Updated: Oct 6, 2021
The phrase parasocial relationships have come up frequently online over the past few years, especially in the context of the pandemic. It is a term describing a psychological relationship where one feels a connection to a certain person like a character, or public figure, despite the relationship being completely one-sided. While the term has come into common vernacular fairly re- recently, it was first coined by psychologists Richard Whol and Donald Horton.
Parasocial relationships can be essential for several reasons — for one, we can be picky about who we choose, when we choose them, and how much energy we devote to them. We can test and try out several characters, celebrities, or artistic muses and, if they stop serving us, toss them to the side. Much of the criticism of parasocial relationships come from the fact that the admirer puts much more emotional energy into the relationship than the figure we are, mentally, in a friendship with, but is this really so? Perhaps, in the case of fictional characters, yes. However, in the context of modern celebrity culture, it seems the burden is on the public figure, not the fan.
As these celebrities are not aware of our existence as individual fans, they do not expect any individual to constantly be wearing their merchandise, or to keep them updated on our lives. In other words, Swifties, or fans of Taylor Swift (including myself), expect her to release music on a consistent basis, and to maintain her sweet, if slightly “unhinged” (her words, not mine), persona, she does not expect me, as an individual, to release a song each time there is a development in my love life. However, the public figure is aware of their fans as a collective and, while they may not know them as individuals, they owe the collective mass of their supporters a level of consistency in both what they are famous for but also in who they are as a person. It is this persona that they show to the public, which may or may not be who they actually are, which allows us to pick and choose who we would like to enter into a parasocial relationship with. Because we get the benefit of choosing and only seeing them at their best, they cannot let us down. Or can they? Parasocial relationships can take many forms. They can take the form of a reader and the fictional character they cling to as a friend, an avid rom-com watcher and the actor they ogle as their partner. Phoebe Bridgers, a singer, artist, and absolute mastermind, describes her parasocialesque relationship with her chief artistic hero, Elliot Smith, in the title track of her album Punisher. She perfectly encapsulates the essence of parasocial bonds in the line, “What if I told you I feel like I know you but we never met?” These forms of relationships can feel immensely spiritual. Personally, I feel like a punisher towards several artists and fictional characters—from the characters I see as my fictional equivalents like Hermione Granger, to my artistic sources of inspiration when writing poetry like Sylvia Plath. I am constantly projecting on and feeling an emotional tie to parasocial figures. It is what I have taken from these relationships that have allowed me to form a sense of self, and explore my creative capabilities. But what happens when our parasocial friend stops conforming to the image we have created of them? Recently, parasocial relationships have been a large topic of conversation following recent celebrity gossip surrounding comedian John Mulaney. In December, news broke that Mulaney had entered a rehabilitation facility to deal with issues of substance abuse. The trouble began, however, when he left rehab and it was announced that he would be leaving his wife, Anna-Marie Tendler. Days after, rumours of him dating Olivia Munn be- gan to circulate, leading people to question whether Mulaney was unfaithful. These rumours were only exacerbated following the recent announcement that he and Munn are expecting a child. Now, is it fair to pass judgement on the decisions of a man who we only know through Netflix comedy specials? No. Is it understandable? Yes. I am a big fan of Mulaney’s. I have seen every Saturday Night Live skit he has written, and seen him perform live. However, I cannot help but empathize with Tendler, almost as if, in leaving her, I, too, was being betrayed. If you are unfamiliar with Mulaney’s comedy, much of his persona was that of “wholesome wife-guy”. He and his wife were seen as the epitome of a healthy relationship so it is no wonder many people feel like they had been lied to. In any of these relationships, you can never expect to know the person you are admiring in their entirety. However, it is natural to take what we know about the person we so admire and fill in the gaps with what we find most suited to our as- sumptions. For example, while I do not and cannot know how Taylor Swift treats the people who work for her like her assistants, it offers me the most comfort to think of her as an incredibly easy person to work with. Whether or not she truly conforms with my mental image does not matter because it will always be outside of the scope of my knowledge. In that case, until proven otherwise, she can be whatever my mind hopes she is, offering me a song to deal with any emotion and a persona that offers me a sense of comfort.
Illustration: Sarah Knight