This month has been absolutely dominated by Taylor Swift’s break-up with long-time partner Joe Alwyn and subsequent rumoured break-up with The 1975 frontman Matty Healy.
There’s been plenty of sensationalizing in the coverage, with plenty of speculative rumours and criticisms lodged at Swift, and especially at Healy. These range from deserved criticisms about his problematic podcast appearance where he makes several racist remarks, to petty comments accusing him of not showering and “being smelly”.
This begs the question – why do we care? What makes us feel so attached to celebrities and whether their relationships succeed or not?
Cast your mind back to last year when everyone was obsessed with “wife guys”. For a refresher, Ned Fulmer of the Try Guys, a successful YouTube channel, was exposed for cheating on his wife with one of his employees. What ensued was a mass public discourse by fans and the general public alike, providing their own insights about Fulmer and his cheating.
Hot takes flew everywhere. Some questioned the viability of monogamy, others on the decency of men. Many accused “wife guys” of using their wives as a shield to deflect from their own misogyny and desire to cheat.
What was clear, was that a parasocial relationship had been broken up, and many were reliving the trauma of events in their own life, recounting them on social media.
To provide a textbook definition, a parasocial relationship refers to the one-sided relationship between a viewer and a media figure. It’s a bit different than simply being a fan, as parasocial relationships require a more focused sense of loyalty and devotion to a figure.
This may sound bad, but parasocial relationships are inevitable, and in some cases, aren’t entirely unhealthy.
Parasocial relationships (PSR) can be a source of inspiration and motivation, to reflect popular figures’ values in our own lives. Parasocial relationships may even help improve our own relationships, personal development skills, and overall well-being.
A 2017 study suggests parasocial relationships are important when growing up, as they can help develop autonomy and form an identity. What’s most interesting is that both men and women equally develop parasocial relationships in early adolescence. Boys would view their parasocial relationships in a hierarchal sense, idolising powerful authority figures who they see as aspirational. Girls, however, developed PSR with a similar level of intimacy to that of a real friend.
The researchers believe adolescents may use parasocial relationships to imagine the relationships they want. Think about being back in high school or uni during the Tumblr era. How everyone thirsted over the boys from Supernatural or fictional characters from Attack on Titan.
While those may have seemed weird at the time, they may have been beneficial to the individual. A real or imaginary connection to a talented, successful figure may help a person feel better about themselves. Parasocial relationships also have links to attachment styles, allowing people the chance to experience a feeling of interpersonal intimacy while avoiding rejection.
Scenarios where parasocial relationships can turn sour, however, are when they interfere with a person’s real-life relationship or daily life. We can all immediately imagine a case of a parasocial relationship turning into something creepy, obsessive and unhealthy.
My mind goes to memes, of people imagining themselves dating fictional characters. Other famous and dangerous scenarios arise when a fan puts a figure’s life at risk.
A situation where you can tell your own parasocial relationship might be unhealthy is when you experience anxiety, loneliness, and social isolation, in relation to that figure.
I mentioned the “wife guys” incident went viral with countless individuals taking to social media to provide their own personal anecdotes. The anxiety of seeing a popular figure in the media touting their love for their partner, and still cheating on them, was immensely triggering for many individuals. Especially for those in a parasocial relationship with the Try Guys.
For some women, it verified insecurities they have had about their own relationships. Some men got defensive and tried to justify or distance themselves from Ned’s behaviour.
There’s a very Gen-Z way of processing emotions where we place a thousand layers of irony to every emotion.
I remember talking to my therapist years ago about still feeling fragile and upset about a break-up almost a year after it had happened. I was anxiously trying my hardest to not have a real vulnerable moment. With my therapist of all people! I would nervously laugh, make self-deprecating jokes and deliberately try to use it for humour instead of letting myself be sad about it.
He reminded me that those feelings are more than valid, and that heartbreak and love had been inspirations for countless songs, poems, stories, you name it. There’s nothing embarrassing about those feelings, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of for still being let down about them.
You don’t need to feel embarrassed for idolising celebs and getting attached to them, but remember we see such a small part of the picture and shouldn’t be forming our core ideas of what relationships are, around people we don’t even know.