How ‘The Circle’ is a case study in group misogynoir

(Image credit: digitalspy.com)

This post contains spoilers for The Circle.

As a Black woman who has been watching reality TV since childhood, I have become astute at determining a show’s intentions with women and BIPOC cast members. Even as our favorite reality competition shows incorporate more “diverse” casting, the messaging viewers are given about marginalized players has remained mostly unevolved. This is doubly true for Black women on these programs.

Thus, when I began watching the second season of The Circle, I was disappointed to see that the show seemed to magnify its own deep-seated assumptions about Black womanhood. Namely, the ways in which culture views Black women as inherently deviant from society’s arbitrary markers of respectability. To understand the current season’s depiction of Black women, we must examine the first season’s portrayal of Mercedeze, a catfish persona created by Black butch lesbian, Karyn.

Karyn entered the game as Mercedeze, a faux-bisexual Black woman with more “conventionally” attractive features. Knowing that appearances would weigh heavily in a game like The Circle, the plus-sized Karyn feared that entering the game as herself would sink her chances of victory. In fairness, her assessment wasn’t incorrect; society holds hostility toward women, fatness, lesbianism, and Blackness. Thus, in a superficial social experiment like The Circle, it’s understandable that someone like Karyn chose to fabricate an alter ego to better her odds.

Yet, Karyn’s Mercedeze persona is viewed with suspicion from the beginning. Sammie, an eventual finalist, was quick to assess that Mercedeze likely had “a mean side” based off of her sarcastic bio. She additionally said that Mercedeze’s photo was too “filtered,” implying that this made her untrustworthy. Later in the first episode when Sammie is deliberating with co-influencer Antonio, she asserts that Mercedeze is dangerous because she’s sociable with the other players, and returns to the fact that her profile picture is filtered. Although she is spared the first week, Sammie’s opinion of Mercedeze seems to linger, and eventually spreads to other players.

Karyn picked up on this as the episodes went on, and subsequently engaged with her peers from a place of defense. Her “attitude” further sank her likability, and combined with some admittedly questionable communication choices, created suspicion that she was a catfish. She was ultimately eliminated on this basis. In isolation, the first season’s charm and less overt gameplay was enough to mask any underlying misogynoir at play during Mercedeze’s tenure.

The same cannot be said of the most recent season, which manufactured its plot around the eliminations of Terilisha and Khat, the only two Black women in the game who played themselves.

Terilisha entered the game with the original group of players, and along with initial BFF Savannah, earned the first influencer status of the season. This was a key event that would effectively control the direction of the season. In the deliberation, Savannah made clear that the only person she was truly unwilling to eliminate was Courtney, a bombastic Black gay man. All other players she had suspicions about: River and Bryant because she hadn’t connected with them yet, and Chloe because she feared a backlash from not saving her in an earlier group game. Terilisha happened to be the opposite — she wanted to save River, Chloe, and Bryant, and sought to eliminate Courtney. Bryant went home the first week, but the feud was not over. Terilisha, perhaps foolishly, implied to the group that Savannah was the one that wanted Bryant out — a fact that Savannah was seeking to evade. In retaliation, Savannah took shots at Terilisha throughout the second episode. Savannah would go on to take false responsibility for saving many of the players in the group chat while victimizing herself. She told Terilisha pointedly that she wouldn’t be “fooled” or pushed around, despite being the aggressor in most of their exchanges.

While the feud between Terilisha and Savannah has been hotly debated, it is undeniable that the show’s editing paints Savannah as the martyr, valiantly defending herself and her alliance to a fault. Sure, she was eliminated before Terilisha, but this was revealed ultimately to be a clever production choice. After her elimination, Savannah gave her partner-in-crime, Courtney, the power to sabotage Terilisha’s game with an anonymous saboteur role: The Joker. Courtney believed and defended Savannah fervently, and made it his mission to avenge her by getting Terilisha out. Indeed, Courtney’s disdain for the Black women in the game would be a theme throughout the season.

When Khat entered the game, Courtney (as The Joker) immediately attempted to manipulate Khat into distrusting Terilisha. Later in the game, after Khat attempts to raise questions to Courtney and his ally River about suspicions she had about Chloe, Courtney immediately tattles on her. Despite Courtney himself expressing similar doubts to Khat in the privacy of his room, he ultimately uses Khat’s misstep against her, infuriating Chloe. Khat realized her mistake and attempted to come clean to Chloe, but Courtney’s damage had been done. Chloe told Khat pleasantries to placate her, while cursing her in her room and accusing her of lying, even as Khat was being honest. When Khat was eventually eliminated because of this debacle, Courtney rejoices, referring to her pejoratively as “Alley Khat.”

Misogynoir aside, each of these women made critical mistakes in their gameplay that couldn’t be denied. However, their mistakes were examined and held against them with more intensity than the other players. Even as they made varied attempts at course-correcting their missteps, they were portrayed less than flatteringly through the show’s editing, as well as in the other players’ interactions with them. The reasons given by the influencers for their dismissals were vaguely related to a negative aura that none of them — despite their best efforts — could escape. For petty or intangible reasons, they were seen as liabilities to keep around, despite The Circle’spremise being essentially that of a popularity contest. It makes more sense to keep unpopular players around to boost one’s own ratings, but when it comes to Black women, they are only profitable if they’re unanimously beloved. In reality TV environments, they are received as nuisances, subversive, too “fake” or outspoken for their own good, even if they are the most honest players in the game.

What makes the portrayals of Mercedeze, Terilisha, and Khat more insidious is how hard The Circle’s production worked in Season 2 to distort their poor representation with strategic nepotism toward other players. When it came down to it, the series used a Black gay man as a proxy to get rid of the two Black female players in the game. Somehow, the two most boring white players (Jack and Lisa) were allowed to return to the game jointly as a catfish, the grandfatherly white man, John. Lastly, while Deleesa, a Black woman, won the season, she did so by catfishing as a Black man. It can even be argued that Deleesa-as-Trevor made it to the final mainly so that Netflix darling Chloe (of Too Hot to Handle fame) had a storyline in the form of a love interest for the season. The Circle, for all of its “inclusive” casting, still upheld society’s existing affinities toward certain identities over others.

It feels bittersweet to celebrate Deleesa’s win considering how her sisters were sacrificed in exchange for it. It feels akin to a tokenized victory, one for Netflix to point to as evidence against any future accusations of racism in their production. Her victory, while deserved, cannot be a deflection for critique about the ways in which Black women have been slighted by rigid expectations, skewed editing, and biased game elements on The Circle. The most valued currency in reality competition TV is likability. A mediocre player can skate to a final on likability, while a strategic player can be eliminated first because they are despised among the other players. In the economy of favorability, Black women are already starting in the red. Misogynoir in reality TV looks like contestants frowning upon Black women as difficult and beyond redemption. In the reality genre, as in larger culture, perspective on Black women must shift toward giving us the benefit of the doubt. Black women shouldn’t need to earn the second chances that their white and male peers are given for free.

Originally published at https://www.whattowatch.com on May 19, 2021.

Your (mostly) friendly neighborhood Black albino writer friend. Deciphering what media means to us culturally and socially since the days of Sailor Moon.