During the intermission of a theatrical production I took in this past weekend, my eyes could not help but wander to the cell phone of a woman in the row in front of me. She was in the middle of crafting an Instagram story that featured a picture of the stage curtains with the show’s name illuminated on it.
The act itself was nothing out of the ordinary. Even I had taken a similar photo earlier in the evening, which I posted on Instagram later that night.
What fascinated me about the woman was the internal back and forth she was going through regarding what to write. She was trying to express the fact that she had miraculously made it to the show in time (she was a few minutes late, but who I am to judge), but kept deleting her words. Her desire to find just the right phrasing, which would generate the most online approval, quickly reminded me of Netflix’s The Circle.
Adapted from the British series of the same name, The Circle is the streaming giant’s latest foray into reality television but with a social media twist. The program sequesters 15 contestants in an apartment complex (though only 8 compete at the time), who can only communicate with other players via a social media app called The Circle. Eliminating the rich nuances that come with face-to-face interactions, contestants must channel their inner Michelangelo to sculpt the most captivating online profile.
The catch is that players do not necessarily have to present the best version of themselves to win the game. They are free to go the “catfish” route and pretend to be another person entirely.
Those with the best social media game not only get to stay longer, thus getting one step closer to the $100,000 prize, but are also awarded “influencer” status. While not wielding the same clout as those Instagram celebs who convinced hundreds of rich kids to go to the trash fire that was the Fyre Festival, influencers in The Circle decide which of their fellow contestants will be “blocked” (aka. kicked off the show).
While a “blocked” individual gets a chance to meet one of the other remaining contestants before leaving, arguably providing the show its best moments of genuine human connection, the eviction is not as captivating at the process around it. By forcing players to keep ranking each other from one to seven, the problematic nature of the show reveals itself.
The Circle clearly wants to reinforce the proverb that one should “never judge a book by its cover.” However, every aspect of the game is designed for players to do just that. The show’s hypocritical commentary carries even less weight than the First Lady’s “Be Best” initiative. It sounds great in theory, but the practice tells another tale.
Players like Karyn, a 37-year-old lesbian from the Bronx, who seems to be the living embodiment of this be yourself mantra, still felt compelled to go the catfish path and presented herself as a straight 27-year-old named “Mercedeze.” Frankly, outside of 30-year-old Dallas native Chris, everyone older than 29 -years-old opted to create a fake profile.
This leads to another disturbing trend on the show, the subtle reinforcement of stereotypes. The Italians are the muscle-head womanizers, the athlete is cocky and heartless, one black woman is deemed too blunt while another – who is really a guy using his girlfriend’s image – is praised for being sweet and non-threatening, the South Asian is the awkward geek, etc.
The Circle feeds off of dated societal tropes and exploits the judgmental nature that such views breed.
These preconceived notions are why every contestant presents themselves as single and thin. In this glorified popularity contest, just as on social media in real life, it is “thirst trap” photos, which initially generate the most positive buzz in the house. This sadly explains why even newcomers, like a plus-size woman who preaches body positivity, instantly believe that the only way to win is to present an image that fits an old standard of beauty.
The funny thing is, despite the heavy emphasis The Circle places on looks, a player’s appearance only carries so far in the game. Regardless of how attractive the exterior might be, a person’s true nature rarely stays hidden long online. While individuals like Shubham received the lowest votes in the first round, which was solely ranked on appearances, his lovable personality helped him rise in the ranks in the subsequent votes.
Furthermore, by adding the catfish element to the show, those who are deemed to be the most attractive are met with a higher level of suspicion.
The mixture of cabin fever-induced paranoia and the cheeky one-liners from show host Michelle Buteau ultimately gives the problematic show a certain undeniable charm. Make no mistake, The Circle is trashy reality television with high-concept trappings, but it is oddly entertaining at the same time. Much like Twitter, one knows they will endure a lot of stupidity when logging on. However, you cannot help but scroll through it all anyways.
That’s assuming one can get through hearing each person dictating their messages and verbalizing every inner thought.
Part of the allure is the contestants themselves. Aside from being cordial to each other (for the most part), there is plenty of “shade” to go around, and something inherently relatable to each of them. One can identify with the sense of self-doubt they constantly wrestle with; the clueless ways in which the men think they are being suave with the women online; the almost robotic way women can pinpoint when a guy will turn an innocent comment into something sexual; and the ways emojis have become the new slang.
It is also fascinating to watch those who claim to hate social media get swept up in everything they dislike. Yes, at the end of the day, it is a game. However, for a few brief moments, their inner desire to be loved and accepted shine through, even though it is complete strangers showering them with adulation.
The Circle exists in a vacuum where “keeping it real” means presenting oneself in the most flattering façade possible, which isn’t so different from how most of us act IRL.
The Circle is currently streaming on Netflix.