Catfishing Through Time
It’s amazing how common words can take on radically new meanings throughout time. A word that formally recalled one, clear image to mind can hold an entirely new definition – especially if it spreads on social media. The word ‘catfish’ is one example. When I was a kid, catfish were the ugly fish with the big mouths that my grandpa would sit on his rickety deck for hours trying to catch. Now, the first thought that comes to mind when I see the word ‘catfish’ is a teenager falling in love with a boy she has never seen. A boy that has nothing but professional, model-like pictures on his Facebook profile.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture the scene. Turn to MTV on any given day, and you’ll catch at least one episode of the show Catfish. Starting in 2012, and still running, the show is the television version of the documentary of the same title that came out in 2010.
The documentary follows Nev Shulman as he builds a relationship with a woman online, who calls herself Megan. The pictures and information Megan sends to Nev start to become suspicious, so he seeks her out to investigate. It turns out that Megan is really a middle-aged woman named Angela. Megan doesn’t exist. Angela doesn’t even know the girl in the photos she sent him.
Nev hosts the television show along with Max Joseph. The show follows the same basic storyline as the documentary. People fall in love with pictures, words on a screen, and occasionally phone calls, but start to become suspicious about the identity of the person on the other side of the screen. Nev and Max swoop in to help, eventually finding the suspected catfish and meeting face-to-face.
I would like to say I had to research the information about Catfish: The TV show, but I already knew most of the information. Catfish is my biggest guilty pleasure show—something I never wanted to admit. I only say guilty because it seems wrong to watch the embarrassment of a teen or young adult as they realize something that the rest of the country saw as obvious, from an outside perspective. I don’t feel guilty about finding the subject matter interesting. It’s fascinating because it is a concept that is both familiar and foreign.
I see forms of it on social media every day. Men will accept friend requests from beautiful, scantily clad women with four friends, using pictures of similar looking, but different women. These men will comment saying “Hey beautiful, message me your number,” when it’s painfully obvious they will never get the number of the pictured busty blonde.
Yet, it’s something that doesn’t seem like it should be so culturally familiar. It’s hard enough to believe the person standing in front of you is everything he (or she) says he is these days. I don’t know anyone that is so trusting to start a relationship with someone without meeting first, at least I haven’t in a long time.
My first experience with catfishing was in the eighth grade, but I didn’t have a name for it back then. My best friend at the time was named Bailey. We were shy, wanting to be more popular, and just starting to desire attention from boys. Bailey found the attention she wanted from a boy calling himself Andy. He looked older, with a Justin Bieber haircut before it was given a name, and had tanned skin. Bailey showed me Myspace messages from him calling her beautiful, smart, and soon, his girlfriend. But, as you can, guess, Bailey had never met Andy.
He claimed he went to a middle school in our town. It wasn’t unusual that we’d never met him because the town seemed much larger in the days before we drove. Still, he seemed too handsome, too well-spoken, and too kind – too good to be true. Bringing up my suspicion to Bailey only led to arguments. Eventually, the problem worked itself out. Girls in our school started comparing messages they’d received from “Andy,” and he deleted his profile never to be heard from again.
It’s not difficult to see why Bailey would fall into the trap. Bailey being thirteen years old at the time almost says it all. On top of the awkward age, she had yet to lose her baby fat and was often teased because of it. She desired attention, was offered it, and accepted it.
We can understand a young girl falling victim to catfishing, but how do adults get pulled into it? The obvious answer is a deep insecurity on both sides – the victim, and the catfish. The reasons people pretend to be other people, and the reasons people believe it stem from the same source, although the reasons vary case by case.
Let’s look at some examples of catfishing.
Henry VIII is a famous case of being fooled by an image. Although it may have been simply called deception back then, catfishing isn’t a new concept. Social media has made it much easier, but as long as there have been people with complex emotions, it’s not so hard to believe that pretending to be someone else in order to manipulate or fulfill a desire has existed.
After Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour died, Henry was on the search for yet another queen. Anne of Cleves was suggested to Henry. It was thought that a marriage to Anne would be a smart political choice. Before agreeing to the marriage, Hans Holbein the Younger was to paint a portrait of her first. Henry accepted the marriage after seeing the portrait, but did not accept Anne’s appearance once he saw her. Holbein was accused of painting her to look more attractive than she was. Along with that, Henry’s courtiers spoke highly of Anne’s beauty, further convincing him of his decision. Henry was heard to have called Anne names negatively based on her appearance and say that he could not perform his husbandly duties because of her looks.
It’s difficult to call Henry VIII a victim, but he is on the victim end in the case of catfishing. He sought a queen, and accepted a marriage based on the words of praise and a portrait. His hope for a wife didn’t turn out as expected. Henry was possibly, and most likely, manipulated because with marriage in those days, alliances were formed. A marriage to Anne of Cleves would have been helping people other than Anne and Henry. In this situation, it was not Anne doing the catfishing, but members of Henry’s court. The marriage to Anne was soon annulled. The main factors in this case would be manipulation and a desire for power.
Let’s fast forward to look at a more sinister case of catfishing. Catfishing is not only done out of a romantic desire. Pretending to be someone else can make it much easier to carry out a crime.
In the 1920s, a man named Albert Fish was known to put ads out under the name Robert Hayden, a supposedly rich, Hollywood tycoon. Fish would send out letters to his victims that were normal at first, but would soon turn lurid. It is not certain that he murdered any of the women he wrote to under the name Robert Hayden. His only known victims were young children.
It’s not too difficult to have some sympathy for the person pretending to be someone else. Sometimes its just a matter of low confidence that leads someone to catfish. Fish, however, was the worst possible kind of catfish. There was nothing but pure deception and manipulation in order to gain a twisted satisfaction.
The women who responded to Fish’s letters were the most common type of catfishing victims. Most likely, they wanted extra attention, and found it within his letters. These women corresponding with someone they’d never met was more understandable back then than it is now. They did not see multiple suspect Facebook profiles a day and Nigerian princes claiming to have a fortune with your name on it.
Now, let’s get back to modern day catfishing. Most people ignore the emails from various countries offering money or asking for money. The emails are often dramatic, and I hate to say it, pretty funny. If you don’t know what emails I’m talking about, check your spam mailbox. A woman named Sara found the potential for a partner in one of these emails.
Sara had been divorced twice already and was looking for love when a man claiming to be Chris Olsen contacted her. He said that he was from Italy, but was now living in Nigeria. Chris would move around to other countries in Africa as well.
Sara and Chris started out by emailing, but would eventually spend hours each day on the phone together. Sara noticed a change in his accent from Italian to an African accent, but didn’t think much of it. Over time, Sara wired Chris $1.8 million dollars to cover food, rent, bail, hotels, just about anything you could think of. Though she has yet to meet Chris, she feels confident that he is trying to get to her. She believes it is true love.
This is possibly one of the saddest cases of catfishing that hasn’t ended in murder. Sara has such a belief in the person on the other end of the computer that she is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain his affection. Her relationship with Chris has put her on the news and shows like Dr. Phil, but even with so much disbelief thrown her way, nothing convinces her that Chris may not be who he says he is – even to this day. Is it desperation, manipulation, or a need to feel powerful that fuels Chris? And how deep must a need to be loved be to maintain a relationship like that? This extreme of a case of catfishing seems unique to the twenty-first century.
As we have seen, catfishing isn’t limited to lonely souls on both seeking the attention to they make lack in every day life. It can be fueled by much more sinister or manipulative reasons. The optimistic side of me likes to think that the majority of ongoing catfish relationships are the product of insecurity, of what we lack in daily life. Getting in touch with people is easier than ever, but it’s not an unfamiliar thought that so much contact leaves us feeling more alone than ever.
Catfish: The TV Show was my guilty pleasure, but I didn’t think much about it until I saw an episode a few weeks ago. This episode was about a young woman named Andria, about twenty-two years old. On the show, she stated that her only relationship had been going on for ten years so far. When she was twelve, she met a boy named David online. They quickly formed a bond, writing letters, calling, and messaging through Facebook. Andria claimed she had never loved another person. But, she had become confused because her boyfriend recently said that she was a woman named Christina. Andria was in denial, until Nev helped her discover her longtime boyfriend really was a woman. Christina treated her coldly when they met on the show, stating that she was only messing with her emotions, but told Andria she really loved her when the show wasn’t filming.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Andria, but I think her story offers an explanation for why catfishing is so prevalent today. The girl stayed faithful to a person she had never met solely because of their extensive communication. She may have met others throughout the years, but the depth of her bond through words alone is what we thrive on. Yes, it’s difficult to form a bond with a real, live person in front of you when insecurity runs deep, but lately, it seems to be more difficult to have meaningful communication at all.
Catfishing may provide lonely people with a way to communicate in ways they never could in person, good intentions or not. But, the next time you’re craving meaningful companionship, it may be better to get up the courage to talk to the guy you’ve been seeing on the bus every day over the guy that looks like a model in his Facebook profile picture.
Megan Huxley is a BFA writing student. She graduates in March and plans to take a year off before graduate school to further explore writing and reading.