Sociology Focus
Author: Kimberly Kiesewetter

Catfish and the Influences of Heteronormativity

Heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation. This attitude leads people to value only traditional gender roles and heterosexual relationships while rejecting all gender, sex, and sexual behaviors that fall outside of this narrow box. Heteronormativity contributes to the creation of a society that is unwelcoming and even dangerous for people who do not conform to this norm. By using the popular MTV show, Catfish, Kim Cochran Kiesewetter explores some of the consequences of living in a heteronormative culture.

My partner and I do not typically like the same TV shows. It’s almost impossible for us to find things we both want to watch together. One lazy evening, we stumbled upon a documentary released in 2010 called Catfish that detailed a young man’s journey to meet a girl he fell in love with online, only to discover that, in reality, not all was what it seemed to have been online. We were enthralled… and, apparently, we weren’t alone.

The popularity of the film led MTV to create a show based on the same premise (aptly named Catfish: The TV Show) where host Nev Schulman helps individuals from around the country meet their online loves for the first time. In a nutshell: it’s typically a train-wreck. The anonymity of online communication allows people to present themselves in ways that differ dramatically from how they appear in real life, also known now as “catfishing” in popular culture. People can catfish others online by creating false personas that may involve fake careers, false geographic locations, and the borrowing of someone else’s photographs. (Catfishing, the verb, probably reached it’s critical mass when Notre Dame star football player Manti Te’o admitted in January that he’d been a victim of the hoax).

Catfishing as a Consequence of Heteronormativity

On the surface, catfishing seems both selfish and dishonest. True to this notion, some of the catfish detailed in the show seem to have little remorse for the potential hurt their lies could cause others. Some of the “caught” catfish admit to doing it for less than culturally desirable reasons like trying to get revenge or to get money from compassionate targets. However, instead of viewing everyone on the Internet as someone out to maliciously manipulate others (a psychological explanation), I’ve been fascinated by the number of people catfishing others who don’t fall within our culture’s heteronormative ideals (a sociological explanation).

Heteronormativity is a concept that was born out of queer theory and is a term for viewing heterosexuality as the only acceptable and “natural” form of sexuality. Norms in heteronormative cultures reflect the idea that everyone is heterosexual, and further, that everyone also falls into neat, traditional gender and sex categories. Heteronormative cultures tend to be very unwelcoming of any variation outside of this ideal including same-sex relationships and transgendered behavior, and also fail to account for biological diversity in sex such as intersexuality (people born with ambiguous genitalia and/or reproductive organs). People who don’t adhere to accepted norms in these societies feel increased pressure to hide their sexual orientation/gender identity/etc. in order to experience cultural acceptance. We can see this pressure firsthand in a number of episodes from Catfish: The TV Show.

In the first episode, Sunny has fallen in love online with male model Jamison. Sunny is shocked when she travels to Jamison’s rural hometown to discover that, not only is Jamison not a male model, but Jamison is actually a young woman named Chelsea. Sunny is both irate at and embarrassed by Chelsea’s lie. While Chelsea doesn’t seem a particularly sympathetic character at first glance, later interviews with her highlight that she has been bullied throughout her life for not adhering to typically feminine norms and for not being heterosexual. Creating male online personas allowed her to explore her sexuality through online interactions with females without facing the rejection she had encountered living in a community that was hostile to any deviation from heterosexual norms.

Similarly, other episodes detail catfish who present themselves as both heterosexual as well as the other sex, when in reality they might be transgendered (meaning that a person is biologically one sex but identifies with the social behavior, such as dress and mannerisms, of the other sex) and/or homosexual, however, fear of rejection from revealing the truth complemented by the anonymity of online interactions led to the use of the Internet as a “safe place” to explore relationships the catfish didn’t feel safe to pursue in real life. This fear of not being accepted is, sadly, very real in our society where LBGTQ people face discrimination, stigmatization, and even violence.

One of the few episodes with a happy ending on the last season of Catfish : The TV Show was the story of Kya and Alyx. Both identified their sexuality as pansexual in an online community, but both catfished the other due to their insecurities during their online courtship. Kya fessed up to her lies before going to meet Alyx, who she thought was a male from Europe, only to find out he was a trans male from the US. However, Kya’s reaction was heart-warming and the two appeared to have genuine feelings for one another in spite of the lies, indicating they both hoped to go on and have a lasting intimate relationship together. While watching it, it was striking to consider how our cultural ideas of both gender and sexual orientation led two people who seemed genuinely compatible to feel the need to lie about who they were in order to be accepted.

While our culture is becoming more tolerant of sexual diversity, we still live in a very heteronormative society; the practice of catfishing by people who don’t conform to this norm is just one example of the many consequences of this value system.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What are specific examples of ideas/behavior that reinforce heteronormativity that you are familiar with (e.g., the prevalence of mainstream romance films detailing only heterosexual relationships)?
  2. Heteronormativity makes people feel like heterosexuality is “natural”. Check out this article on same-sex behavior in the animal kingdom. Do a little further research on biological and social influences on sexual orientation. Is sexual orientation more a product of biological or social influences?
  3. Many people think that sexual orientation is 100% biological; they are not sociologists. If sexual orientation is influenced by biology, how should we view heteronormativity? If sexual orientation is influenced by social factors, how should we view heteronormativity?
  4. What are specific ways, both individually and culturally, heternormative norms can be changed in a society to be more accepting of sexual diversity?
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