After watching last week’s episode of MTV’S Catfish I was angry and confused.
For those of you who have never heard of the show, Catfish is a reality show that profiles people in online relationships. The show’s hosts Nev and Max hear the stories of people who are eager to meet their online partner and investigate to find out if these online identities are false, as is often the case.
Last week’s episode (here) follows two African Americans, Rob who has been corresponding with Ebony for four years. During their relationship (the nature of which is quite unclear) Rob has known Ebony to be a trans woman. Nev and Max seem to be very surprised at Rob’s “acceptance” of Ebony’s trans identity, continually commenting that he must be “at least bi-curious” to be in a relationship with a trans woman (who they refer to with the wrong pronoun–he vs. she–throughout the entire episode).
We follow Nev, Max and Rob to Atlanta to meet Ebony in person and come to find through Ebony’s confession, that she is in fact a cis lesbian. Ebony explains that she posed as a trans woman because she wanted to become friends with a gay man without the risk of a relationship forming.
Black-Trans-Woman-Impersonator Seeks Straight-Black-Man-Impersonator. Huh?
If you’re really confused right now, you should be. The whole thing is a crazy ride. The show goes on to explain that Rob met Ebony on some sort of queer dating site, yet the reason Rob–who continually reiterates that he is straight–was on a queer dating site is still unclear. Moreover, after Rob finds out that Ebony is a cisgender (i.e not a trans) woman he is visibly disappointed. Why? We are left wondering what it all means, and like I said…the show left me confused and angry.
Janet Mock, trans women advocate and founder of the #girlslikeus campaign, expressed similar feelings as she live tweeted along with the episode.
“Still scratching my head over this #catfish episode: Cis lesbian poses as trans for 4 years, attracts guy dating her b/c she pays his bills?” @janetmock
“I hate that young people watching this show are being consistently misinformed about trans people.” @janetmock
I asked Janet to weigh in on where MTV went wrong. She was nice enough to take some time away from writing her book (thanks again Janet!) and comment:
“So far, trans people have been discussed in two episodes of Catfish, a show that mainly covers “deception” in online relationships. This is dangerous territory when covering the lives of trans people because often we’re dangerously dismissed and accused of “deceiving” people in relationships, and this framing of our lives leads many people to think that the violence trans women specifically face in relationships is justified because we weren’t forthcoming about our gender identity. This is a dangerous and harmful framework that Catfish is flirting with.”
Trans People of Color Identities Aren’t Punchlines
Janet explained how much Catfish missed this chance to bring visibility to trans women saying, “trans women are thrown under the bus in the pursuit of a good storyline even though no trans women are featured in the episode – at all.”
Incidentally, another episode of Catfish featured a transgender man who was able to speak on his experience as a trans person, prompting the question as to why the show’s producers thought it would be a good idea to potentially let uninformed, mainstream audiences draw their conclusions on the experiences of transgender women from the creator of a fake online dating profile.
Janet argues that “because] there was no trans woman to speak for herself, misinformation was widely spread about trans women without trans women being able to rebut these misconceptions.”
The Verdict: MTV’s Producers Can Do Better, And We Should Show Them How
I enjoy Catfish because I think it profiles people who are looking for real connections in a social world that is difficult to navigate. Additionally, they give the people who are deceptive with their profiles a chance to explain some of their reasons, humanizing them. But in this episode, they did quite the opposite; they conflated deception with trans women’s identities, and essentially demonized an entire group of people. couldn’t be bothered to Google “transgender identity.”
Instead of looking critically at how many people are unwilling to be truthful online for various reasons–like insecurities of appearance, weight, and yes, sometimes gender identity and sexuality– Catfish sells itself and its stars short. The show’s producers couldn’t even be bothered to Google “transgender identity,” and, as a result, many viewers may have walked away from that episode with harmful misconceptions.
“It takes minimal research to avoid misgendering trans folks & misinforming others. Sadly @MTVCatfish @nevschulman showed a lack of care.” -@Janet Mock
Did you watch the episode? What did you think? Is it reasonable to accept that in the online dating world misunderstandings are bound to happen? Or do the letters LGBT add an extra layer to online dating disasters? Also, how can we send the message to producers who think it’s “trendy” to tackle trans issues to do so more sensitively, and take their responsibility as pop culture influencers more seriously? (That last question was not rhetorical. Suggestions welcome). As always, please read the comments policy before leaving your comments below!