Ten years ago, Manti Te’o was a feel-good sports story representing all that’s good about college athletics. Born and raised in Hawaii to a loving family, and raised in the Mormon faith, Te’o became a superstar linebacker at Notre Dame on a level that earned him comparisons to the title character in Rudy. A heartbreaking turn of events near the start of his senior season (in which he was a Heisman Trophy finalist) only added to his myth in that classic “overcoming adversity” sense. Te’o’s grandmother and girlfriend died on the same day, and yet Te’o pushed through the pain to carry the Fighting Irish to an undefeated regular season and the national title game.
But the feel-good story turned sour in early 2013 when Deadspin broke the news that Te’o’s girlfriend was not only not dead but actually never existed. The person Te’o thought he was dating, “Lennay Kekua,” was an online fabrication. Te’o had never met Kekua in person but became friends with her online—via social media, texts, and phone calls—and eventually started dating her. But she wasn’t real. “Lennay” was a fake online persona created by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo (who now identifies as a transgender woman). Te’o had been catfished.
The whole ordeal is a tabloid-ready, made-for-TV saga, which is why the new Netflix documentary about it—part of the Untold series—is “can’t turn away” compelling. But as I watched the bizarre narrative unfold—mouth gaping wide at times, aghast and astonished—the part that jumped out to me was unexpected. More than its insights about sports stardom, media hype, or the perils of online dating, Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist reinforced for me a theory I’ve had about contemporary culture: transgenderism and social media are inextricably linked, and the plausibility of trans identities is a unique byproduct of the digital age.
‘Trans’ as Technological Artifact
The connection clicked as I watched Tuiasosopo—a burly Samoan former high-school football star, now dressed as a woman with fake nails and eyelashes—talk about how he (now “she”) started using the tools of the internet to create fake online personas who developed and maintained entirely digital relationships. Speaking of Lennay Kekua, whom he’d created by pulling images of another woman off Facebook, Tuiasosopo described the fake persona as an expression of himself: “It was a lot of how I really am. It was me with a different name tag, a different photo. But as far as everything else, it was 100 percent me.”
Only in a digital world like ours, where we increasingly live and interact in virtual spaces, can we make claims like this—that an online avatar, constructed from images of a different person’s body, yet with no relationship to our own embodied reality, can be “100 percent me.” It’s unsurprising that Tuiasosopo’s transgender journey began with identity experimentation online.
Most young adults today have grown up in a world where they’re known mostly by how they “present” themselves online. They take for granted that a certain distance between their real self and their online self is normal. In some ways, the many possibilities of a digital self have become more compelling than the boring old embodied self in all its limitations. Our digitally constructed selves, after all, are the ones that can accumulate vast global followings, rack up likes, and be cropped, airbrushed, or otherwise manipulated to hide flaws and blemishes. For adolescents especially, struggling through awkward bodily development, embracing a disembodied identity online can feel like a reprieve.
This is further amplified by the shift of young-adult social relationships away from mostly proximate and embodied (talking over the cafeteria lunch table, going out to the movies together) to mostly distant and disembodied (texting or DMing from home rather than going out). For those who have lived their entire lives in the smartphone era, it’s antiquated to think of identity as something significantly determined by biology, family, geographic location, or other physical realities. It’s rather something of limitless malleable potential—as fluid, ephemeral, and remixable as an Instagram story.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that digital natives are so much more likely to identify as trans than older adults. If “my online identity can be different from my embodied identity” is an unquestioned assumption of Gen Z, it’s no big leap to then assume, “my gender identity can be different from my embodied identity.”
If ‘my online identity can be different from my embodied identity’ is an unquestioned assumption of Gen Z, it’s no big leap to then assume ‘my gender identity can be different from my embodied identity.’
The plausibility structures of internet-avatar identity are the same as those of transgenderism. In both cases, “Who am I?” is a question defined in expressive individualistic terms and on the basis of psychological feeling rather than physical fact. The self is an idea that need not be connected to (or “confined by”) bodily realities.
Though Untold doesn’t make Tuiasosopo’s transgender identity a focal point, it’s a significant part of the story insofar as it vividly reflects a society increasingly disconnected from tangible reality.
Reality Bent to Our Wishes
At one point in Untold, Tuiasosopo tries to explain why he perpetuated the Kekua hoax, in spite of how it might ruin other lives: “It was what made me happy. It was what I wanted to be reality.”
It’s a zeitgeist-capturing statement. It encapsulates a decadent society driven less by regard for others than by personal quests for happiness, and defined less by what’s real than by what a multitude of (often contradictory) perspectives want to be real.
Tuiasosopo’s actions in the film may be the most egregious example of disregarding reality in favor of feel-good fantasy, but it’s not the only one. Te’o himself bears some of the blame. Had he asked more questions of Kekua, paused to consider holes in her story, or, I don’t know, prioritized actually meeting her in person, maybe he would have discovered the scheme sooner. But he was caught up in a fantasy he enjoyed and that served him. And we become blind to facts when we’re intoxicated by fantasies.
This is also true of the mainstream media, whose coverage of Te’o and his girlfriend was disturbingly sloppy—as illustrated by the Deadspin article that cites examples of everyone from the New York Times to the Associated Press reporting “facts” about Kekua that were demonstrably false.
But we live in a world that goes too fast for fact-checking and values retweets more than truth. Mainstream media stands indicted: they were almost universally duped, perpetuating for months a feel-good story that any fact-checking desk could have quickly debunked. It’s no wonder trust in news media has plummeted to all-time lows. By now, “prestige” media have fallen for hoaxes when it serves a narrative (remember Jussie Smollett?) enough times that we shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not what’s real that often drives reporting today. It’s what wins ratings and clicks.
We live in a world that goes too fast for fact-checking and values retweets more than truth.
The media’s increasingly loose connection to reality parallels the severing of “identity” from physical reality exemplified in transgenderism. Both are artifacts of a post-truth age in which digital distortion and virtual malleability—deepfakes, metaverse avatars, stealth editing, sock puppets, finstas, and much more—render “reality” something bendable to our whims and preferences more than a fixed thing that imposes itself on us in unchosen, often inconvenient ways.
Reality, Blessed Thing
Yet we demean, dismiss, or distort reality at our peril. The lesson of the Manti Te’o fake girlfriend story is that fantasy may feel attractive in the short term, but reality always wins in the end. No matter how much you want something true to be different than it is—whether your body’s sex or your online girlfriend’s offline self—it’s always better to accept the truth rather than shoehorn it into my truth. Reality on God’s terms is so much better than fantasy on ours.
Reality on God’s terms is so much better than fantasy on ours.
In this increasingly surreal, reality-be-darned world, Christians need to protest what amounts to an epistemological injustice. Reality is marginalized and needs an advocate. We of all people should seek, celebrate, and embrace the gift of objective reality. People suffer when reality is sidelined, as Untold makes painfully clear. Young people are being butchered because the reality of biological sex is being dismissed.
As Christians we ought to champion reality because we love God and honor the real world he made. We also champion reality because we love our neighbor and know she will flourish in a world where God’s design is a gift to embrace (Pss. 92:4; 139:13–14), not an obstacle to overcome.