Let's Talk About...Parasocial Relationships
Picture this: New Year’s Eve, 2015. Fifteen-year-old me drinking a disgusting WKD and some ciders with my best friends at home and from what I remember we were watching a Harry Potter movie. All snug in our blankets holding our bottles, then suddenly my friend goes, “Oh my God, Gee, check Twitter!” I logged in on my phone and there it was; photos of Harry Styles and Kendall Jenner on a yacht somewhere exotic getting it on. And when I tell you that I could hear hearts break across the world, trust me, every teen girl who loved One Direction all saw those photos and either sobbed their way into the New Year or sent hate directly to the two’s social media. Or even both in some cases. It kicked off one of the worst years in the 21st century.
Being a 1D fan - not to an extreme level but enough to buy the albums and see them live and have an order of who the hottest was (Soz Liam you’re just too cringe) - it hurt. Why it hurt seeing those photos I don’t know and I know I shouldn’t have felt that way. I turned to my friend who had tears in her eyes and was angrily typing her frustrations out to her 200 followers. To only be on the fringe of the fandom and have those feelings is confusing, to say the least. Tumblr blogs were thriving and every Harry blog out there was crying and shaking in fear that their perfect boy who they pictured marrying could be dating someone. This seems to be a regular occurrence not just with Harry Styles but with any desired celebrity. Somehow, fandom has grown to obsession and delusion. Para, parasocial relationships have been formed. Some fans value them over real-life relationships, almost comparing the fantasy life they dream of with their celebrity crush to the possibility of a real relationship.
A brief explanation first; parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time, and the other party, the persona or celebrity, is completely unaware of the other’s existence. These are most common with celebrities, TV and film characters, and musicians. In the past, parasocial relationships occurred predominantly with television personas, slowly branching out to musicians and film stars. Now, these relationships occur between individuals and their favourite stars, influencers, and gamers. The nature and intimacy of parasocial relationships have matured in the past few years with reality television showing the viewers the most intimate and personal aspects of one’s life and that the growth of social media has made so many celebrities more accessible. The 24-hour access to the internet and especially with the past 18 months being locked up inside for months at a time, the increased internet dependency has led to increased parasocial interactions. While they remain one-sided, they have evolved into more interactive environments, allowing individuals to communicate with their idols, increasing the intimacy and strength of the so-called relationship.
It’s not just Tumblr fans that have parasocial relationships. Stan Twitter, a subsection of Twitter, in which primarily young people from communities around their love of a celebrity or TV show, seems to be populated by fans seeking comfort and stability. And John Mulaney isn’t the only guy experiencing this. In 2014, a mugshot of teen idol Justin Bieber circled the mainstream after he was arrested for drag racing. Devastated fans stayed home from school, burned their Bieber merchandise, and in extreme cases, some even self-harmed as a response to Bieber’s purported betrayal. In 2015, Zayn Malik left One Direction and it caused a similar emotional upheaval, uprooting what had become the primary source of stability for millions of young fans.
In recent news, the phrase ‘parasocial relationship’ has been related to comedian John Mulaney. John Mulaney is a prominent American stand-up comedian and was a writer for the hit show Saturday Night Live as well as a voice actor of the Netflix hit show Big Mouth, and even though he has been a well-known comedian for more than a decade it hasn’t been until his 2015 special The Comeback Kid that he started to gain more attraction and popularity amongst young millennials and Gen Z. John quickly rose to mainstream fame becoming one of the most quotable and memeable celebrities in recent years due to his PG humour that mainly focused on high Catholic childhood, his parents and his wife, Anne Marie Tedler - especially his love for his wife! A lot of his fans, primarily on Tumblr, had cultivated a culture of appreciation for his wife loving humour, perhaps because it was refreshing to see a straight guy who didn’t just get up on stage and talk about how much he hates being married. In light of his recent public divorce, we’ve seen firsthand how his young fans seem to have developed a parasocial relationship with the comedian and how that has developed into feeling betrayed by a divorce that people everywhere suddenly felt involved in.
The parasocial dynamic between stand-up comedians and their fans is interesting to analyse, especially those with a younger fanbase who are more prone to developing this kind of parasocial bond. Stand-up comedians aim to make you feel like you can relate to them, they share personal details of their lives often in a way that makes you feel like you are their friend having a friendly catch up, which can fool the mind into thinking that you know them in a very personal way and as a friend. One article about John Mulaney wrote, “We share an affinity for the guy who seems to embody dorkiness, the observational funny guy who radiates a kind of wholesomeness even as he talks about his problems. Few white men in American comedy inspire as much love as he does, perhaps because, in a sea of faux provocations and wannabe contrarians, Mulaney felt refreshingly simple. Even the most scathingly self-loathing comedian puts on a persona that makes it easy to convey the cold hard truth. Mulaney’s was comforting and palatable, devoid of guile or acid. That’s not to say he was milquetoast or incapable of darker moments. Rather, his aim seemed fair and accurate, something that feels dishearteningly rare in the era of men screaming about cancel culture because they can’t be openly transphobic anymore. For a lot of fans, John Mulaney was The One Good Guy.”
Of course, being The One Good Guy is a certain way to become a villain. John Mulaney hasn’t been cancelled in the mainstream world, but there is an intense sense of betrayal from his fans over the split from his artist wife and the now confirmed relationship (with a baby on the way) with actress Olivia Munn. It’s argued that people felt betrayed because of how much Mulaney had previously talked about his loving relationship with his now-ex-wife Anna Marie, he also talked about their desire not to have children and so for him to get with a new woman who is now pregnant with his child seems like a drastic change of character. A drastic change of character and betrayal is something almost everyone has felt in their personal lives so to see it come from your idol, your safe place, or your comfort celebrity, shocks you even more. I spoke with a psychology graduate and friend about the uproar surrounding John Mulaney in particular and she said, “The fans had an idea of who he was and how they related to him, it worked for them, but he turned out to be a real person who is trying to live his life and be who he is. Just the things he’s done don’t fit with the dreamy image they have of him.” She went on to say, “The fans related to him and aspired to be like him, and in doing so, painted him as the perfect partner. We obviously don’t know anything about his life or his marriage or anything really, but to fans, it feels like he is making decisions that go against who they think he is. He didn’t create this effervescent and positive, wife loving image, his fans did, which is why they find the headlines completely shocking and hurtful.”
Just like most relationships, there are breakups. Parasocial breakups are very common and although they don’t often carry the same effect and they aren’t as traumatic as the end of an actual relationship, they are still painful. Nevertheless, Johnathan Cohen writes “the sadness associated with a parasocial breakup is most likely a significant and recurrent feature of viewers’ emotional lives in general and of their experience with the media, more specifically.” I’ve never experienced a full parasocial breakup, I have definitely seen people go through them. The number of parasocial breakups I’ve seen tends to relate to one guy: Harry Styles. There is a recurring pattern with parasocial breakups and the British heartthrob. Whether confirmed or not, Styles is rumoured to get into a relationship, his fandom erupts into hysterics.
I’ve never witnessed a fandom get so aggressive and threaten to leave whenever their idol gets into a relationship. In 2020, Styles was having his best year yet career-wise, despite the pandemic. His album had been number 1, his songs were played millions - some even billions - of times on Spotify, made a movie with Oscar-nominated actress Florence Pugh, even won a Grammy in 2021. But what was the most tweeted moment about the singer? In January 2021, he was spotted holding hands with his director, Olivia Wilde, attending a wedding together, confirming the months of rumours of their relationship. Fans were harassing Wilde to the point where she had to limit her comments on Instagram, but not all the hate was on her. Styles got hate from his own fans. They were furious at the thought he potentially ruined a marriage. They were selling concert tickets they spent months saving for, selling his merch on Depop, everything they could to hint that they were mad. His Spotify listeners dropped by a million, before quickly rising again when he won his Grammy. Whenever the pair have been spotted together since they start trending on Twitter with mainly negative reactions.
The Harry Styles Tumblr community, a very broad community might I add, all have varying opinions on him and his career and on parasocial relationships. Speaking to some of the most level-headed Harry fans, it’s clear that the unbalance in the fandom causes a shift. TrulyMadlySydney said, “I do think in a way, we all have that parasocial relationship with him, but there are times where some teeter more on the extreme than others.” And what is extreme, you may ask? Perhaps it’s just mean and petty messages from incessant fans, but with a few cases, it can go to an extreme length to defend your love. I asked the blogs about this and their anecdotes ranged from pettiness to death threats. All of the blogs have admitted to receiving hate, “I remember back when Watermelon Sugar was released as a single and a lot of fans on Twitter were streaming it nonstop to get it to #1 on the Billboard charts - which is totally fine, people are free to do what they want to do. But when they started shaming and insulting other people who weren’t constantly streaming the song, and when I spoke out against that, people were screenshotting my blog, posting the pictures on Twitter, and started attacking me for it. It was so trivial and stupid, but these people were getting so heated over it, and all I could do was laugh. Nothing is ever that deep.”
While his fans are known to be passionate, they can be perceived as possessive. HarryFeatGaga revealed that she had received serious threats over certain opinions, when TrulyMadlySydney recalls an interesting time, “I’ve had anonymous death threats. People have found my family’s social media accounts and threatened to message them. But I consider myself one of the lucky ones; I have friends who have had their entire home address sent to them, as well as the addresses of their families.” All because of one man? A man that 99% of the world doesn’t know personally.
I ask them about how they feel about the fandom when Harry’s relationship status changes and you could hear them sighing over their laptops; none of them having issues with the topic and all of them agreeing that someone’s relationship status is none of our business, but like anyone apart of fandom they can sense a change. Hrina admits that there’s a lot of toxicity and negativity and HarryFeatGaga agrees to add on that somehow whenever he’s in a relationship, fans have a lot more issues with him, pointing out ‘flaws’ and issues with the pop star. TrulyMadlySydney adds, “Everyone becomes an expert on everything; body language, social media posts, who liked and didn’t like what post on Instagram.” Similar to John Mulaney and his 2021 comedy shows, fans have begun to analyse every comment and move to see if it equals something a lot more negative and in some cases sinister.
Fans not only form parasocial relationships with their favourite celebrities, but they also glamourise them to the point wherein their eyes they can do no wrong. Harry Styles could be committing tax fraud and running over old ladies crossing the street regularly and there would still be thousands of fans creating some excuse for him, defending him to the end. TikTok, meme legend and self-proclaimed Harrie, Brittany Broski, spoke on the Crazy Stupid Fangirls podcast about the same topic saying, “It is so easy to idolise and glamourise him because he doesn’t share a lot with us. Verus, the three of us where our lives are all online. We are very accessible.” And that’s the point. These celebrities aren’t accessible, they are a mystery to us all. They have an image they need to keep up and again, who would want everyone on the planet to know everything about you? Podcast co-host, Michelle Platti later says, “With celebrities, it’s so much mystery, it’s easier to put them on a pedestal. That’s why, to me, Harry Styles is perfect.”
With celebrities like Harry Styles and John Mulaney, there is so much mystery which makes it so much easier to put them on a pedestal which in a way can be very dangerous as you start to believe that they don’t make mistakes. And is this a healthy mindset for us? Sure, since COVID we’ve all been glued to our phones connecting with our friends, family, and our favourite celebrities. COVID has brought a lot of damage to all of us and we all admit to faults, we could suddenly see that they are living in our world too, they were too quarantining for months on end (some following the rules a lot better than others mind I say) and were also making sourdough starters, binging TV shows until we melted into our sofas and much more. There are definitely celebrities we’d all love in our personal lives - *wink wink* Pete Davidson - but there are some that are so much better through a rose-tinted lens, especially when we get too deep in rumours and DeuxMoi posts about their personal lives. Who else would hate their personal lives being picked apart day in and day out? We all know we would, so let’s sit back and just ignore it all. Ignorance is bliss when it comes to this.