We have been watching Channel 4’s fascinating social experiment, The Circle (the second series ended on Friday). The premise is relatively simple. A group of contestants enter an apartment block where they live without coming into contact with one another, or any contact with the outside world; communicating only by intranet chat (the Circle). They can, therefore, play as themselves or as a ‘catfish’—someone pretending, online, to be someone other than their true identity, with the deliberate intention to deceive others. On a regular basis, contestants are made to rate the others; the two players scoring highest becoming influencers, and having to reach agreement as to which of the other players to block from the Circle. Regarding strategy, some choose to be friendly—something apparently so unusual it arouses suspicion—and others (catfish or not) to be manipulative. The viewing audience get to see more of what is going on, including players’ rationale (though we, too, are being manipulated to a degree, by editorial decisions; which may matter, as we, too, have votes at certain times, making us both quasi-player and quasi-production team).
One of the things that this experiment highlights is how much time and energy we all spend second-guessing the motives and responses of others, especially in but not restricted to our online interactions. Some of this, of course, is based on our previous experience; but it often exposes our own prejudice and the near universal belief that we are a good judge of character.
Another, related, thing that is highlighted is how much of our identity is constructed—even if we are not a catfish. For example, sexuality is a (very complex) construction. LGBTQIA+ sexualities are, clearly, social and political constructions; but so, equally, is being straight—and in the construction of ‘straight’ there is an excessive weight given to the male gaze, and (as an aspect of patriarchy) of the desiring-to-control gaze of the older man upon the younger woman. God didn’t give you any of these identities; though God did make us persons, socially constructed and constructing beings.
It was interesting to observe how sexuality was played by the players. The young lesbian woman who catfished as a straight female, to avoid being judged or the unwanted interest of men seeing ‘turning’ her as a challenge; but who felt that she needed to be ‘straight’ (as opposed to undeclared), to seek opportunity to flirt with guys to gain advantage. The straight men who flirted, aggressively. The younger straight women, who, within their armoury, dressed to kill; and who, when in girl group chat (and much to the discomfort of a male catfish) became very ladette. The middle-aged straight woman, catfish, who used photos of her son, but who—instead of playing as someone she presumably knows very well—sought to adopt the generic persona of a twenty-something straight lad, and did so with toe-curling clunky-ness; the clumsy flirting of a black woman catfishing as a white middle-class guy—embarrassing; but not necessarily inaccurate—and the recently-divorced cougar off the leash. The female catfish adopting a less glamourous female persona, so as not to be judged as nothing more than a body, while passing the most judgemental views on the bodies of women that didn’t conform to her own real-life construction. The tedious predictability of two straight contestants, strangers brought together in a shared apartment, getting it on. The brazen lust of a young gay man, and the way he used sexuality to evaluate the usefulness of other players to him, and the way in which a straight male strung him on. The inquisitiveness of the youngest contestant, a male identifying as bi-sexual, at ease in affirming other players regardless of gender or sexuality, but sensitive to unease (and so a great catfish detective). The dissonance of a male catfish, presenting the viewers with trimmed beard and bulging biceps (top never on) and the other players with a photo-filter single mum missing her baby son—a vulnerability hiding behind toughness, and a toughness hiding behind vulnerability.
The confidence of straight contestants, and the cautious approach of those of other sexualities. They ways in which sexuality, which impacts all of our relationships and not just potential sexual partners, was used to make first impressions and strategic decisions concerning who posed a threat and who posed little or no threat.
It was frankly refreshing to witness a middle-aged celebrity catfish relate to a beautiful young woman (on being blocked, players get to meet one player of their choice face-to-face) without objectifying her.
It was interesting, too, that the only player (celebrity catfish aside) to be in a long-term relationship, an older gay man, was so very comfortable in his own skin. This is not to suggest that you have to be in a long-term relationship to be so, but he had no need to impress anyone. Moreover, he had clearly constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed himself, in various ways, many times; finding joyfulness and a genuine interest in how others were doing the same, taking ownership of givens and strategies in relation to the gaze of others, to construct a more fully liveable life.
Every contestant was a work of social construction, and was further socially constructed within the Circle. Such is all our days. Overall, we’re quick to justify our own constructions, our power-plays for ‘right reasons’ and to ‘good ends’; quick to judge—favourably or unfavourably—others on their constructions; and quick to weaponize what we construct. But underneath, there is a person, wounded and wounding, healing and healing others, to be seen and loved and interrogated for understanding—best done face-to-face over a meal—not for our advantage.
Thank you, Channel 4. We love The Circle.