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Parasocial relationships: Gen-Z and celebrity

The way we interact with celebrity has been irreversibly changed by how and how often we consume media. If you’ve ever felt like you ‘know’ a celebrity – you may want to keep reading.

Don’t let the theoretical terminology leading this topic fool you into believing it’s complex. A parasocial relationship is simply a one-sided relationship, where an individual exerts time, interest, and emotional energy into another person who is totally unaware of their existence.

If you’re thinking of stan Twitter right now – or for any Millennial readers, ‘Stan’ by Eminem – you’ve already got the idea. This type of fandom has become so common that these groups have taken on their own identities. Beyoncé’s ‘Beyhive’, Justin Bieber’s ‘Beliebers’, or Nicki Minaj’s ‘Barbz’ may come to mind.

These are all, broadly speaking, comprised of long-term parasocial relationships where fans begin to like, genuinely care for, and believe they know a celebrity based on what they see of them in the media. This interaction creates the illusion of a close and intimate relationship, despite this dedicated attention not being reciprocated.

It may surprise you that this star-crazed phenomenon is not new. In fact, sociologists began trying to understand these types of behaviours as early as the 1950s. And although on paper it may sound a little crazy, it’s likely we’ve all engaged in a parasocial relationship at one point or another.

The original stan

One of the most heavily documented, original, and widespread fandoms belonged to The Beatles.

Without social media, the only way of interacting with the group of lads was through live concerts and appearances – where one could only hope to make eye contact with a band member in the midst of enormous crowds.

But thanks to the Internet and social media, opportunities to consume celebrity content, connect with their personality through their original posts, and possibly even get a retweet or response back, is strengthening our perceived connection with high profile individuals.

These novel opportunities – like stumbling upon Anthony Joshua’s sweaty post-training selfie just seconds after watching mates clink their prosecco glasses together on Instagram Stories – can cause a strange feeling of closeness to somebody we don’t actually know. And that isn’t always for the best.

The positives and negatives of the parasocial world

Parasocial relationships at their best can cultivate strong, loyal fan bases. One incredible example of this is the #FreeBritney movement, where people who ‘felt like [they] grew up with Britney’ protested to raise awareness about her conservatorship, leading to its impending termination.

In other cases, a mutual interest in celebrity can join ‘regular’ people as friends who may go on to attend concerts, movie premiers, or sports events together. Online spaces dedicated to fandom can also offer a sense of belonging, community, and well, more fan insight.

But parasocial relationships are not always about love and adoration. It’s common for aggressive behaviour to develop in fans, in online spaces and in person. Celebrities and television personalities have been fallen victim to stalkers, home invasion, abuse, and even murder.

The illusion of a close relationship can result in fans feeling let down by the celebrity when they act out of character, don’t deliver as promised, or take on jobs that don’t feel in line with the perception fans have of them.

Consequential feelings of being misled, deceived, or ignored can stir up negative emotional reactions, which has arguably been a driving force for toxic cancel culture in recent years.

Who invests in parasocial relationships?

Studies have shown that people with low self-esteem favour the stability of a one-sided parasocial relationship, as there involves little to no risk of ever being rejected by a celebrity. In some cases, they can offer a break from strained relations in the fan’s real life.

It’s also been found that teenagers are more likely to engage in parasocial relationships, but that they are not limited to a specific gender. This is despite a common inclination to lean into a misogynist view of the ‘crazy fan girl’ stereotype.

Look no further than football legends like Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry, who are worshiped by young children and grown adults alike, as they have gained a sense of familiarity with the players by following game after game for so many years.

Regularly reinforced thoughts, feelings, and opinions about certain sports figures might see fans defending them against peer scrutiny, or mimicking their hairstyles, fashion choices, and skills. Meanwhile, they have absolutely no idea who we are.

Credit: AFP

Mediating parasocial relationships

Since media is the principal cultivator of parasocial relationships, it’s only natural that in conjunction with the rise of reality TV, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, there now seems to be an infinite number of ‘famous people’ around.

With media constantly at our fingertips and celebrities using online platforms to interact periodically with fans, it’s reasonable to suggest that the potential of a one-off interaction has led Gen-Z to become the most susceptible generation to developing parasocial relationships.

Likewise, information about any celebrity is readily available (unless you’re a Frank Ocean stan, sorry about that), so as long as we’re willing to cross check resources online and engage with celebrity blog pages.

Truthfully, there’s nothing wrong with this habit, but if this relationship is becoming a source of aggression towards celebrities or other people online, it may be time to reassess.

And while looking to elements of celebrity that we admire – perhaps it’s their resilience? their charm? their sense of humour? It’s important to remember we can never really know the true essence of who these people are.