Under the spotlight, celebrities bask in the adoration of millions. They give their brightest smiles, sing their most heartfelt songs, and sway the masses with their charming aura. They dazzle like flames and we, as fans, are drawn in by their luster—enjoying the warmth of their words.
More often than not, public icons are meant to captivate their audience. Whether their appeal is in their fiery spirit or earnest actions, people love a character that is authentic. Most times, these features are taken at face value and accepted as the truth of the public figure’s personality. And if people agree with, are attracted to, or simply feel seen by the icon’s being, it can transform into something more complex—an attachment of sorts.
Parasocial relationships are exactly where fantasy meets reality. There is nothing wrong with being fond of a celebrity; supporting their projects, calling them your best friend for no real reason, and getting butterflies when they do certain things are all a part of fan culture. But when does the attachment become obsessive, and when do these relationships start to feel real?
Where parasocial relationships are all-in, one-way connections, how close to a star can we truly fly before being blistered by its heat?
City of dreams
Parasocial relationships surely existed long before it was given a proper name, but the term naturally followed the boom of mass media platforms such as movies and television in the 1950s. Viewers were becoming increasingly enraptured by charismatic personalities and faces seen on the screen. This phenomenon was then defined as being built on the illusion of having a face-to-face connection with someone you admire from a distance.
Notably, these only form with figures that are deemed as godlike—may it be by their level of fame, status, or character, parasocial relationships find home in those in a different plane of existence from their supporters. That the icons we idolize are by no means ordinary people and, therefore, are immeasurably out of a regular fan’s reach. It’s by this feeling of unattainability that it’s easy to find ourselves in these relationships in the first place. Since celebrities usually share little to no similarities with the people in close proximity to us, there’s no harm in pursuing such a relationship because technically, there are barely any personal stakes going into it.
A fan may find fulfillment in pursuing this one-sided interaction that they experience from their in-person relationships. It could be as simple as having a figure that feels close to one’s own self-image or who one aspires to be, or as profound as finding solace and support where real family and friends fall short. In the case of music, an artist’s songs could resonate with a person’s own experiences so well that it almost feels like they personally understand them, as if they know things that only the closest of friends would.
Perhaps even a celebrity going public with the struggles they face behind the scenes could serve as a springboard into the mirage of closeness with one’s idol. It makes them realize that these figures are not actually perfect beings, but are ordinary, just like them. The relatability almost completely shatters the impassable distance between the fan and the fawned over, bringing them back to a touchable, almost reachable existence. Though beware—as nice as sinking into the pillowy softness of being cared for feels, the rabbit hole of admiration and fanaticism lies not too far away from here.
Regular social relationships are a two-way street, so it’s understandable how the deep, albeit one-way, attachment of parasocial ones can create the same expectations of reciprocity. In 1989, researchers Perse and Rubin discovered that parasocial relationships are connected with the uncertainty reduction theory: as viewers, one doesn’t just live out new, uncertain social situations vicariously through their icons, but one also feels closer to them when they discover more about them.
However, the bond might make a person feel that they expect their icon to discover more about them too. A fan who spends a lot of time and money to support their icon’s shows or music, buy merchandise, and go to events may feel that their icon has to notice them in return. But in reality, neither are bound by the reciprocal nature of an actual social relationship, because one party is unaware it actually exists.
A fan’s expectation to be acknowledged in return can breed a dangerous sense of entitlement over another person’s body and being. In 2016, American supermodel Gigi Hadid was grabbed and lifted into the air by a fan over his dissatisfaction with Hadid’s modeling for high fashion brands. These incidents are not uncommon to those who reside within the spotlight, with many being verbally assaulted by dissatisfied fans or grabbed by rabid followers—the former feeling unpleasant, and the latter in clear violation of their bodily consent.
Sometimes, the conflict isn’t fan versus idol; it’s fan versus self. Close self-comparisons with well-to-do celebrities, similar to how one would compare oneself against acquaintances, can add to the pressure of conforming to a particular look or lifestyle. This becomes especially damaging to one’s self-image when their idol presents an unattainable goal, like following unrealistic standards of beauty, or promoting risky activities such as doing drugs or drinking alcohol excessively.
In the political arena, parasocial relationships fuel polarization. Emotional attachments to political figures can eclipse one’s critical thinking needed to evaluate candidates and their policies—creating lopsided, unyielding political views; in the same way one, without question, would come to the defense of a close friend regardless of how wrong they were. Even in this year’s presidential elections, strong emotional bonds to the two presidential frontrunners led to many seeing their pick as an idol with little to no faults and as the cure to all Filipino ills. This only created heated discussions that led to neither resolution nor understanding of the other side.
Words of warning
But in the end, parasocial relationships are built on harmless longing: a dream to transcend the boundaries of possibility and be with—or like—someone else. It’s natural for everyone to form one parasocial relationship or a couple; after all, people have all sorts of loneliness that sometimes can’t instantly be fulfilled by seeking out others as there is solace to be found in an imagined relationship where the other party can never hurt or leave them.
Still, there’s a thin line between a healthy parasocial relationship and fanaticism. Similar to how emotions have gone too far can stoke the biggest fires in real relationships, parasocial ones can hurt one’s icon, one’s self, and, in the case of the Philippines, even an entire nation through politics and polarization. Like a moth to a bright flame, the heat of admiration can cause us to toe the line and get burnt—do tread lightly and respectfully with the stars of your parasocial lives.