware of her sexual orientation. Even so, Hundra is willing to put it all on the line to find her dream girl, while simultaneously taking a stand for oppressed gay Haitian youth. Her plight is admirable. She appeals to the sensibilities of Catfish’s young, generally liberal demographic. All in all, Hundra is primed to take the stage as a brave advocate for changing a culture’s outdated history of discrimination – but, of course, not all is what it seems to be.

To spare you the suspense, I’ll tell you now that this episode, for seemingly the first time ever, appears to be a ruse. Hundra’s Internet girlfriend is a girl named Melanie that she knows in real life. Melanie has been working with her actual girlfriend, Geralyn, to fabricate a story for the film crew. The end goal was to help Hundra make a public spectacle of her “coming out” story as inspirational fodder for gay Haitian youth everywhere. Somewhere along the way, however, Hundra goes off script and shocks her co-conspirators with some hurtful, appalling speeches about “butch” lesbians and gender expression and Melanie and Geralyn decide to sell her out to Nev, Kelly, and the film crew. What begins as a white lie for Hundra’s idea of a greater good instantly unravels into a train wreck that Hundra has no apologies for. The dishonesty is frustrating but the resulting disaster is admittedly fascinating.

We’re going to pause for a second so I can acknowledge, right now, for the incredulous readers, that I’m well aware Catfish is engineered for entertainment purposes. How deep the artifice goes is anyone’s guess. Some sources state that the producers know the full story well in advance but Nev and Max (in this case, Machine Gun Kelly) are deliberately kept in the dark so they can do the investigative legwork. Others are right to speculate that every episode is manufactured completely in order to get ratings. Here’s the thing, though: whatever the case, I don’t care.

Fake or real (or part-fake, or part-real), Catfish is designed to entertain. It succeeds. The parts of the series that keep me hooked have very little to do with the veracity of the story being told. Chiefly, the hosts are relatable, funny, not so bad to look at, and avoid the mistakes made by other comparable series (chiefly, the early 2000s series Cheaters comes to mind) by not taking themselves or their job too seriously. They’re a delight to watch, whether they’re hosting a “who wore it better” contest in the hotel or messing around with a contributor’s fridge magnets to spell their names somewhere in the background of a particularly serious interview. Nev and Max handle a precarious hosting gig with expert precision (too much gravitas and they would be self-important, too much levity and they would be irreverent) by recognizing and also articulating to the audience that the situations they immerse themselves in are often absurd.

At a time when young, educated adults can’t find jobs, when the lavish weddings of Say Yes to the Dress or the white-picket fence farm of the Roloff Family in Little People Big World no longer resonate with an expanding audience, Catfish tells us the real-life stories we need to hear. Contributors are young, often socially awkward, and come from a wide array of home lives and life experiences. They’re not the kid you know who made six figures right out of college, nor the upper middle class couple with the trust funds whose obnoxious wedding photos flood your Facebook feed. The show, however it runs behind the scenes, strikes as being more collaborative than exploitative, partnering with these very normal people to tell their unglamourous stories of heartbreak. As the middle-class dream slides further and further away for many of us, Catfish is the lone voice telling us the stories we need to hear, reminding us that lives are varied and that it’s okay to shun the traditional linear narratives of life and love.

Hundra’s story didn’t work out and left me wanting closure (in the concluding follow-up interview, our “hero” remained smug and unapologetic), but I applaud Catfish for telling the story anyway. One of the best features of Catfish is that it very seldom tells us how we should feel about a particular story or situation. Episode 4.17 broke the mold in many ways but most important was its condemnation of Hundra’s hate speech. In a time where “anything goes” tends to be the guiding principle for a wandering generation, this train wreck of an episode was a rare and welcomed effort to guide us all to an important consensus: always be compassionate, never disrespect your friends, and homophobia, even from within the LGBT community, is ugly.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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