This will be a long-form series, with other posts on this topic planned (if people are interested/care enough for me to justify spending time on this) and listed below:
Part 1: An Introduction: Stability, Intimacy, and Familiarity in Uncertain Times
Part 2: The Perfect Couple
Part 3: My Fans Are My Friends: How Celebrities Cultivate Community (and Profit)
Part 4: Eat With Me: From Reality TV to Mukbangs - Are We Living Vicariously Through Others
More Than Ever Before?
Part 5: KPop and the Evolution and Future of Parasocial Relationships
Part 6: The Toxic Fallout: How Parasocial Relationships Negatively Affect Real People
Today's post will cover Parts 1 and 2. As with any ONTD post, I'm sure the most interesting bits of information will end up in the comments through discussion so make sure to read the comments and participate!
But first, let’s start at the very beginning:
An Introduction: Stability, Intimacy, and Familiarity in Uncertain Times
What is a Parasocial Relationship?
The term was coined in 1956 in a research paper by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl titled: Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance
Unfortunately, any online source that I can find of the paper is behind some sort of paywall (because even in the information age, research and knowledge are monetized in our current capitalist hellscape of a society…but I digress…).
However, I was able to find a site containing some excerpts from the paper here for those of us that can read.
Essentially, parasocial relationsips are one-sided and unreciprocated feelings or bonds experienced by an audience (that's us!) with a fictional character or media personality (TV hosts, actors, singers, vloggers, etc). It is an illusion of intimacy and relationship facilitated by parasocial interactions (the one-sided consumption of media content) through the vehicle of modern media (movies, television, radio, podcasts, social media, YouTube, etc.).
An audience member/fan/viewer/subscriber/follower will come to view media personalities as people they have a genuine connection with – they view them as friends – despite not knowing them in real life. And while everything I’ve read (which is admittedly very little) seems to suggest that these parasocial relationships are incredibly common (and can even be normal, healthy, and have genuine positive effects), there does seem to be a number of situations where the balance tips in the opposite direction and things seem to get very weird, very toxic, and very unhealthy (which I know is all ONTD really cares about so that's what I'm going to look at throughout this series).
Are Parasocial Relationships More Common Today Than in the Past?
I wasn’t able to find a legitimate source saying so (perhaps the users here who go to actual university/have access to journals can hook us up in the comments with some proper scholarly sources).
It does seem like the concept is certainly more visible with the advent of social media but that doesn't necessarily mean it's more common. So while this phenomenon certainly is not new, it does feel new in the sense that we can now watch these parasocial interactions and displays happening in real time with people all over the world.
The access and visibility involved now is relatively new and I'm curious what the implications might be regarding this 24/7 publicly viewable dynamic.
Why Do Humans Engage in Parasocial Relationships?
Obviously I am not an expert, a scientist, a psychologist, or even a smart person. But I did read one (1) four-year-old PBS/Nova article about parasocial relationships, and I have developed a few theories (some of which are touched on in the sourced article, some are concoctions of my mind and are not proven/disproven with a source so take this all with a grain of salt):
• Humans are social creatures and our brains are hard-wired for social interaction.
• We crave intimacy and understanding, and for some people feeling a connection (even a perceived connection) can bring solace and joy. It's an easy form of perceived intimacy that involves very little personal risk.
• Large aspects of social interaction have moved online (especially now during the pandemic) so if we are seeing a rise in parasocial relationships, is it possible that the ways in which we interact with the people that we have real relationships with are blurring the line with how we view our interactions with celebrities?
• In uncertain times like today (climate change, plague, politics, a fucked economy), people tend to crave familiarity and stability. Scripted and predictable interactions might offer a form of relief for some experiencing anxiety over personal or world events that are out of their control. Someone re-watching a TV show because they know their favourite couple ends up together, or following their favourite pop star on social media because she "really cares about her fans" might give a person the intimacy, stability, and familiarity they're craving when things feel like they are out of control. With every one-sided interaction, the bond a person feels to a celebrity or character grows.
• It's a form of escapism.
• The media and media personalities work very hard to engage their audience and build loyalty. In doing so, they often have a direct hand in cultivating these parasocial interactions and relationships.
The Perfect Couple
This series was directly inspired by the reactions to the recent news of John Mulaney's divorce and his new romance with Olivia Munn.
You can read ONTD posts on the subject here and also here (specifically this thread in which a natural discussion evolves on the parasocial element of many people's perceptions of Mulaney. It's a very interesting discussion and I hope none of the users in this thread delete their comments - this isn't a callout or an attack - just me highlighting a conversation that I thought was very thought-provoking and brought up some interesting points) and again here. The news of his divorce also played out over twitter and other social media sites (obviously).
Some pretty dramatic rumours have been flying around with next to no proof (She left him! He cheated on her! Olivia Munn is a predator!). Some celebrity relationships seem to become much, much more important to the general public than others in a way that appears to go further than just gossipy interest or curiosity about the lives of the rich and famous. This divorce is one of those cases - some of the reactions that have come from his fans (their fans?) come across like the fans are heartbroken themselves (true love is dead!).
Is it Because They Had Our Imagined Ideal Relationship?
Are we projecting? Are we imagining the type of relationships we want for ourselves and looking for something similar to our ideals in public celebrity couplings and then "stanning" them, "shipping" them, and ultimately becoming overly invested in them - only to feel like we're the ones experiencing a breakup when they don't work out?
The public obsession with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston (and subsequently Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) has been a part of the public discourse for literal decades.
Some of the replies to this tweet about a relatively recent Brad and Jen interaction are a great example of this parasocial investment in celebrity relationships. So many comments about true love/soul mates/the one that got away. People are making these comments about strangers they've never met and yet are speaking with the kind of concern and empathy you might expect from someone talking about two close friends. Is the reason that some people still yearn for a Brad and Jen reunion because they developed a parasocial attachment to these two by glamourizing their relationship and holding it up as an ideal they want for themselves?
Is it Because We See One Party in the Relationship as a Role Model, Inspiration, or Reflection of Ourselves?
How many Beyoncé fans have a seemingly genuine, burning hatred towards Jay-Z for cheating on her? Apparently enough for their feelings on the relationship to get an entire write-up in The Atlantic on the topic of whether or not Beyoncé's fans have to forgive him for his transgressions (as if they somehow deserve a say in their relationship at all):
What is the afterlife of secondhand pain? Beyoncé is, after all, more than just an entertainer to many of her fans. She is an emblem of feminine power, the premier example of commitment to one’s craft. She is an avatar of excellence. To see this woman—this nearly unassailable force of nature—be wronged so deeply was jarring, a vicarious blow that caused visceral pain for countless fans. For the diehard Beyoncé fan, even and perhaps especially one who loved Jay as an artist before he ever married Bey, Jay’s betrayal felt personal.
Maybe due to a parasocial affection towards one member of the relationship (whether Beyoncé is your personal inspiration and role model, or John Mulaney is someone you felt connected to due to personal experiences he shared in his standup routines that you found relatable) - you feel more invested in all aspects of their life and their own personal struggles and failures and relationship issues end up feeling like your own.
This really seems to transcend any one specific genre, area of the media, or age-group. You can go onto any recent video on YouTube that features Alexa Chung and still (STILL!) see comments about Alex Turner despite the fact that neither of them are A-List celebrities and they've been broken up for a decade now. You might even have to navigate a few Alex/Alexa "couple goals" videos from 2009 to get there. Meanwhile, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are treated by some fans like they are stand-in parental figures (I am confident these two divorcing would cause the majority of twitter users to spiral).
Is it Because Seeing a Presumably Healthy and Happy Relationship in the Media Gives us Hope for Our Own Happiness?
One of the weirdest reactions I've seen on the Mulaney divorce is the repeated comments about how shocking this is because he seemed so in love with his wife...
Likely because he was? A divorce or a breakup doesn't mean the feelings were never genuine - it just means one or both members of a relationship have grown apart and moved on. And yet everyone is acting blindsided and betrayed because John Mulaney really seemed like a "good guy" who really loved his wife (again - there's no reason to think he didn't!). It's so prominent that People Magazine ran a story documenting every single thing John Mulaney ever said publicly about his wife (not linked because they're a banned source but you can find it easily with a simple google search).
Memes have largely been echoing the same sentiment - with a lot of people saying they feel betrayed because they trusted him. But...trusted him how and betrayed in what way? This projection that John Mulaney was one of the "good ones" seems completely made up on the part of the audience. Any hope he instilled in other people that they might find a man or a relationship like the one that we saw only glimpses of through social media and his carefully crafted standup material was hope crafted by the viewers themselves in their own heads. We see no day-to-day aspects of their actual, real-life relationship. Even if we were privy to that (say, via a reality tv show) it still wouldn't be enough for people to conclude what either party in the relationship is thinking or feeling.
The belief that any celebrity couple is a representation of "true love" is an idea concocted by the public based on one-sided experiences and carefully curated media content. I'm not saying true love isn't real - but I am saying the parasocial based perception of true love isn't real.
Other related ideas that I'm not smart enough to articulate properly/integrate into this post:
• The weird obsession in pop culture with the idea of a celebrity "power couple."
• The excitement(?) or fascination with Bennifer 2.0 despite the #metoo related accusations against Ben Affleck (here and here and also this incredibly old post here in relation to this re-surfaced interview.
[Special thanks to littleorcs and tucker for helping me dig up these older sources!]
Obligatory Disclaimer: I don't know wtf I'm talking about. I did very little research. Take none of this as fact.
SOURCES: Gif 1 / Text Source 1 / Text Source 2 / Gif 2 / Tweet 1 / Text Source 3 / Gif 3 / YouTube Interview