We all have celebrities we admire – the Beatles, One Direction, Britney Spears. However, to what extent are these admirations acceptable? Parasocial relationships are endemic in modern society, yet what does the term even mean?. Findapsychologist.org defines this phenomenon as a one-sided relationship whereby one person funnels their time, energy and resources into a second party who typically is completely unaware of this person’s existence.
In the early 2010’s, millions of young girls were obsessed with One Direction, coining the term ‘directioners’. There is a sense of community in this which made many who felt alienated in everyday life feel comfortable online. Dubbing themselves with aliases such as ‘mrsstyles’, they comment under the posts of these celebrities and sometimes even get a response! From the manager of the account. The online age only feeds into this dynamic. Where before they were unreachable, they now feel so close – just a keyboard tap away.
To sustain these relationships, there must be regular insight into this person’s life; social media renders this increasingly possible. Once, celebrities would only appear on late night shows to speak of upcoming projects, or in gossip mags to vent about their sleaze bag ex. Now, they have micromanaged diaries published in daily tidbits to feed their hungry fanbase. They adopt a persona which their marketing team knows is profitable. Fantasies sell, not people.
Online, it’s harder for managers to keep these fantasies in check. When they booked interviews, it was under their control, but sometimes completely avoidable controversy is caused. ‘Lana del Rey’ was once Tumblr’s resident cool girl and had flawlessly struck the line between problematic and mysterious. Much of her enigma at the start of her career can be accredited to the fact she had very little online presence. The song lyrics such as ‘he hit me, and it felt like a kiss’ could be discarded as a persona.
Then she got twitter. The mystery was solved, and it didn’t quite fit the old Hollywood movie star mirage people had crafted for her. On September 5, 2019, she tweeted ‘Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will’. Now, none of the poetical ‘pale moonlight’ songs about getting domestically abused could be the insight of an unreliable narrator, it was a woman romanticizing infantile beauty standards and toxic relationships to her young fanbase.
Possibly, parasocial relationships are as fragile as regular relationships, maybe even more. The idolatry of people makes the shatter of the façade feel like a stab in the heart. Perhaps that is why ‘cancel culture’ has taken such prevalence recently. Though celebrities must be held accountable for their actions as any normal person would be, it becomes a fun game for social media users to rally under hashtags following the common format of #BlankIsOverParty.
A sense of community is cultivated where we can attack celebrities for any possible mistake, manifesting an ‘Us over Them’ consciousness. Because celebrities are held in high standards, when they do something below ours, we feel elevated as though we are celebrities. A single mistake can become a career ender.
There are countless examples of superstars who have crumbled under the pressure of performing to this standard and avoiding the clutches of cancel culture. The infamous images of bald Britney Spears may come to mind. After her ex, Kevin Federline did not let her see her two children, she took the drastic action which would haunt her for the rest of her career.
Retrospectively, many understand the pressure which her family and management put her under and have created the #FreeBritney movement. Perhaps if we had been more understanding at the time, some of the damage could have been avoided. The issue with placing celebrities on a pedestal and parasocial relationships is that empathy is severed, they are not someone we know, they’re better, they’re the silver idols.
In some cases, it is illuminating to realise that someone is not who we thought they were – such as with del Rey. Though many still romanticize her music, perhaps less people advocate the message which she propagates in her songs. However, it is still vital to take a critical approach and not to accept the two-dimensional view we are fed of celebrities.
Article by Young Reporter Lucy Chung
First published in Grimsby Telegraph 8th Feb 2022