Rumors of Realness and the Almighty Catfish in Netflix’s The Circle

Authenticity, ‘Godfidence,’ and Fake, While Real

CJ Green / 5.4.20

In a popularity contest worth 100,000 dollars, would you choose to be yourself? Or would you pretend to be someone else, say, someone better-looking or more accomplished? This at least in theory is the question behind Netflix’s The Circle, a reality show where contestants hole up for two weeks with no phones or computers; their only connection is to each other, through a social network called The Circle. The game involves baking challenges, trivia, but most importantly “rankings”: a system whereby contestants evaluate the most popular players. And the least popular gets the boot.

If you’re thinking, “Next!,” you wouldn’t be alone. When I messaged my brother about it he said, “Sounds horrible lol.” In her review for Wired, Kate Knibbs wrote that the premise seemed “objectively gross” and “cursed,” and then admitted, “I kept watching. And watching.” Like most reality TV, The Circle is by turns trashy, ridiculous, and ethically questionable. Eventually, however, it becomes weirdly heartfelt and even…uplifting.

Aside from the fact that nearly every contestant is under 40 (and most under 30), the group is as different as you can imagine. There’s “Rebecca,” who is actually a man named Seaburn, who over-emotes and refers to himself as a “hashtag shy girl.” And then there’s Rebecca’s best in-game friend, Shubham, whose motto is “be yourself.” There’s Joey, an Italian mama’s boy, and Sammie, a tattoo-clad paradox. They come from all different backgrounds, too; one contestant, whose mother died tragically, was raised by a willing aunt. Another reveals she was separated from her siblings in the foster care system.

But while contestants grow vulnerable, take leaps of faith, put trust in one another, and develop loyalties, they also strategically bait, flirt, and lie to one another. Since identities are secret, players can only guess whether everyone is who they say they are. Shubham sees himself as a shark, hunting the “catfishes” who promise countless times that they are being “one hundred percent real”—even, occasionally, after they are outed. They insist that their “connection,” the spirit behind their conversations, was “absolutely genuine.”

Authenticity is the currency of modern relationships. As more of our lives go digital, we increasingly require down-to-earth aesthetics and anything smacking of “the human.” But in life, of course—catfishes notwithstanding—there are no real people and fake people. There are just people. When we talk about being “real” or “fake,” we refer to our motives, where we’re coming from. When we are confident, transparent, with nothing to fear—then we are “real.” When we are afraid, we cover up, posture, boast. In Paul Zahl’s terms, our fake self is a “tremulous, eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head, anxious sort of person.” This is our inner-being motivated by acclaim, safety, or money; it is also the fragilest part, which fears what we would become without these stilts to keep us up.

In The Circle, as in life, fear and ulterior motives have a way of sticking around. Most of us, most of the time, are being both fake and real, posturing even as we’re getting honest. And that’s the Internet’s defining quality. Fake, while real. Connecting, while distancing. It’s both a posture—a thirst trap, say—and a genuine entreaty: like me, hear me, know me. As Aja Romano put it at Vox:

Instead of treating “being fake on the internet” as a shocking betrayal, The Circle embraces it as something we all do in big and small ways, often in the service of making friends and fitting in. The most obvious examples of this are during the group chats. Repeatedly, we see contestants faking their way through these chats; popular early entrant Sammie has a tendency to rattle off enthusiastic phrases like “LOL” and inflections like exclamation points with a completely deadpan expression.

…You might think that all the attention to the humanness of fakery — to the regularity and reliability of surface-level inauthenticity — would make everyone seem shallow and false. But instead, The Circle has the opposite effect: It makes space for the rarely acknowledged truth that virtual anonymity can allow people to express deeper levels of authenticity, without the hindrances imposed upon them by social expectations and judgments.

Like Shubham, many of us feel that social media is the actual plague of our generation, but as The Circle shows, that sickness runs deeper. As for the cure, it is not super complicated. Simply by conversing with others on the show (the conversations, TBH, are not particularly deep), the contestants’ fear is overcome, or at least assuaged, and very often replaced by affection. In The Circle, as a general rule, the more time you spend there, the more beloved you become (and the greater your chances of survival).

At one point, sensing a faker in his midst, a contestant named Chris wonders who is this “Almighty catfish!” Chris plays the game as himself and has the courage to do so, he says, because he has “Godfidence.” Apparently when you have Godfidence, the Lord will manifest all sorts of goodness in your life, perhaps even a gameshow prize. Your own conception of God may not involve such miraculous prosperity, but do recall that Jesus and his disciples were fishermen (and “fishers of men”). More than once did they haul [cat]fishes out of the murky deep, and into the light.

“For nothing is hidden,” Christ said, “that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” Though at first ominous-sounding, that verse is less a threat than a heartening promise. Consistently, The Circle’s most beautiful moments come when characters finally meet face-to-face. It is frightening—and very often relieving—to see at last that fearful self who might have preferred to stay in the dark, eyes in the back of their head. If The Circle imparts any lesson, it’s that authentic gifts—you know, grace—will always manifest where we least expect it. And I’m Godfident about that.