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Culture Reporter Talks Netflix's 'The Circle'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we'd like to tell you about a new reality competition show that's generating a lot of buzz on social media. It's called "The Circle." And while you may be rolling your eyes at the idea of another reality show on TV with the long, boozy fake lunches resulting in fake arguments, not to mention the fake hookups, this one is a little different because the show features contestants who create profiles - some real, some completely and intentionally fake - to represent themselves to one another.

Now, the viewer knows what's going on, but the contestants don't because they can only interact through a social media network known as The Circle. And, yes, people are voted off, and there's a cash prize to be won. But what seems fresh is the way the show highlights the choices people make in how they present themselves to each other, and it explores why. Aja Romano recently wrote about "The Circle" for Vox, and Aja is here to tell us more about it.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

AJA ROMANO: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So you wrote in your piece for Vox that authenticity on the show is the obvious currency as well as its main hurdle. Talk a little bit more about that because one of the things that, you know, I noticed is that meanness is not rewarded on this show in the way that it seems to be on other shows.

ROMANO: Absolutely. In "The Circle" - at least, the U.S. version - the people who are, you know, quote-unquote, in it to win it, the people who are trying to game the system, are the ones who tend to be quickly found out and booted. While most of the other ones who form - especially the people who came in at the beginning who formed close bonds - they all tend to be sort of banking on the fact that they'll be seen as themselves, that their presentation is genuine and authentic.

And for the most part, they are. From what we see of them in their little glass cubicles (laughter), we see that they pretty much are presenting themselves online the way that they're trying to be in real life. So "The Circle" is essentially affirming that this performance of, quote-unquote, "authenticity" is what gets you real influence.

MARTIN: So let me - I want to play a clip from the show. And we picked this one because, you know, it's a lot. I'll just say it.

ROMANO: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And I do have to give some spoilers here because - and, you know, apologies for people who are just digging into it because this comes from, I think, Episode 6. And I have to give some spoilers just because you won't understand it otherwise. There's a player named Karyn who's been portraying herself as someone very different from who she is in real life. I mean, this is known as catfishing. That's a term that, you know, you used.

So she's portraying herself as this kind of slinky, made-up Instagram model type, and she's voted off. And when that happens, she's allowed to meet up with one other contestant, and she chooses Chris. And she reveals to him that she is a lesbian. She doesn't have a particularly feminine affect. I mean, she has a very kind of androgynous affect. And she chooses him because, you know, he's a gay man. And they share this tender moment. I'm just going to play it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CIRCLE")

KARYN BLANCO: I want you to understand that...

CHRIS SAPPHIRE: Right, right, right.

BLANCO: I have so much love and respect for you for even standing up as an openly gay man.

SAPPHIRE: Oh, man.

BLANCO: And the reason why I played Mercedeze was because I came here to prove that you can't judge a book by its cover.

MARTIN: You know, tell me more about - what do you think about that whole scene? I know you wrote about it too, so it obviously struck you as well.

ROMANO: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: It's just so interesting to me because it seems - it was fascinating to me because it seems that her fakeness is what got her voted off. Like, she couldn't keep it up. But she...

ROMANO: Right.

MARTIN: ...Also - it was a burden to her. You know, what do you think? Do you know what I mean? What do you think we learned from that whole storyline?

ROMANO: Well, I think this is really pivotal because you said it - that comes in episode 6, which is exactly halfway through the series. And this is also the first time a, quote-unquote, "catfish" has been revealed on the show.

So you might think on another reality show, it would be very filled with drama and intensity and shocking. Oh, no. They're not who they say they are. But instead, it's presented as this very - like, this moment of vulnerability. And you immediately understand why she she did this - because she felt that as she performs her - basically performs her queerness in the real world, she's punished for that, and it's not freeing to her. It's constricting to her.

And so she wanted to come on the show and prove that she could be someone else because she wants to make it clear to everyone out there that you might be judging queer people by stereotypes or - and so forth. But in reality, in terms of her experience of the world, she wanted people to know that she could be just like everybody else.

MARTIN: Interesting. Yeah.

ROMANO: But what happens is that she basically gets kicked off because she's not being authentic enough. And after she goes, there's this great moment where Seaburn, who's an excellent player who is also catfishing but is doing it in a way where he's basically just being a girl version of himself...

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: He says - in this moment of bafflement, he's, like, but if she'd just been herself, I would have loved her (laughter), you know? She would have been so great - you know, after she's gone (laughter). It's this moment of wonderful irony because you have these people who are trying to get to various levels of authenticity that are comfortable for them, and how that's perceived by the group is really fascinating.

MARTIN: So finally, one of the things you wrote about in your piece is that you suggested that the show portrays something about social media today. So what do you think we're learning from this show? What do you think this show is showing us?

ROMANO: I think one thing that it's really, really effective at is pushing back against the notion that anonymity or pseudonymity on the Internet are inherently toxic. I think it shows you a number of - a really wide range of reasons why people would want to be anonymous or pseudonymous on the Internet and allows those people to be vulnerable and talk about, you know, how they might be constrained by social pressure or other factors and how actually they can be a version of themselves when they're performing this other persona that is actually more real than what they feel they can present in real life.

So I think it's really, really effective at that. And I think it really - this way of getting at the fact that we all are sort of performing aspects of ourselves every day, whether or not we want to, you know, dress it up and call it a sockpuppet, as it were.

MARTIN: That is Aja Romano. Aja is a culture reporter for Vox and joined us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York.

Aja, thanks so much for joining us.

ROMANO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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