Successful Hollywood films have an overwhelmingly ballsy, brassy and over the top obsession with the hero’s journey. While many people point to the cheap and easy way Disney films use the same formulaic music scores and elements of “imagination” from one film to the next, less has been said to criticize this same pattern in Hollywood movies aimed at adults. Perhaps this is because we are pretty comfortable with this motif. When The Social Network was first released, many critics marveled at how the director was able to make a film that was ostensibly about computer programming interesting and fun. In reality, this was done using the same formula used for any successful Hollywood movie. We were given booze and boobs, and a bunch of geeky college students suddenly transform into warring tribes, both on campus and in the courtroom.

Who do these kinds of films appeal to? Critics oftentimes argue, “everyone”, which in and of itself is an interesting concept to think about. How do certain types of films get relegated to niche markets, while others are lauded as being “universally appealing”?I am interested less in evaluating the merits or flaws of The Social Network in particular (I felt it had both) than our collective refusal to acknowledge films that operate outside this particular formulaic strategy. One of the main reasons I think critics relished The Social Network and were more likely to dismiss Catfish as problematic stems precisely from the fact that Catfish resists and complicates this model.

Catfish is a documentary film which deals with some of the same themes that The Social Network does- how identity and the way in which we relate to one another has changed since the inception of social networking sites, and ways in which it has remained exactly the same. But while The Social Network follows a very traditional Hollywood model to get that point across, Catfish uses a more unusual framework. I’m not referring to the fact that Catfish is a documentary- there are plenty of documentaries that rely on the same heroic tropes, where we follow a protagonist through his highs and lows, or where the filmmaker himself is a stand-in for the hero, and we follow the filmmaker on his/her journey as they come to terms with their subject matter. Catfish allows instead for a portrayal of victimhood which is normally relegated to Lifetime or Oxygen Networks- the kind of wallow-y melodrama we tend to view as too feminine and weak-willed to be meaty, contemplative art.

Catfish plays with our conventional way of thinking about gender in a way which is not safe and which has left many critics calling the filmmakers out as being exploitative. This particular view of the film- that Nev Schulman, the New York based photographer who is the subject for most of the documentary, is the exploiter, and Angela Wesselman, the woman who manipulated Nev into believing in the several identities she constructed, is the victim- is partially shaped by how we perceive gender roles. If Nev was a female protagonist and Angela was a male one, my guess is that most people would assess that Nev was taken advantage of, led on by a lecherous old man, and that this film was a way of dealing with the trauma of learning that the person you thought you loved was part of a complicated lie. I stand by my belief that most viewers would interpret the film this way, even if it was revealed that the male Angela was mentally ill or unstable. It is precisely because Nev is male that many viewers don’t see this to be the case.Many viewers argue he is cocky or foolish, and that, therefore, he basically deserved what he got.

The most boggling aspect of Catfish is how it tears apart our idea of how genders act in romantic relationships and the way it illustrates female desire as complex and worthy of study. By the end of the film it becomes clear that Angela, who is middle-aged and unglamorous, is the artist and Nev is her subject. It’s clear that one of the primary motivations for her reaching out to Nev is sexual and Nev’s uncomfortable smiles throughout the scene in which he confronts her (which are lambasted by some critics as being insensitive) seemed to me to convey the flattered and embarrassed sense we get when we are being watched. Nev knows that as Angela draws his portrait she is objectifying him and that she desires him since a major aspect of this entire charade was to lure him into having a long distance sexual relationship with her.

Many critics hated Nev, were disgusted by his vulnerable, arty presence on camera, which they claimed was disingenuous.Craig D. Lindsey of The News Observer states, “…I should tell you that I don’t trust dudes who unironically wear red jockey shorts or have lower-back tattoos.” Debbie Schlussel agrees, “He’s a “smarter-than-thou” big city guy with a stupid tramp-stamp tattoo on his lower back, who’s been bested by a far more clever, overweight small-town woman with a very sad life.” On several IMDB message boards, viewers explain how Nev’s nudity and tramp stamp must be a wink to the audience that Nev is actually gay. Innocent, vulnerable women who walk around half naked in films are a dime a dozen. Men simply aren’t allowed to play that role, at least without having their authenticity or sexuality called into question.

Catfish isn’t a glossy or beautiful film. It doesn’t claim to represent an entire generation or cut through the more complicated and uncomfortable ramifications of the lives it captures. It pushes viewers outside the boundaries of safe archetypal images we are familiar with and the result is a film which actually challenges us to face an outcome which does not have a simple moral- that greed corrupts, that sexism is bad, that men are one way and women are another. By destabilizing motifs viewers normally take for granted,Catfish ends up being a much more subversive film than many viewers are prepared to deal with, a love story which has a woman acting as a primary agent, rather than an object, and a film where our male hero is presented as brave, but also, vulnerable, open to the world around him and also willing to make mistakes on the road to finding love. Nev plays the role of heroine, rather than hero, and it’s interesting why in 2010 we still find this role shift unsettling.

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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, South Loop Review, The Ilanot Review and Press Play (Indie Wire). She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests . She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

10 responses to “Victims and Voyeurs: What Catfish Tells Us About Gender 
Perceptions in Film”

  1. Richard Cox says:

    I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday. Since I haven’t seen Catfish, it’s difficult to comment directly on your ideas. But we did have a conversation about the Hero’s Journey here on TNB a few weeks ago, and the concept of gender assignment with regard to characters and their roles in a typical story was touched on to some degree.

    I’m not sure what it means to others to reverse or alter gender roles in a film, as in the Catfish example you point out where Angela objectifies or preys on Nev, but personally I see no problem with the woman as predator. However, I can understand the reaction of critics and audiences to Nev as you describe him. While every human is unique, and one can’t reliably predict who or what another person might find attractive, archetypes exist because they’re mostly accurate. A dude who unironically wears red jockey shorts or sports a lower back tattoo is probably not going to be seen as a viable romantic partner by many women. The biological and social cues that draw humans romantically to one another don’t easily permit it. In individual cases, sure. But across populations, not so much.

    In private circumstances, I think a man comfortable with his sexuality often feels free enough to lower his guard around a woman with whom he’s already in a relationship. But in public he’s far less likely to do so because of the social implications you mention in your post. If you’re single and potentially in the market for a relationship, why on earth would you exhibit behavior that would call your manliness into question? And so, based on your observations, apparently it’s also unsettling to watch it in a film, documentary or otherwise.

    That it’s 2010 seems mostly irrelevant to me. Educated folks might have a better understanding of gender roles, and feminism may have helped balance relative socioeconomic power among the genders, but we’re still imprisoned by these bodies and the genetic engine that powers our behaviors. I’d like to see Catfish, and I’d probably find it interesting to see how the film plays with our ideas of gender, but I’m sure when I examine how the story relates to real life, I’m likely to think, Well, sure, this is fine to watch in a film. But I sure as hell would never want to actually be that guy.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks for your comments, Richard! Sorry it’s taken me some time to respond. I’m on vacation with limited internet.

      I think what’s most interesting in Catfish is the way in which gender roles aren’t deliberately reconstructed. By that I mean, this isn’t like a remake of Alice in Wonderland, where Alice is suddenly a valiant knight. Nev is who he is and many people don’t like that because it doesn’t fit a kind of archetypal ideal. The film toys with conventions we are comfortable with by presenting them, rather than drawing attention to them. I believe if Catfish was marketed as a film which subverts gender norms most upper crust educated folks would have rallied around Nev. In this way, the film really holds a mirror to the viewer. We aren’t primed to think about the film in terms of gender, so we just give our natural response…

  2. Marni Grossman says:

    This is a really interesting take. I’d read a lot of the reviews you mentioned. Ones that suggested the Schulman was exploiting this poor, emotionally unstable woman. And I sort of blindly concurred. I’m glad you complicated things for me.

  3. I really love this. I’ve seen Catfish and think this is a fantastic analysis and interesting counterpoint to some of its criticisms. (I also know Nev and Rel, so I can’t really offer an unbiased opinion, but they’re good kids.)

    Nice work!

  4. Judy Prince says:

    A smooth, continuously incisive analysis, Arielle.

    Though I watch contemporary films only on long airplane trips, I do notice the maddening (to me) recurrence of The Expected in role models and heroes (female and male). The gender flips in Catfish, as you point out, must feel odd. Yet filmscripts written about *individual* characters, not the usual gender-inclined characters, clears the head and heart wonderfully. It helps us look at ourselves, compare ourselves with the characters, as we dissect the seeming anomalies they possess. It replaces The Usual with the Surprising, like all excellent literature does. It moves our feet closer to crossing the line of suppression and repression and into wide unexplored dimensions of our expectations, attitudes and behaviours.

    All power to you, Arielle!

    I understand that Mad Men has exited. What is currently replacing it?

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks for your comments, Judy! I’ve become a real film nut recently. I’m pretty anti-allegory (as is pretty obvious in my last two posts) because I think good narrative really trumps an allegorical model.

      I think The Walking Dead is the official replacement of Mad Men (since it is on the same station), but I don’t really find myself interested in it. I have become rather obsessed with Friday Night Lights, which is just terrific- strong, emotional performances and great plots. Have you seen?

      • Judy Prince says:

        Arielle, do describe Friday Night Lights for me, as I don’t have a tv. Is it worth getting one for? 😉

        Does it rival Mad Men in its popularity?

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